This past week was a huge week for the Chinese aerospace industry. In the past, I’ve always criticized the slow development, low production and inefficiency of the aviation firms in China, especially when compared to shipbuilding (and even automaking industry), but I also would like to celebrate when there are this many milestones.

In the military front, I’m sure all of you have heard about the start of JF-17 production in Pakistan by now. For PLAAF itself, it is really not a big deal, because it doesn’t improve PLAAF directly. However, this story is really a huge boost to the Chinese aerospace industry. Back in 1998, Shenyang AC imported the Su-27 production line from Russia and started local production of China’s first class of 4th generation fighter. In the beginning, we heard many stories about China struggling to assemble J-11s and required a lot of help from the Russians. I would also read claims on the Chinese side that they really got a very low quality assembly line, which contributed to the initial struggles. Whatever the case maybe, it was clear that the Chinese aerospace industry was nowhere near mature enough to handle mass production of a 4th generation plane. It had no problem churning out J-6s and some problem developing and producing J-7s. And sadly, it could not even produce J-8IIs in large number. Even now, the production rate at Shenyang AC for J-11 and J-8IIs (in previous years) are quite poor. But at the same, we all saw how much the development of J-10s has helped China’s entire aerospace industry. The development of JH-7A and mass production of WS-9 is really another stepping stone for the Chinese aerospace industry. K-8 became the first Chinese designed plane to be license produced in another country (Eqypt). Now, JF-17 becomes the first Chinese fighter jet to be license produced in another country. So, this is not only a big day for Pakistani aerospace industry, but also for China. In only 11 years, China has transformed itself from a country that imports assembly line of 4th generation fighters to a country that exports assembly line of 4th generation fighters. Of course, JF-17 is not the fighter jet that Su-27 is, but the avionics/missiles accompanying JF-17’s export is in some cases 1 generation ahead of what China imported for Su-27.

If that’s not all, there is also rambling on Chinese forums that JF-17 has also been exported to Egypt with license production. If that’s the case, then there would be two different countries (both already operating 4th generation jets) importing assembly lines of Chinese fighter jet. So, I think over the past 20 years, China has experienced several major stages with post 2nd-generation fighter jets:

  1. Before 1992, China had designs like J-9, J-12 and J-13 that had some prototypes but could not achieve all the performance goals due to weakness in different areas like engines, missiles and avionics. These projects were abandoned due to technological and financial difficulties. At this time, even a relatively successful project like JH-7 had many problems and could not be mass produced until much later.
  2. In the 90s, China realized that it could not yet produce a design as good as Su-27, so it got the license production for the plane. At the same time, it also started working on its own 4th generation design J-10 with Russian/Isreali assistance. It had also started development in the 4th generation turbofan engine, missiles, radars and avionics. In this period, China was buying/license producing foreign designs while starting to develop its own designs. China was in a much better position financially and technologically, so it did not have to abandon the major domestic projects.
  3. In the early 2000s, China finished development of major indigenous projects like J-10 and JH-7A, while J-11 project started to incorporate more indigenous subsystems. It had also started an indigenous development of a 4th generation fighter for export purposes. In this period, China becomes capable of license producing advanced 4th generation fighters and also finishing development of 4th generation fighters with outside help.
  4. In the second half of the decade, China finished the development of major subsystems like turbofan engine, modern AAMs and avionics. It also achieved the complete indigenization of J-11 and finished developing JF-17. At the end, it has even exported assembly lines for a 4th generation fighter. It is also beginning to develop 5th generation fighters, 5th generation subsystems and improved variants of J-10 and J-11 testing out the new subsystems. In this period, China established itself as a nation capable of developing and producing 4th generation planes and all the associate subsystems.
  5. In the next decade, China will be expected to complete the development of 5th generation fighter jets and 5th generation subsystems like engine, missiles and avionics. I would also expect it to achieve more export success with 4th generation planes and possibly assist other countries in late 4th generation or 5th generation development. It will still be behind USA in areas like stealth, radar and engine technology, but will be on par with Russia and Europe.
  6. In the final stage, I think China will catch up to USA in military aviation. I guess that will happen somewhere down the road when UAVs would be prominent. It would also export to countries that have traditionally purchased fighter jets from USA or Russia.

So in my view, China is currently on the 4th stage and it has 2 more stages to go before it truly becomes world class. Although, it really is hard to say how long it would take for China to catch up USA in stealth and engine technology, because it’s so far behind in these areas.

Civilian aviation also had a couple of really good news coming out this week. First of all, ARJ-21’s 2nd prototype made its maiden flight. Secondly, the first Airbus 320 plane assembled in China was delivered to Sichuan Airlines. A while back, I read a really great story here about the importance of the ARJ-21 project and the Airbus 320 plant. I think this article really articulated that these two projects are just part of China’s goal to develop a modern airliner. China is just learning with ARJ-21 how to get a global list of suppliers needed to support the production of an airliner. China is also learning all the after sales support and maintenance needed to support for an airliner. It certainly helps that most of the original customers are Chinese airlines and that it suppliers already have existing after sales support networks. We will know in the next few years how well COMAC deals with the part after the sale. We will also know in the next few years if China assembled A320s would be just as good as the ones assembled in Europe. The success of these two projects will be crucial if China wants to have major export customers for its “big plane” project.

I read from certain sources that COMAC’s C919 is expected to make its first flight in 2014. I tend to think it will be a little later than that, but China does have a lot of things going for it. For all the talks about ARJ-21 and C919, AVIC1’s recent involvements with Airbus and Boeing airliners will probably be the most important part of C919. We are seeing that recently with the construction of the new Airbus plant in Harbin. China will have ability to make advanced composite parts needed for a modern airliner. China will also be building the entire wings for the Chinese assembled A320 in the next stage. We can see that China is steadily moving up the value chain in terms of suppliers, but it still has a way to go before developing world class turbofan engines and avionics. I really don’t know how long it will take China to reach that stage, but the past week has certainly been a nice milestone toward that point.