Buying, Coproduction, and Reverse Engineering
After Gorbachev’s 1989 visit to Beijing, Sino-Soviet rapprochement was solidified by various arms sales agreements including the 1991 deal for China to purchase a dozen Sukhoi Su-27 fighters. 108At the time, the Soviet Union had just collapsed and the new Russian economy was in a shambles. Strapped for cash, Moscow was ready to leverage the defense industry—one of the few performing sectors of the economy—in order to profit. China was quick to take advantage of the deteriorating situation in the early 1990s, getting Moscow to accept poor quality “barter goods” in exchange for weaponry.109 Russia had little choice but to put longer-term strategic security concerns on the back burner and do what it could to keep its arms industry operational. To provide some idea of how important Chinese arms sales became to the Russian defense industry, a U. S. Department of Defense report estimated the value of weaponry delivered to China (not simply agreed upon) from 1990 to 2002 at between $7 and $10 billion.110
China took delivery of its initial order of 12 Su-27s in 1992, and an additional batch of18 Su-27SKs and 6 Su-27UBKs in 1995-1996. Altogether China purchased 48 Su-27 Flankers before deciding to build the aircraft domestically as the Shenyang J-11.
The J-11 story began in 1996, when Russian arms export organization Rosoboronexport signed a $2.7 billion licensing agreement with Shenyang Aircraft Corporation allowing coproduction of 200 Su-27s.111 The agreement came with two provisos: that China would not export the J-11 and that the fighters would be fitted with Russian engines, radar, and avionics which would not be licensed for coproduction.112 This important agreement, which moved China’s military aviation industry from third-generation to fourth-generation production capacity, came about through the actions of the General Director of the Sukhoi Design Bureau, Michael Simonov, who negotiated the deal without Moscow’s approval and later presented it to the Yeltsin government as a fait accompli.113 Simonov (acting more in the interests of Sukhoi than the new Russian state) knew that forming a strategic partnership with China was the cornerstone of Yeltsin’s Asia policy and that a reversal of the Flanker deal on Moscow’s part might sabotage these efforts. The terms of the arrangement were finalized and SAC received manufacturing documents for the Su-27 in 1997 along with complete knock-down kits from which it assembled its first two J-11s. Although both fighters were test flown, they proved to be of such poor workmanship that Russian technicians were called in to rebuild them.114
During the first 3 years of production, SAC assembled just five J-11s. Over the next 3 years it quadrupled this number, turning out 20 aircraft by 2003. As SAC began to successfully produce its own replacement parts, the Russian supplier (KnAPPO) began to reduce the contents of the knock-down kits it provided. By 2002 China was not just coproducing the J—11, but doing it at a high level of quality—a remarkable development given that just 4 years earlier SAC could not even put the fighter together correctly without Russian technical assistance.115 By late 2004, SAC had taken possession of all 105 CKD kits delivered from Russia and had managed to assemble and deliver 95 of those to the PLAAF. After mastering coproduction China quickly moved on to developing its own version of the J—11. Russia cancelled plans to fulfill the remainder of the order after discovering that China had an indigenous J—11 in the pipeline.116 The 1996 agreement stipulated that China would equip its J-11s solely with Russian-made engines, radar, and avionics, which left China dependent on KnAPPO. Russia had no objection to China producing replacement parts not related to engine, radar, or avionics; the violation occurred when it began to develop these three systems indigenously. By doing so, China ensured that it would not be reliant on Moscow for any component part of its J-11s. This presented the Russian aviation industry with a loss of future revenue and also presented the possibility that China would attempt to sell its J—11 on the international arms market. To date China has made no effort to export any J—11 variant, nor has it expressed any interest in doing so. Chinese officials justified the decision to violate the contract by claiming that the 95 Su-27s on order were no longer adequate to serve the needs of the PLAAF—an interesting claim given the large number of third – generation J-8s still in service. China’s decision to abrogate the terms of the Su – 27/J-11 contract has had lasting consequences. Since 2006, Russia has refused to enter into any substantive military aviation transfer agreement. We discuss some of the repercussions for China in the next section.
It took 4 years to produce three prototypes of the J-11B multirole fighter, and another 2 years to build the twin-seat J-11BS variant. Sources in the Chinese defense industry report that the J-11B is based on roughly 90 percent Chinese-designed parts and subsystems, including the Type 1474 serial radar system, 3-axis data system, power supply system, emergency power unit, brake system, hydraulic system, fuel system, environment control system, and molecular sieve oxygen generation systems.117 The J-11B/BS is also fitted with indigenous PL-12 air-to-air missiles. There have been several cases since 2008 of Russian authorities in the Transbaikal region arresting Chinese citizens for attempting to smuggle spare Su-27 parts into China.118 This might suggest that China is not able to design 90 percent of the original fighter’s parts and subsystems (the 10 percent gap in design capability alluded to presumably refers to engines, avionics, and radar which were not among the smuggled items). The engine is the only major subsystem China has openly acknowledged it has yet to master, relying on the imported Russian AL – 31F turbofan for both the J—11 and J—10 fighters.119 Shenyang Liming Motor Corporation has produced a turbofan engine in the WS—10A Taihang (likely the product of substantial reverse engineering) that approaches the performance of the AL—31F, but takes twice as long to “spool up,” or obtain the same thrust output, as its Russian counterpart.120 This lag time could have life or death consequences for a pilot needing to restart his engine.
Chinese military aviation worked hard to incorporate indigenous systems into the J—11B. The upgraded systems were developed as improvements to the original Su—27SK, which was dated technology by the mid 1990s (the Soviet Air force began operating the Flanker in 1985). China’s subsequent decision to lobby Sukhoi to sell it an upgraded version of the Flanker was precipitated by a handful of factors. China was looking for a faster way to obtain increased fighter capability than was presented by developing indigenous upgrades. The 1995—1996 Taiwan Strait crisis highlighted the real possibility of an armed conflict, which in turn reinforced previous conclusions about the centrality of Chinese airpower in prevailing in a Taiwan scenario. Displays of overwhelming U. S. airpower in the 1991 Gulf War were undoubtedly still fresh in the minds of Chinese military planners during the Strait crisis. In addition, the Russian government’s inability to regulate military transfers and the tenuous state of the national economy ensured that China could gain access to fighter technology that was closer to state of the art than Russia might have been willing to sell in better circumstances.121
The Su—30MK (modernizeerovannyy kommercheskiy—upgraded export variant) was already available on the international arms market at the time China was seeking an upgraded Flanker. Russia agreed to sell China a version of this aircraft, appending “K” to the name to denote the customer (kitayskiy— Chinese), in 1998. While the two-seat Su—30MKK was not the best fighter Russia was able to produce, it represented a significant jump forward for the PLAAF, particularly in terms of subsystems. The avionics suite incorporated cutting-edge digital processors that linked the primary avionics subsystems together via multiplex databuses.122 This made it possible for China to integrate new avionics components, either indigenously produced or purchased from a third party, as they became available. The first batch of 10 Su—30MKK aircraft entered service at Wuhu airbase in December 2000.123 Another 70 were delivered to China in 2001. China and Russia signed a contract in 2003 for the sale of a Su—30 variant with maritime strike capability (MK2), with the PLA – NAF taking possession of 24 of the aircraft in early 2004. The Su—30MKK is the most sophisticated fighter the PLAAF operates to this day—a mantle it is likely to wear until China’s fifth-generation fighter comes into service.