This is the part 3 in the series of reviewing the content of the recent book that I read. In the past, I have often been harsh toward the recent China/Russia military cooperation. I have frequently stated that the Russians have limited military technology that it can interest China with. I have also read many cases of bad quality and servicing & support of export Russian weapons. However, it is important to state clearly that China would not be where it is today without its military cooperation with Russia. In fact, this article will look at all of the areas that USSR and Russia have assisted in China military industrial complex. Although sometimes unwillingly, USSR/Russia has assisted China’s military industry than any other nation. In fact, I would say that this military relationship has yielded more benefit for China than any other military relationship has yielded for any nation.
Back when PRC first founded, Chinese leaders went to their big brother in Soviet Union to learn everything it can from USSR. At that time, China was a very backward society ravaged by a century of war. China had not gone through the industrial revolution and had very few industries. In the 1950s, USSR provided China $300 million loan and used this to provide technical aid in 156 industries (including many militarily related ones) to China. I can’t think of another example in the history where one country provided that much assistance in the industrialization of another country.
During the civil war, the communist side could not produce weapons on its own and had to rely on capturing equipments from the nationalist to be replenished. Clearly, this could not be sustained after the civil war was over. PLA received 60 divisions of equipment from USSR and formed its first motorized divisions with T-34, T-54 and IS-2 tanks. During Korean War, General Peng, the leader of PLA forces, saw the power of modern military technology and air power from the Americans. He realized that China could not win in modern battlefield with just ground troops. With limited resources after the war, he indicated to USSR that China only wants to buy high tech equipments like Mig-17/19, S-75 SAM and some AAA equipments. In 1949, USSR helped China build 6 flight academies, sold China 434 training aircraft and provided many experts to teach those flight academies. With the help of Soviet Union, PLAAF had expanded to 17 divisions and 34 regiments by May of 1951. USSR also provided China with complete blueprints, materials, production equipment and manuals on many of its latest aircraft and their subsystems like engines and missiles. In fact, USSR provided China with so much help, that PRC leadership mistakenly believed that it was easy to develop modern combat aircraft. It did not realize the amount of time and resources required to develop an aircraft until years of failed efforts by the Chinese aerospace industry. By the time of China-Soviet split in 1962, the Chinese aerospace industry could independently produce many aircraft as a result of Soviet assistance.
Even so, the Chinese aerospace industry was still very much in its infancy and had to deal with unrealistic expectations from PRC leaders. They did not know the amount of testing and work that Mikoyan had to before they arrived at the final certified design, so they gave very unrealistic timelines to Chinese aerospace industry to develop aircraft with really high requirements (like the failed J-9, J-12 and J-13 projects). The Chinese aerospace industry did not have the technology, resource or the experience to carry out those projects. Even after China received kits, parts and most documentations for Mig-21 prior to its split with the Soviet Union in 1962, it was not able to master the technology to mass produce it until the 80s. Through the turbulent days of Cultural Revolution and the budget cuts of the 80s, the only project that got completed was J-8. Even though it was a more conservative design than the abandoned projects, China still could not develop the avionics, missiles and engines to match the requirements until this century. In the late 70s and 80s, the Chinese aerospace industry did have some improvements from cooperation projects with the West (including the famous Peace Pearl project), but still did not have a successful indigenous design. After military embargoes were imposed in 1989, the future looked quite bleak for Chinese military aviation and PLAAF. J-8II aircraft still did not have BVR capability after the Peace Pearl project was canceled. The J-10 project was still years from completion and did not have an adequate engine choice. Worse still, Operation Desert Storm really showed China how far it was behind World leading air powers. PLAAF was so weak at that time that a Soviet backfire could’ve flown into China without escort, bombed Beijing and flown back without been threatened by J-8s. Without more aircraft, PLAAF was simply incapable of handling threats from USSR or Taiwan straits.
Even as China was enjoying a period of honeymoon with America in the 1980s, its relationship with the much hated USSR was also improving. By 1983, USSR approved export to China for parts to Mig and Illyushin aircraft. By 1986, China and Soviet relationship recovered to such a point that USSR was willing to sell Mig-23MLD and MIg-29. USSR understood from past experiences that China was looking to improve its domestic military industry rather than just buy some aircraft. They were even willing to offer licensed production of Mig-29 and RD-33s in China. I think only the Peace Pearl project prevented China from fully jumping on board with it. In most aspect, the Peace Pearl project was a complete failure, but it did allow Chinese aerospace technicians to interact with Americans. This experience gave China a more updated view of modern air warfare and aerospace development path. After it was canceled, China was left to turn back to Soviet Union. Although many had expected China to go for Mig-29, PLAAF started to inquire about the more powerful and expensive Su-27. At that time, USSR was already starting to reduce its military size under Gorbachev, so Sukhoi was really looking to get export order from China to replace the reduced domestic order. Given the history between the two countries, USSR’s decision to allow the export of Su-27 to China (first non-CIS country to receive flankers) is quite astonishing.
The dissolution of USSR put the entire order in jeopardy. The new Russian government led by Yeltsin was enjoying a honeymoon period with the West. The reformist group of Andrey Kozyrev, Yegor Gaidar, Pyotr Aven and Alexander Shokhin was very keen on carrying out the Western model and did not want much to do with China. Not only was China in danger of not receiving Su-27, it had also received numerous reports that Russia was offering Su-27s to Taiwan. Here is where Chinese diplomats really went to work to try to get its relationship with Russia back on order. Sukhoi and the rest of the Russian military industrial complex were really hurting from a total collapse in orders. At the same time, Yegor Gaidar’s shock therapy resulted in runaway inflation and much economic hardship in Russia. Russia was also not receiving the help it expected from the West for its economy. In my opinion, it is not surprising that loans from the IMF and World Bank did not help out Russia when one looks at their performance in the 97 Asian economic crisis. All of these weakened the influence that the pro-West group of Kozyrev and Gaidar had on Yeltsin, whereas more conservative members like Yevgeny Primakov pushed for more engagements with China. All of these factors led Yeltsin to not only allow the original Su-27 order to be carried out but also permit further military cooperation between the 2 countries. Yeltsin believed that Russia can stay ahead of China in aerospace, so did not worry about such cooperation with China. I think Yeltsin also saw the benefits of having a more balanced foreign policy from its trade deals with China in 1992. He was also intrigued by the success of China’s economic reforms when similar Russian reforms were experiencing much pain. That will be a topic left for another day.
At this point, there were still internal disagreements on whether China should be purchasing technology from Russia/Ukraine or try to buy technology from the West or ignore what happened in the Gulf War. It’s at this point that Liu Huaqing and others pushed to go the Russian route. Prime Minister Li Peng believed that China had a once in a lifetime opportunity to purchase technology and recruit scientists/engineers from Russia/Ukraine. Throughout all of its year of cooperation with the West, China had found that Western companies guarded its secrets much more closely. In projects like the Peace Pearl project and the MD-90 project, Chinese aerospace companies really were disappointed at how little transfer of technology they had received from the West. In comparison, it was truly amazing what the Russians were offering. China pushed for and signed on a deal for licensed production of 200 Su-27s along with transfer of technology. Although it did not receive ToT and license production to AL-31, it did receive high level of technology transfer, documentation, tooling and machinery for maintenance and repairs on AL-31F. China was able to build the largest AL-31F MRO facility and perform all of the maintenance and repairs on AL-31F by itself. You guys might have read the recent news that China was able to extend the life of AL-31 from 900 to 1500 hours. China also received a lot of cooperations from the Russians on its own aerospace projects. Yeltsin gave China permission to send aerospace engineers to Mikoyan and the famous TsAGI in Russia to study. They were even allowed to look through highly secretive projects. In the F-8IIM project, China participated in the co-development of Zhuk-8II with NIIR, which allowed its engineers to be involved in the development, testing and certification stage. The Russians also participated in the J-10 project and the Super-7 project with CAC. China was also able to leverage Ukraine and Belarus defense firms to receive help from them in missile technology, Su-27 upgrade/overhaul, carrier project and other things. And even though I have often been critical of Su-30MKK, it was always over MKK’s avionics performance and weapon package. Having seen the advancement in Chinese avionics and weaponry, I think PLAAF made the right decision to pursue a platform that had improved payload and range compared the original Su-27. MKK is already quite an advanced 4th generation airframe in terms of its range and multirole potential. Any future fighter bomber from SAC should draw a lot of inspiration from MKK.
In the 20 years since the collapse of USSR, PLAAF and the Chinese aerospace industry have both transformed. Although a large part of Chinese aerospace industry’s advancement have resulted from its own R&D and cooperation with the West, China’s military aviation industry would not be where it is today without the high level of technology transfer between China and Russia. When all of this started 20 years ago, China was looking for cutting edge space, aviation, material, communication, electronics and weapons technology from Russia. Even though Russia was not the world leader in many of those areas, China was able to obtain those technology more easily and cheaply than from any other countries. That is not to say Russia got ripped off in the process. Chinese orders allowed Russian military industrial complex to survive through its darkest times. From all of the stories I read, it really did sound like many Russian military companies would not have survived without Chinese orders. And even with the reduced military cooperation between the two sides, Russia still stands to gain from all of the aircraft and subsystems that it sold to China. Even on the J-11 deal, I think it only backfired on the Russians because most people could not have predicted how fast the Chinese aerospace industry was going to be able to completely absorb its technology and create its own version with much better avionics and weaponry. Russia signed the deal with the expectation that they would be able to stay far ahead of China, but the combination of their stagnation + Chinese advancement have leveled the playing field. So as I look back on things, the Russians/Soviets really came to help China in two very critical point in its history. The first was when it first helped China to establish an aerospace industry after its founding and the second was when China faced military embargo from the West. It’s hard to imagine Western countries offering the same level of assistance to China that Russia/USSR did.
I will also explore in a later blog entry on how China and India approached military cooperation with Russia. I will look at the differences and why I think the Chinese approach have worked out better.