As PLAN really started to expand in the mid-2000s, we noticed a growing need for naval helicopters. And as military shipbuilding program continued in the past few years, the need for more helicopters only grew greater. In the Sichuan earthquake of 2008, everyone saw China’s lack of helicopters and how that slowed down the rescue efforts. In the recent naval deployments to the Gulf of Aden, PLAN became even more aware of its helicopter shortage. One of the analysts wrote that the 3-ships flotilla to Aden was hampered by only having 2 helicopters. Helicopters have been really important in chasing down pirates and rescuing ships that are under-siege. The Chinese flotilla has obviously been hampered operationally due to this problem. On top of that, PLAN will need more order more naval helicopters for its future carrier and escorts.
The existing fleet of naval helicopters consist of Z-9Cs, different variants of Z-8s and Ka-28s. Ka-28s are used primarily for the destroyers and 054As. In the 90s, the ordered 8 Ka-28s from Russia as part of the Sov purchase for ASW and SAR missions. I think they have added some more Ka-28s since (we’ve seen Ka-28 pictures with newer serial numbers), but the total would still be around 12 to 16. There are about 18 ships in PLAN with hangars designed for Ka-28s (including 4 Sovs, 4 052B/Cs, 2 054 and 6 054As), so they really don’t have enough Ka-28s. You end up with situations where one of these ships would be carrying the smaller Z-9C or with no helicopter at all. Recently, they ordered 9 more Ka-28s from Russia to support the new DDGs and 054As under construction. Six of the nine Ka-28s have already been delivered. I think more Ka-28s are needed before the next generation of naval helicopter becomes available. In the recent years, Z-9s have proliferated in PLA as all of the production bottlenecks have finally been resolved. They are even exporting 6 Z-9Cs to Pakistan as part of the F-22P deal. Surprisingly though, I have not really seen pictures of new Z-9Cs coming into service, even though it appears that PLAN is satisfied with their performance. Despite it’s small size, ASW version of Z-9Cs have been designed to carry torpedoes and dipping sonar. In gulf of Aden, Z-9s have also been put to good use to hunt down pirates. My guess is that PLAN just wants to wait until Z-15 is ready to join service, but that will probably take another 5 years. And finally, Z-8s are making quite a comeback in PLAN. We’ve seen Z-8 productions ramping up in the recent year with newer variants like Z-8K, Z-8KA and Z-8KH joining service with PLA and PLAAF. They are also building civilian versions of Z-8 for firefighting and transportation, but we’ve also seen many new Z-8J/Hs joining service. Z-8J/Hs have been seen operating off 051Cs, 866, replenishment ships and 998. With newer large ships coming into service, I certainly expect to see more variants of Z-8s getting orders. At this point, Z-8s are really too big to operate on any of the destroyers, Frigates or smaller warships, so the current production level is more than sufficient. In general, I think more small and medium size helicopters like Z-9Cs and Ka-28s are needed for all their new frigates and destroyers, but the larger warships are doing okay with all the new variants of Z-8s.
Having looked at the current state of naval helicopter in PLAN, what does the future hold? I think that the current hi-lo combination of Ka-28 and Z-9Cs are nearing the end of their shelf life. The Z-15 and 10 ton helo projects will form the backbone of naval helicopter in the future. Z-15 would take over the role of Z-9Cs on frigates and smaller ships. Compared to Z-9C, it is larger, can carry more mission equipments (whether for ASW or SAR), have longer ranger/speed, have better flight performance and far more advanced avionics. The 10-ton project would take over the role of Ka-28 on destroyers and amphibious ships. It would basically become the Chinese equivalent of SH-60. Recently, we heard the news that China is trying to use European turboshaft engines for Z-15 instead of PWC turboshaft engine. The US government pressure against PWC for exporting PT67 turbo shafts to China put a temporary halt to the Z-10 project. At the same time, China had no problems in continuing Z-9G production, because it obtained all the necessary export licenses to have local production of Arriel-2C turboshaft engine. Fearing that US government might do something similar to prevent PT67 engines from being installed on PLAN Z-15s, China is seeking for alternative suppliers. If the US government somehow pressures the Europeans to also back off, China would then turn to the Ukrainians (Motor-Sich) or wait for a local engine to become available. I think that’s what will happen with the 10 ton helo project. We have not heard much about it, because it is not a collaborative effort like Z-15. We do know that it will most likely start off with an engine from Motor-Sich (which produces engine for Mi-17) before shifting to the domestic engine WZ-10. Since China is developing this alone, I would expect it to finish development after Z-15 joins service. This would also explain why Ka-28 is getting newer orders, while Z-9C is not. And finally, we have seen a recent news that China put in an order for 9 Ka-31 from Russia. Back in 2006, they ordered 15 Ka-31s, but that contract never got fulfilled due to the IL-76 fiasco. I had thought that the Z-8 AEW project would take away the need for Ka-31s, but I guess PLAN does not feel confident that Z-8 AEW will be fully ready by the time Varyag gets fixed up. Z-8 AEW is apparently going to use the new AC-313 (which is a heavily modified version of Z-8 currently under development) as its platform. I can see that Varyag would use mostly Ka-31 and test out some Z-8s. Once Z-8 AEW becomes mature, the future carriers should be using it instead of Ka-31s.
In conclusion, China has ordered 18 kamov helicopters recently, because the domestic options are not ready yet. Once the domestic projects are complete, we can expect to see a force consisting of Z-15 for smaller ships, 10-ton helo for middle ships and Z-8s for larger ships and carriers.