A Chinese Air Force general recently gave a candid interview, in which he admitted that China was running into problems mastering high-tech weapons development and manufacturing. The latter was a particular problem, in part because the older Chinese leaders who started the process of building high tech weapons did not have the technical background to appreciate all the problems that would be encountered. The younger officers are more often college graduates and understood that China would have a more difficult time going from a low-tech nation fifty years ago to one that can compete with the world leaders. It’s not just more skills that are needed but a culture that encourages innovation. The Chinese general noted that there is a reluctance in China to be sufficiently innovative and that this will have to be changed.
These problems are widely recognized inside the government, which explains why, earlier this year, it was announced that the government was investing $16 billion in an effort to fix some of the problems it has encountered manufacturing high-performance (as in world class) jet engines. Although China has been working on this for over three decades, continued problems with materials durability, efficient design, and quality control have prevented Chinese engines from being competitive with Western models.
One good example is the Chinese WS10A engine. It has been in development for 25 years, and attempts to replace Russian AL31F engines used in the J-10/11/15/16 jet fighters. WS10A development efforts have not worked out well. Many Chinese engineers consider the WS10A design a superior engine to the AL31F, even though the WS10A copied a lot of the Russian technology. As delivered from Russia, the AL31 is good for 900 hours of operation. Chinese engineers figured out how to tweak the design of the engine so that it lasted for 1,500 hours but they never got those tweaks to work as predicted because their Chinese suppliers could not produce key components to the needed level of quality and durability. For over a decade China believed it would be free from dependence on Russia for military jet engines within the next five years. That has not happened and is a major reason for this new $16 billion investment. The problem was that Russia and the nations that set the world standard in military high-tech had developed a high-tech infrastructure. While Chinese designers could come up with superior (on paper) designs, the technical skills required to manufacture components and fabricate the actual device were not sufficiently developed to make the Chinese designs work as intended..
For over twenty years China has imported two Russian engines similar to the WS10A. The two main ones are the $3.5 million AL31 for the Su-27/30 type aircraft and the $2.5 million RD93 (a version of the MiG-29's RD33) for the JF-17 (an F-16 type aircraft developed in cooperation with Pakistan). During all this, Chinese engineers worked to master the manufacturing techniques needed to make a Chinese copy of the Russian AL31F engine. That was part of a program that has also developed the WS13, to replace the RD93 as well. While the Chinese have been able to build engines that are competitive on paper, and during ground tests, they are still having problems with reliability and durability when they install the WS10A in aircraft. China now acknowledges that more effort and money had to go into developing people with the wide range of skills required to make it all work.
The recent Chinese purchase of Russian Su-35 jet fighters, and their advanced Al041F1 (or 117S) engines, was done, in part, to get a close look at the high-end tech the Russians have mastered (with some difficulty) to make this engine work. China has long copied foreign technology, not always successfully. In the last decade China has poured a lot of money into developing a jet engine manufacturing capability. The Chinese encountered many of the same problems the Russians did when developing their own engine design and component construction skills.
China does have several advantages. First, they knew of the mistakes the Russians had made, and so were able to avoid many of them. Then there was the fact that China had better access to Western manufacturing technology (both legally and illegally). Finally, China was, unlike the Soviets, able to develop their engine manufacturing capabilities in a market economy. This was much more efficient than the command economy that the Soviets were saddled with for seven decades. Despite all this, China continued to encounter problems with consistent quality in manufacturing key components. China is determined to master Russian engine building techniques, and then move on to beating the Western firms who have long been the masters of this technology.