After I posted the last blog entry on rebuking Kanwa’s support for Russian military industrial complex, there was quite a few passionate responses in the thread. More interesting, there was a thread on Sinodefenceforum about whether or not China is now ahead of Russia. As you can imagine, it turned into quite a heated thread.
For me personally, there has been several areas where China has exceeded Russia. This strategycenter article on CIDEX 2010 highlights the current disadvantage that Russia faces vs China in military development.
Russian specialists will point out that they are now at a huge disadvantage to the Chinese in two very significant respects.
One is that the commitment by the central government in resources to the defence electronics sector is both sustained and serious. “They can take a field where there is nothing but flat land and wild grass,” said one Russian company representative, “and the next thing you know there is a full-blown factory or design centre there turning out a world-class product.”
The other advantage to China is the unfortunate reality of actuarial tables. Younger scientists and engineers who are needed in Russia to form the next-generation of weapons designers are leaving the nation in droves. A few years ago the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) estimated that 70,000 scientists and specialists from Russian defence institutes and military-industrial complex enterprises had left the country.
The consequence is that whereas the age of the average defence industrial scientist or engineer in China is about 30 and around 40 in the US – it is 50 years or more in Russia. China’s industry is growing and advancing, while Russia’s will effectively be dying off before too long.
The same article also talks about CETC becoming increasingly competitive around the world market. This is a trend we are seeing amongst all Chinese defensive firms where air shows and weapon shows are seeing more and more displays from Chinese companies.
With this advantage in mind CETC is beginning to turn its focus more towards expanding export markets. This is all mostly due to the fact that Chinese companies used to be limited to trying to sell to countries that could either not purchase from the West or only had the financial means to purchase low-cost Chinese products. Now the electronics giant is encroaching on territory such as South America that would have normally been the preserve of US or European firms.
With this objective in mind, CETC are now more actively participating in international defence expositions outside of China and establishing themselves as players in the competition in emerging markets. In this sense they are in the same category as other Chinese arms export companies like Polytechnologies or Norinco, both of which exhibited at the Eurosatory show in Paris for the first time ever this past June.
In the field of defence electronics, even the Russians are admitting that China has passed them. The other field that China has clearly surpassed Russia is naval shipbuilding. In both cases, we can see China’s defense industry benefiting from the globally competitive civilian manufacturing industry. China’s defense industry are still trailing in these areas, but have become increasingly efficient and cost effective. After the dissolution of Soviet Union, many Russian defense companies simply did not have the quality and efficiency to compete in the civilian market, so they have not made much progress in the past 20 years.
So, which areas are China still really trailing Russia and how long will that last? As mentioned in the previous article, I think China lags behind Russia the most in strategic systems. At current time, China is a couple of generations behind Russia in nuclear submarines and strategic bombers. China is probably conducting sea trials for 095 class SSNs right now, but I guess it will take another 20 years before it can build something on par with Yasen class (if that class turns out as good as Russians have claimed). China is probably similarly behind in SSBN. In the area of strategic bombers, China will probably catch up through the development of UCAV rather than building something in the tu-160 class. China is also behind Russia in ICBM and long range cruise missiles, but that gap is much smaller due to the significant funding toward Second Artillery Corp.
In conventional weapons, China has imported engines, large helicopters and SAMs from Russia in the recent years. These along with large transport/tankers are also the most obvious areas where it is trailing Russia. Propulsion has clearly been the achille’s heel in all recent Chinese weapon development. We are finally seeing results from fighter jet engine projects like WS-9, WS-10A and WS-13. Production problems for WS-10A have been well documented, but the all important WS-10A is finally being mass produced and used in all the new fighter projects. More importantly, WS-15 is apparently making real progress and will be ready by the end of this decade. Theoretically speaking, China would’ve catched up to Russia in fighter jet engines by then, but we may still see a lot of production related issues hindering progress. We are seeing a whole host of new turbofan engine projects under way (from recent airshows) aimed at different military aircraft like fighter jets, transports, trainers and UAVs. High bypass engine for large transport and small turbofan engines for advanced trainers/UAVs have had slower development. In both case, China has put in less funding into these projects. China has been copying Russian/Ukrainian engines for these sectors. They are putting a lot of resource into high bypass engines for the purpose of military transport and also civilian airliner projects. In the latter case, I think they may find some assistance from more prominent Western companies on these projects, which may help speed up their development. I do expect China to catch up to Russia in different classes of turbofan engines by the middle of next decade. China has also experienced disruption in naval projects and army projects due to the weakness in propulsion technology. In both of these cases, they have been able to license produce some Western engines, while suffering constraints on other projects. For example, the second batch of 052C ships were delayed due to delays in the QC-280 project. Since the Ukrainians produced gas turbines during Soviet time, China is actually not behind Russia in naval gas turbine. However, it is playing catch up to Zorya and need some more years of development before it can develop the full line of gas turbines required by its naval. China is also behind Russia in both large helicopters and turboshaft development. In the latter case, it has been able to leverage civilian projects with European companies into co-development projects (like WZ-16) that should eventually yield fruit by the end of this decade. In the former case, China is working with Russia to develop heavy transport. It’s uncertain when China will catch up with Russia or if it needs to catch up with Russia. Russia has a lot of expertise with larger helicopters whereas China has just been doing better with smaller helicopters due to its cooperation projects with European companies. Large military transport and refuellers are certainly areas where China need to catch up with Russia. Many domestic projects have been halted (like KJ-2000 and ABL) due to the lack of platform. The Y-20 project and C-919 should both be ready by 2016. At which point, China will have aircraft that are on par with Russian equivalents. However, Russia does have a lot more experience in developing large aircraft than China and have wider range of transports available. As seen in the recent agreement for co-development of wide body civilian airliner, China believes that it can still learn a lot from Russia in developing larger aircraft. Since both countries are putting a lot of funding in this area, it’s hard to say when China will catch up to the R&D capabilities of Russia. With the development of HQ-9, HQ-10, HQ-12 and HQ-16, China has really been advancing in air defence weaponry in the recent years. In naval SAMs and CIWS, I think China has already caught up and surpassed Russia. However, I would say it’s still trailing Russia in land based SAMs when one compares S-400 and S-300V to HQ-9. Buk-M1 and Tor-M2 are also more advanced than the HQ-12 and HQ-7 that China is currently fielding. I have certainly read a lot of rumours about new long range, medium range, short range and anti-ballistic SAM projects, but they are still years from deployment. Until then, China will continue to apply incremental changes to different modules of HQ-9 and HQ-12 air defence system. We should see continued improvement in range, guidance, ECM capabilities of these two system. I think China will probably catch up to Russia in 10 years at its current trajectory. Another area that China is clearly behind Russia in is supersonic anti-ship missiles, but I think that’s because China is choosing to go the Western route of carrying subsonic anti-ship missiles.
There are also numerous other areas where you can make a resonable argument that China is behind Russia, but I think the greater investment toward China’s defence industry will tilt things toward China in the near future. More than anything, the greatest weakness in China’s defence industry is propulsion technology. From turbofan engines to gas turbines to nuclear reactor turbine to turboshaft to diesel engines to missile propulsions, China has needed outside help for most of these projects. If China can catch up to Russia in propulsion technology, it will be able to shake any remaining reliance on Russian imports.
On the other side, I think China has also surpassed Russia in several area. As mentioned previously, China’s defence electronics industry is now ahead of Russia in most areas. We saw AESA radar deployed on KJ-2000/200 and 052C several years ago and Russia are still several years away from deploying operational AESA radar on AWACS/naval ships. We are also seeing what appears to be first generation of AESA radar on fighter jet on J-10B, while Russian AESA radars seem to have production issues as indicated in the strategycenter article. We have also seen a whole range of new air defense and battlefield radar that CETC is developing that are doing quite well in the domestic and export market. I have not seen the same portfolio of Russian products in the export market. From recent CCTV news reports, we have been able to contrast the combat central of domestic naval ships with that of imported Russian naval ships (kilo and Sov class). We are seeing that the domestic ships have much more digitized and informative system than the more analog based Russian ships. We have also seen the new electronic equipments and systems deployed with the army and PAP. In this blog entry that I read a few months ago, it talks about how Russian general Makarov sees Chinese army been capable to operate much faster due to adoption of modern digital technology.
The gap between China and Russia in naval shipbuilding seems to be just as significant. PLAN expansion has included small ship (Type 022s, 056s), large ships (type-071, submarine tenders, ELINT ship, type 920 and new replenishment ships), complex surface warships (052C and 054A), MCM ships and conventional submarines. Even China’s major civilian maritime agencies have seen tremendous expansion in their fleet of cutters. Only the USN has seen more naval shipbuilding in the same period. The Russians have been able to build Soviet era designs for export like kilo class, Talwar class, Sov class and Gepard class. It has struggled building new shipping classes like Borei, Lada, Project 22350 and the Ivan Gren class. It has also struggled with refitting of large Soviet era warships. The cost overruns for INS Vikramaditya has been well documented. Russian shipyards have reduced capacity compared to Soviet times and simply cannot complete work on time or on budget. I’ve seen some ambitious Russian naval designs for export in weapon shows, but who really knows when Russia would actually be able to deliver those product. We hear and see a lot of new Russian naval subsystems like CIWS, SAM, AShM and FCR in weapon shows and don’t hear that much about Chinese naval subsystems. However, we see so many new naval sensors and weapons being installed on test ships and later installed on new shipping classes. With the launching of the 3rd naval test ship (893), I can only imagine the pace of such development is further picking up. Many of the recently developed naval sensors/weapons (like the ones on 054A) are developed based on Russian subsystems, but the next generation of naval sensors/weapons should move China comfortably ahead of Russia. The new Chinese subsystems will be installed and tested out on new platforms, whereas the Russian ones have no platforms to be installed on. So, I think that Russia will also be falling behind China in most naval subsystems.
Other people may disagree, but I think China is also ahead of Russia in UAV technology and PGMs. In the recent Zhuhai air show and international air shows, we have seen many different Chinese unmanned systems displayed including UCAVs, unmanned helicopters, surveillance UAVs and Recon UAVs. China has exported some UAVs to Pakistan and is also developing and inducting new UAVs into PLA and PLAAF. I think it will be just a matter of time before those CAC UAV projects get inducted. At the same time, Russia really has not developed anything in UAV field. It has been importing different UAVs from Israel. China’s development in different PGMs have somewhat been tied to its UAVs. Many new types of small SGBs, TGBs and LGBs have been developed, so that they can be carried by UAVs and internal carriage of next generation aircraft. We are also seeing miniaturized ground attack missiles and ATGMs developed to be carried by UAVs. Overall, we have seen a huge expansion in the arsenal of PGMs available for different Chinese aircraft. These new ground attack weapons have greater accuracy and longer range than what China had imported from Russia in the early 2000s. On top of that, they come in different sizes with different types of guidance. Even J-10s have developed greater multi-role capability with these developments. This is quite a feat considering that PLAAF desperately needed to import Su-30 and different ground attack missiles and munitions in the early 2000s to develop ground attack capability.
The other areas that I think China is clearly ahead of Russia (and most other countries for that matter) is short/medium ranged surface to surface missiles. China has been putting a lot of funding in this area in the recent years due to the Taiwan threat and the importance of Second Artillery Corp. Aside from the much talked about anti-ship ballistic missile, it has also developed new variants of DF-15, DF-21 and the mysterious DF-25 missile. At the same time this was happening, Russia did not develop this area due to the INF treaty.
There are other areas that where you can argue China is ahead of Russia, but I think it’s quite significant that China has basically surpassed Russia in all of conventional naval weaponry. Considering where the two countries were 15 years ago, that represents quite a lot of progress for China and lack of progress for Russia.
I also want to explore the gap between China and European Union in the near future. With the disintegration of Eurozone, I think the European embargo might be abolished in the next few years. The question is what will China still want from Europe at that time.