It was a day to mark China’s progress in the new age of advanced weaponry.
Following weeks of speculation, the PLA Air Force (PLAAF) flew their fifth-generation Chengdu J-20 fighter aircraft (NATO Black Eagle) for the first time.
This was way back in January of 2011.
The flight — reportedly from Aircraft Plant No. 132 aerodrome, co-located near the aircraft firm’s design office — also just happened to take place during an official visit to Beijing by then-US Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates.
Well, nothing happens by accident in China when it comes to diplomacy.
The display was interpreted as a high-profile attempt to both embarrass the Pentagon chief as well as announce the PRC’s joining the “club” of nations that build state-of-the-art fighters.
Alas the real and unseen embarrassment was reserved for the Chinese.
Namely, the fact that the aircraft flew with two Russian-made Salyut/Lyulka AL-31F jet engines – the same powerplant installed in the PLAAF and PLAN Su-27/30 models and also in another Chengdu product, the J-10.
In other words, 1980s, 3rd-generation propulsion technology was being utilized to power a 21st century, so-called 5th-generation aeroplane.
This would be like pulling up in a Toyota Lexus, only to lift the hood and see an old Hyundai motor.
For decades, the Achilles’ Heel of Chinese airpower has been Beijing’s perennial inability to design and build reliable military jet aeroengines.
For most of those years that the PLA has been engaged in its current modernization drive, they have had to rely on aeroengine technology – as well as off-the-shelf engines themselves – imported from Mother Russia.
The latter are cheap, rugged and fairly reliable, but have a shorter lifespan. And they sometimes blow up on takeoff.
Lately, however, the PLA have been trying to break this cycle of dependence by taking over an aeroengine firm in Ukraine, the Motor Sich engine production association, according to a report by Reuben Johnson at Breaking Defense.
Based in Zaparozhiye, Ukraine, Motor Sich is one of the largest aeroengine enterprises left over from the former USSR, and today they are probably the only one that could design and build a new, reliable and efficient engine front-to-back on their own.
If the sale goes through, it will let China obtain a key defence technology that has eluded them for decades, in one of the few remaining disciplines where the US and its allies retain a competitive advantage, Breaking Defense reported.
Meanwhile, Washington and Kiev are trying to block the Chinese takeover – the US in an effort to keep Beijing from solving its aeroengine technology deficiency and Ukraine acting in order to not lose a strategically important enterprise.
The US government takes the view that Beijing Skyrizon, the Chinese entity trying to take over Motor Sich, is not a private firm but an extension of the PLA’s military-industrial empire, Breaking Defense reported.
Western intelligence officials tell Breaking Defense, “this issue is being watched very closely by all the major allied nations. It is none of our interests for the PLA to plug this rather significant gap in their defence industrial sector.”
The J-20 is designed to execute ground attack missions even in hostile environments. The aircraft can reach higher altitudes with its delta wings in supersonic speeds.
It is larger than Sukhoi T-50 and Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor. The front portion of the prototype looks similar to the F-22 Raptor and the rear section looks like a Sukhoi T-50.
Getting cutting edge jet engines has been a painful problem for Beijing for at least a decade, Breaking Defense reported.
Efforts to reverse engineer certain Russian jet engines during the 1990s and 2000s invariably produced engines with extremely short lifespans, and without the power of their Russian counterparts.
Earlier this month, one of the more reputable Russian military affairs news sites published an analysis of the failures of the Chinese to develop the WS-15 Emei engine that was originally intended to power the J-20.
The engine was to have been displayed at the 2018 Air Show China in Zhuhai, Guangdong Province, but was deleted from the exhibition due to successive problems with reliability – including one prototype reportedly exploding up on a test stand, Breaking Defense reported.
Russian sources report the WS-15 experiences “a sharp drop in thrust when the temperature of the turbine section approaches the maximum operating parameters. The engine experiences this fall-off when the temperature exceeds 1350 degrees Celsius with this drop in initial versions of the engine reaching as high as a 25 per cent.”
A catastrophic performance flaw for a pilot in the middle of a fight.
The Chinese design team has reportedly tried different alloys for blades used in the engine’s hot sections, but have managed to reduce the drop in thrust to only 18 per cent, which is still unacceptable, Breaking Defense reported.
The same Russian sources also state that when the afterburner is engaged fuel accumulates in the engine and does not ignite properly.
In addition to not producing enough thrust or power, they also need frequent repairs, sources said.
The PLAAF, having run out of options to utilize an indigenous engine, are now exploring possibilities to purchase some of the Russian-made Izdeliye-30 engines.
This design is in flight test now with the Sukhoi Su-57 5th-generation fighter program and a Chinese team has reportedly been promised a demonstration of this new Russian design.
However, even that program is having problems, according to a report in National Interest.
In 2018, India withdrew from the planned joint Russian-Indian Su-57 development.
The Indians were evidently not convinced that the stealth and flight characteristics could provide exactly what they were looking for — a financial blow to the program.
There have also been reported problems with the new Izdeliye 30 engines, related to reliability and quality control.
Sources: Breaking Defense, National Interest, AirForce Technology