Warplanes: French Fortitude Foils Chinese Power Play


March 23, 2020: China, over the last eight years, has produced only 118 of its Z10 helicopter gunships. This was China’s first effort at designing a Western style gunship. The low production rate is because there have been problems and China likes to fix most of these “new system” problems before building a lot of something.

Some of the problems are fixed with an upgraded or new feature. For example, a recent upgrade has the engine exhaust directed upwards into the spinning rotors instead to the rear. Sending the hot exhaust into the spinning rotors reduces the infrared (heat) available for heat-seeking missiles to home in on. China has also equipped the Z10 with an impressive, and increasing, array of electronic defenses and fire control features. Thus the pilot uses a “look and shoot” helmet which is of limited use because the main weapons are an autocannon and missiles and rockets fired forward. However, the new helmet also has night vision built-in and the Z10 has the electronics to allow all-weather and night operation. Adding more electronics was partly in response to the less powerful engine the Z10 was long equipped with. China could only get a more powerful engine for some prototypes. With the less powerful engine, the helicopter was less maneuverable and some of the armor had to be removed as well as losing weapons payload to recover the maneuverability. Even so, the Z10 can carry up to 16 of the ADK10, the Chinese “Hellfire” missile.

The most desirable upgrade is said to be a new helicopter engine. When he Z-10 was about to go into mass production, China thought a powerful engine was available. The original WZ16 engine was developed jointly with a French helicopter engine firm for use in Chinese commercial helicopters. The joint development agreement specified that the WZ16 would not be used in military helicopters. China thought they could get around that but failed. The Chinese Z10 certainly needs the WZ16, which would give the Z10 the engine power the prototypes had, using PT6C-67C, an American design built in Canada. These engines were only supposed to be used in civilian helicopters but the Z10 developers realized in 2003, when the prototypes were built, that there was no Chinese equivalent to the PT6C-67C and probably would not for a decade. A Chinese made, but a less powerful WZ9 engine was available when mass production began in 2010 and a decade later Chinese engine firms are still striving to design and build an engine of similar power to the PT6C-67C but without restrictions on how it can be used.

The Chinese army is not entirely satisfied with the Z10, mainly because it is underpowered. Mass production was delayed for several years until a suitable engine could be designed and built in China. For the Z10 the main problem always seemed to be an adequate engine.

Development of the Z-10 began during the early 1990s with the aim of creating a Western-type helicopter gunship. China approached helicopter gunship manufacturers in South Africa and Italy for technical assistance. The South Africans turned them down in 2001, because all the Chinese apparently wanted was to buy a single Rooivalk gunship. The South Africans realized that the Chinese, as they have so often done in the past, simply wanted to reverse engineer elements of the Rooivalk, without paying for any technology used. South African firms have since uncovered evidence of China stealing technology for South African missiles, electronics and artillery. The Italians also refused for the same reasons the South Africans did.

Pratt & Whitney Canada was taken to court by the U.S. government because the Chinese seemed intent on building the Z10 with the “civilian use only” PT6C-67C engine. The Canadians did not sell any more engines to China, which meant that the Z-10 had to enter mass production with a one third less powerful Chinese WZ9 engine. At the time China was trying to develop a suitable replacement for the PT6C-67C engine. The French influenced WZ16 engine is still thought to be eventually allowed to power military helicopters. So far the French have refused to allow this. The Chinese position is that the WZ16 was a joint development project, the French were well compensated for that, and would receive more cash if the Z10 could use the WZ16. The French have had problems before with the Chinese seeking to steal tech but the Chinese always came around and agreed to pay what the French demanded, but not to observe “no military use” restrictions, especially on engines that were not imported but built in China.

The seven ton Z-10 is similar to the lighter Agusta/Westland A129, or the upgraded versions of the U.S. AH-1 (especially the AH-1 SuperCobra). The 4.6 ton A-129 was the first helicopter gunship designed and built in Western Europe, and was introduced in the 1980s. The Z10 is similar but is much more lavishly equipped. The Z-10 appears to have a FLIR (night vision device), radar and is armed with a 23mm autocannon and hardpoints for up to 1.5 tons of guided and unguided rockets and missiles. The Z10 is a Western style gunship. The only gunships the Chinese had previously were Russian designs. But even the Russians have since adopted the Western style, as pioneered in the AH-1. China has been developing its own helicopter for several decades. First, they used helicopters and technical assistance from Russia, but for the last two decades, most of the tech has come from Europe. While the European tech is superior it tends to come with more restrictions.

China has had no success in finding export customers for the Z10. Three were sent to Pakistan for evaluation but the Pakistanis were not impressed and instead built a Turkish license-built version of the A129. That sale is now having tech export problems and Pakistan is again considering the Z-10.

Even with the current circumstances, the Chinese military seems to consider the Z10 a useful way to gain experience with using helicopter gunships. The 118 built for the army have been used in many different types of combat units and the army seems intent on making the most of their first, if second-rate, helicopter gunship. As Chinese helicopter engine builders improve their capabilities and the power of their engines, China will be able to build something comparable to the American AH-64, which is currently the most popular such helicopter in the world with over 2,000 built so far and over a dozen export customers so far.




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