So, I’ve received some requests recently on what would happen if the European arms embargo gets lifted. Now, this is a really complicated question, because I certainly can’t factor in what each country is willing to export to China. I can only say what China would be interested in that is also being exported by European countries. And I also have to apologize in advance for not knowing enough about the technologies in each country and not knowing anything about army related systems. So, I would have to concentrate on the naval/air force related systems in this piece.
First, let’s go back and examine what they are currently importing or need to import:
They got a bunch of AAMs and gas turbines from the Ukrainians. And they are certainly looking to Ukraine for help on different transport related projects. They also import a bunch of small subsystems from both the Ukraine and Belarus. And in the future, the most important help they get from the non-Russia former Soviet Republics are the gas turbines and large transport help.
As I stated previously, I think the main systems that China is still trying to get from the Russians include IL-76/78, S-400, turbofan engines of different sizes, transport helicopters like Mi-17/26/38, Ka-28/31, Be-200, subsystems for naval fighter/carrier and more missiles for existing platforms bought from Russia. The turbofan part is referring to AL-31FN series, RD-93 series and AI-222-25F. Although I think the major part of the first two engine series will be for replacement rather than for new fighter jets. In general, a lot of the stuff that China buys from Russians in the future will be to maintain and support existing Russian systems. After the next big order of Be-200 and Helix (which was supposedly signed in 2006), the only thing left will really be the completion of IL-76/78, S-400 and the Mi series transport helicopters.
We also know that China has sort of been getting around the embargo for years and they are still likely to get some systems from the Europeans even if the embargo is not lifted. The biggest project that they have going is probably the Z-15 project. This will certainly provide China with probably the most advanced helicopter of this class. And it will provide the basis for a future naval and possibly utility version in PLA. EC-120 will continuously join PLA in a training role. Z-10 will probably eventually be all indigenous, but it will have to import parts that are developed by Agusta and Eurocopter until then. I’m also under the impression that more classes from Western helicopter makers may appear in PLA in the near future due to the dual use nature of helicopters. For example, the recent unmanned helicopter is clearly derived from Sikorsky’s S-300. The other notable exports from Europe to China are the diesel engines used in 054 series, 071 series and 039 series. In fact, all of the advanced diesel engines used in PLAN are pretty much local assemblies of MTU or SEMT Pielstick. I guess diesel engines also have enough dual use applications to pass through the embargo. The other major ones are probably the sonar/combat system on 039s. According to Gary, these are French based.
So, what will China be interested in once the embargo is finished? Well, let’s start with the big systems. A400M and KC-30 would definitely be on top of the list, because they badly need the medium sized transport and the tanker. They are certainly generations ahead of IL-76 in range, fuel efficiency, reliability and such. An MPA based on A319 would also be welcomed, because it should have far better performance than the Y-7 MPA that China is working on. EH-101 would be a great addition as a transport helo, although China might still prefer Russian helicopters here. NH-90 is something that I’ve always advocated for. I think it would be perfect in the ASW/SAR role. I can’t really see them interested in fighter jets or ships. Although they would certainly be interested in subsystems used for carrier operation.
The other question would be then what kind of subsystems they will be the interested in that they can’t get right now. Well, gas turbines would certainly be one thing that China would need. Although they are developing their own line of QC series gas turbines, I can’t imagine they would not be interested in WR-12 or something like that. They are already getting all the engines they need for helicopters under the dual use guise, but aerospace engines is another area that they could get help in. Any of the M88 series or EJ-200/230 series would be an upgrade over RD-93. I’m sure their transport fleet can also find an ideal engine from the Europeans.
Another area that they would be interested in are the missiles. Aster 15 would certainly be an upgrade over HH-7 right now. I think they might be interested in copying something like that. RAM would be an even better upgrade, but I’m not sure if Germany would be able to export something like that. I can see them possibly be interested in SCALP, although they already have their own line of ship launched cruise missile available. The technology for common VLS that can launch different SAMs, CMs and ASROC would certainly be high on their agenda. A light weight torpedo like Mu-90 would be an upgrade over the Yu-7/A244 that they are using right now. In terms of aerial weapons, European missiles like Iris-t, ASRAAM, Meteor, storm shadow, mistral and other MBDA products would all be of interest to China. However, China is developing its own line of these missiles and the results haven’t been that bad. I see them possibly asking for cooperations from MBDA or maybe even small quantity some of these missiles for studying, but nothing more than that. They could even be interested in the naval guns by Oto Melara and the munitions used in these guns.
In terms of sensors, I think something like S1850M would be very interesting to China. I’m sure Herakles, Sampson and EMPAR would be interesting items for China to study, but they already have enough MFRs in service/under test to actually buy them. Different types of sonars by Thales would be another area of interest, because we all recognize ASW as the weakest point of PLAN. I’m sure there are also different naval subsystems like combat systems, data fusion technology, E/O sensors, guidance technology, ESM that they would be interested in. However, it’s really impossible to guess which ones they would be up for exactly. In terms of aerial sensors, I really can’t think of anything that China would be interested in right now. They are certainly not that impressed with the fighter radars or special missions radars. In terms of other avionics, I don’t really see any interest in that direction either.
I guess the other areas that China would be interested in are the materials and tooling. They would certainly be keen to access EADS’ composite and RAM technology. They would also be interested in the sonar absorption technology used on submarines. But an even more important proposition would be accessing all the latest machineries and tools used by the Europeans in hi-tech manufacturing.
An interesting study by SIPRI recently mentioned that there was a 63% drop in the value of Russian exports to China in the past year. I think all of us expect a similar drop in 2008. The era of import from the Russians is over. A lifting of the embargo would certainly lead to an increase in import, but that would also be a temporary rather than a permanent situation. It would be done in a way to speed up China’s own development rather than anything else. I truly believe China when they say that their main opposition to the embargo is the political humiliation of being listed with rogue countries rather than the weapons themselves.