Since the Lunar New Year break started, not much significant news have happened, but there were a couple of story lines in the past month that caught my attention.
The first one is this story on weibo from someone who said to have participated in the initial part of Type 346 radar development (for 052C) before immigrating to Canada in the late 90s. There has been a lot of criticism on this article regarding author’s decision to leave China and also on whether or not he actually worked on the project (or just made this all up). Looking through some of the online discussions on this like this thread on hsh, I’m still not convinced on whether or not this is authentic or something this author wrote from other sources he read online. Even so, I think it’s an article that’s well worth reading. The human part of the story rings true to people who are far more involved with the inner working of Chinese navy than I am. Certainly during the earlier days, many talented people left China because they were simply not appreciated or adequately compensated for the work they were doing.
Aside from that, I think it’s quite interesting to consider how PLA awarded R&D funding to various institutions. Outside of the process, very few people know how competitive some of these PLA contracts are. This article allows us to see the geopolitical, political and relational angles that affect each contract award. It makes sense for each of the competing firm to try their utmost to win R&D grants and funding regardless of whether or not their proposal is the best. Certainly, having the right person to lobby for your proposal can go a long way toward covering up deficiencies versus opposing proposals. In the end of the process, I think it almost seems like Chinese navy picked 14th Institute proposal out of luck due to an expected geopolitical event. That decision certainly seems to have yielded good results since the 14th Institute has since produced many quality AESA radar for both the air force and the navy. I think the numerous “big shrimps” on Chinese forums have also corroborated the political influence and connections that sometimes lead to picking the less optimal option. On the plus side, it also illustrated how fiercely competitive these firms have to go to pick up funding for their projects. This higher level of competition inside China (that we don’t really read about) helps push projects forward in ways that don’t seem to happen in India.
At the same time, a lot of aeroengine related news came out. It was reported that WS-10B achieving design certification, WS-10 achieved production certification and WS-15 was going into the process of achieving design certification. Broadly speaking, there are 4 major stages in China with respect to developing and certifying a new engine.
- The first phase is the test/experimental stage prior to the initial flight. This involves all of the ground based testing on the parts of engine and as a whole. It goes through a series of test on the test vehicle and its parts to make sure that it’s ready to go through flight testing.
- The second phase is the research test flight stage. Before going into the process of certification test flights, the test vehicle is flown under realistic flight scenarios and flight envelope. The main tasks include preliminary assessment of engine flight performance, features, reliability, maintainability, testability and supportability. Flight tests could be carried out in a flight engine test bed or on an intended aircraft. At the conclusion of test flights, the technological maturity level should reach level 7. In WS-15 testing, it had to complete 60 hours of endurance testing on flight testbed before completing this phase. So at this point, the engine is demonstrated to have at least 60 hours of service life prior to overhauling.
- The third phase is the design certification stage. Before low rate initial production, it must go through a series of ground testing of the engine, its systems and the individual parts. It must also go through with high altitude testing and flight certification. Most importantly, it has to go through the initial overhaul long endurance testing on testbed. For WS-10 and WS-10B, they had to complete a 300 hour endurance testing to complete this stage. Under testing of full flight envelope, these tests will determine the reliability, maintainability, testability, safety and service life. At its conclusion, the technological maturity level should reach level 8.
- The fourth phase is the production certification stage. Before mass production of an engine, it must be deployed in smaller number of aircraft (with active service aircraft) for test usage in order to become mature. It must go through with full service life endurance testing on test bed. It must complete comprehensive verification of engine performance and reliability under mass production quality. Mass produced version of WS-10 must complete 1000 hour of endurance before completing this stage, the initial overhaul time is at least 1000 hours. At its conclusion, the technological maturity level should reach level 9.
From the above, one can get a sense of where each of the engine is at. WS-10 has completed production certification, so it is now quite reliable (1000 hours MTBO) and deployed on most of the J-11Bs. As reported in numerous places, this version of WS-10 achieves a maximum thrust of 12.5 ton with afterburners. WS-10B has now completed design certification (at least 300 hours MTBO) and is deployed on some flankers and a couple of J-10Bs. According to numerous reports, it achieves maximum thrust of 14 ton (12% more than WS-10) with afterburners and features a digital control system (FADEC). Since both flanker and J-10B already has more reliable but less powerful engine in service, WS-10B will probably be deployed in smaller numbers until it becomes more reliable. WS-10B should have greater thrust than even AL-31FN series 3 (14 ton to 13.5 ton), so it would be the better choice once flight testing on J-10B is completed. Once we see a full batch of J-10B installed with WS-10B as opposed to AL-31FN, then WS-10B is probably in mass production and not far from production certification. The next improvement to WS-10 includes adding a new thrust vectoring control and achieving higher maximum thrust. That variant of WS-10 is probably under design certification tests right now. There is also a variant of WS-10 being developed for naval fighter jet J-15, which should become certified soon.
We also got the news that WS-13E may have achieved design certification and will begin production this year. It is said to be an improved version of WS-13 and achieves close to 9 ton in thrust (8.7 ton on original WS-13). That’s compared to 8.3 ton on RD-93 and 9.3 ton on RD-93MA. This engine could be used on JF-17 or FC-31 or Lijian UCAV. Since this is still very early in its production cycle, it would be interesting to see where it will first be deployed on.