Naval Air: Chinese Made Heavies Go To Sea

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September 10, 2014: China is currently touting the capabilities of its new locally made Z-18F anti-submarine helicopter, mainly because it wants export sales. This model is seen as the first acceptable Chinese made anti-submarine helicopter. It is described as a 13 ton naval helicopter that carries a dipping sonar, 32 sonobuoys and up to four light (235 kg/517 pound) anti-submarine torpedoes. The Z-18F is too heavy for most Chinese warships and will be used on Chinese carriers and large amphibious ships (that look like small carriers). The Z-18F appears to be a major upgrade to the earlier Z-8F and is the same weight as anti-submarine used on many Western warships (which tend to be larger than most Chinese ones.)

China was not pleased with an earlier effort, the Z-8 naval helicopter. China eventually built twenty Z-8Fs, and used them on some of their warships. The problem with the Z-8, aside from weight, was that it was built with stolen tech. China's track record of technology theft is breathtaking, but frequently these efforts are much less successful than were hoped. One such case was the Chinese copy of the French Super Frelon (SA-321) helicopter. The SA-321 is often used on ships. China bought some SA-321s in the early 1970s, and by 1976 were working on reverse engineering them and producing their own, illegal, version. The first flight of the SA-321 clone (called the Z-8) took place in 1985. But there were too many technical problems, plus the French were none too happy about this bit of theft, and made their displeasure known in various convincing ways.

France retired the last of its SA321 Super Frelon helicopters in 2010. The French Navy had wanted to retire the SA321s since the 1990s, as these choppers date from the 1960s. Retirement finally became possible when it was revealed that a third of the SA321s were unavailable for service because of age related maintenance issues. Then it was revealed that the SA321s also tended to fail at inopportune times in the combat zone. Only 110 SA321s were built (plus Chinese Z-8 copies), and most were used by nine different nations they were exported to. Designed as a naval helicopter, most ended up serving as troop and cargo transports. The SA321 is a three engine, 13 ton aircraft with a crew of five and a capacity of 27 passengers. Naval versions were often armed with four torpedoes or two anti-ship missiles, plus a 20mm autocannon. Endurance was four hours.

China spent over a decade tinkering with the Z-8. In the 1990s more models of the Z-8 were developed for the army and some of these performed better and went into production. But only about half a dozen entered service. China kept tinkering, adding a more powerful engine and hundreds of technical improvements. Until the appearance of the Z-18F the Chinese did not consider the current Z-8F good enough for widespread and sustained use. The navy was content with the original SA-321s, but the Z-8 clones (like the current Z-8F) were only considered adequate for limited uses. It appears that the Chinese have carried up some major upgrades to the Z-8F and combined that with higher quality Chinese made components.

The Chinese Navy, for the more serious missions like anti-submarine operations, bought Russian models. China ordered 27 Russian Ka-28/31 naval helicopters, beginning in the late 1990s and is apparently happy with them. The 12 ton Ka-28 entered service in 1982 in the Soviet (later Russian) navy as an anti-submarine aircraft. The Ka-31 model is equipped with a large radar (that is deployed underneath the helicopter once it is in the air), and acts as an early warning aircraft. The Ka-28/31 have a cruising speed of 205 kilometers an hour, and a top speed 270 kilometers an hour. Sorties for both helicopters average 3-4 hours. Both have a useful load of four tons (weapons and additional electronics). The Ka-28s and three Ka-31s are export versions of the more lavishly equipped Ka-27, used by the Russian navy. This family of naval helicopters do not have the finish, reliability or reputation of Western models, but the Ka-27 type costs a lot less, and still gets the job done. China believes the Z-18F can do the job as well as the Russian helicopters.

 


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