China Leaps Into Global Aircraft Market; Targets Russia’s Traditional Customer Base
By WENDELL MINNICK
DUBAI — China’s push into the defense aviation market intensified at the 11th Dubai Air Show with an aggressive export marketing campaign for the new supersonic Hongdu L-15 Falcon advanced jet trainer.
The effort followed the announced sale of 36 new C
hengdu J-10 (FC-20) Vigorous Dragon fighter jets to Pakistan for $1.4 billion the previous week.
Past Chinese arms export efforts have always been politically sensitive. Chinese arms deals with Iran, Myanmar, Sudan and Zimbabwe reflected the same list of pariah states sanctioned for human rights violations.
At the Dubai show, China’s state-owned Aviation Industry Corp. (AVIC) appeared interested in moving beyond “pariah” and pulled out all the stops with its first news conference and flight demonstrations of its new L-15 outside China. The Nov. 16 conference was slick and sophisticated, a clear departure from previous awkward, or nonexistent, media efforts. The attempt was unprecedented for the Chinese defense industry.
AVIC officials speaking at the press conference included Wang Yawei, president of AVIC Defense; and the L-15’s chief architect, Zhang Hong, vice general manager of Hongdu Aviation Industry Group, an AVIC subsidiary.
Wang said AVIC had made significant strides in research and development of new aircraft and was anxious to explore the export market.
“The attendance of the L-15 is aimed at exploiting the international market,” he said. “There is a high demand of trainers of this type in the international market.” Wang declined to identify specific countries interested in the aircraft, but said discussions were ongoing with several potential customers.
The L-15 will face tough competition from other trainer jets, including Italy’s M346, built by Alenia Aermacchi; Korea Aerospace Industries’ T-50; and Russia’s Yak-130, built by Yakovlev.
However, AVIC appears confident it can challenge these aircraft on the international market. “The L-15 is a new-generation advanced trainer that provides solutions for pilot training,” Zhang said. Missions include advanced, lead-in and companion training, and close-air support. The aircraft also will come in a lead-in fighter trainer variant.
The aircraft is “characterized by a modern aerodynamic configuration” and equipped with twin turbofan engines, a fly-by-wire system and a glass cockpit.
The Falcon is powered by two Ukrainianbuilt Ivchenko Progress AI-222K-25F jet engines with a performance speed of Mach 1.4, a service ceiling of 16,000 meters and a range of 3,100 kilometers. AVIC officials said they were working on a Chinese variant that would eventually replace the Ukrainian engine.
“The L-15 is a cost-effective replacement for old advanced jet trainers,” Zhang said. The aircraft is “capable of armed reconnaissance, defensive counter-air, close-air support and anti-terrorism” missions.
China appears to be directly challenging Russia for the export military aircraft market. A government official at the booth for Rosoboronexport, Russia’s state arms export agency, expressed frustration with the Chinese exhibition here.
“Everyone in the defense industry should be concerned about the Chinese push into the market,” he said. “They stole our Su-27 [J-11B], and now they want to export aircraft that are cheap copies of Russian aircraft.” It is clear the L-15 is a copy of the new Yak-130 advanced trainer, the Russian official said. Now, both will be competing for the international trainer market and are virtually identical, raising questions about claims made by Zhang, L-15’s chief architect, that the L-15 is an “original Chinese design.” But AVIC has yet to address intellectual property rights conflicts, and that could make many Chinese companies “gun-shy” on exporting what is clearly a Russian or European copy, said Larry Wortzel, vice chairman of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission in Washington.
The change in Chinese attitudes toward media and public relations efforts demonstrated here are partly driven by the reintegration of AVIC I and AVIC II into one entity in 2008, as the company pushes to expand export opportunities and streamline itself.
“The State Council devoted a great deal of effort to reshaping AVIC and revitalizing the company,” Wortzel said. “Clearly, as China has done in the automobile industry, they want to move into a competitive posture in the aviation industry,” such as military aircraft, training aircraft and systems, and civil aircraft. “This is a long-term effort,” he added.
AVIC originally was a single consortium of aerospace companies. But in 1999, the corporation was split, retaining its original title, in an attempt to modernize its manufacturing facilities and competitiveness.
AVIC I centered on complex fixed-wing aircraft such as fighters and bombers, and AVIC II on smaller fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters. The effort resulted in difficulties, and AVIC I/II merged back together last year.
“Under the reorganization of AVIC, I believe we can produce the next generation of aircraft in shorter time and with more capabilities,” Wang said. AVIC also has benefited from China’s booming economy and has expanded research and development into new aircraft and systems, he said.
AVIC’s modernization and export efforts will take time.
“As the companies that do assembly in China learned, there are still quality-control problems to address,” Wortzel said. “And even in co-production programs, which ultimately led to the Chinese-produced midcapacity jet, there are problems like this.”
Despite the obvious copycat tendency of the Chinese defense industry, it is expected to begin making some inroads into the export market. China and Pakistan jointly produce and market the K-8 (JL-8) basic/advanced jet trainer, which also appeared at the Dubai Air Show. The K-8 has been exported to 12 countries in Africa, South America and Southeast Asia.
With the L-15, China over the next decade “may be able to pick off the lower end of the market in poorer countries” where Russia has a traditional foothold, Wortzel said.
AVIC officials manning the booth said there were discussions on bringing the L-15 to the Singapore Air Show in February and the Paris Air Show in 2011.
The AVIC booth exhibited an L-15 flight simulator and models of aircraft and weapon systems, including the L-15, the FC1 (JF-17) multirole fighter, the FTC-2000 supersonic advanced trainer and the ASN-209 UAV.
The multirole ASN-209 is a medium-altitude, medium-endurance UAV that can be outfitted with a synthetic aperture radar, a ground moving-target indication sensor, a communications relay system and an electronic warfare system.
Models of weapon systems for aircraft included the winged 500-kilogram LS-6 Thunder Stone standoff strike weapon and the SD10A (PL-12) medium-range air-to-air missile.
With a wingspan of about 9 feet, the Thunder Stone can be mounted on a 440kilogram bomb. From a launch altitude of 800 meters, the system can glide 48 kilometers, and from 11,000 meters it can glide 60 kilometers. The system finished final testing in October 2005 and was first displayed at the 2006 Zhuhai Air Show.
The SD-10A is a fourth-generation missile similar in configuration to the Raytheon AIM-120 AMRAAM. The 199-kilogram SD10A has an operational altitude of 21 kilometers with a range of 70 kilometers at Mach 5.