Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Crash, burn and... sell?

I have spent quite a few electrons here discussing China's foray into stealth aircraft technology. Although the Shenyang J-31 and Chengdu J-20 look pretty neat, they face a lot of "under-the-hood" technology issues, including basic stuff like engines, before they are ready for prime time... let alone poised to compete with the F-22s and F-35s of the world. (Even the 35-year-old F-117 design is more combat-ready.)

Well, in the last week, apparently the People's Liberation Army Air Force has reached a similar conclusion. The J-31, it has decided, is not worth buying. The China Aviation Industry Corporation, or AVIC, is marketing this shiny, new aircraft for export.

Stealth fighter for sale! Get your stealth fighter here!

This has several implications.

First, China doesn't have the same arms-export laws that the U.S. does, which limit what types of technology can be made available for sale. Of course, the government ultimately has to approve such sales, but there is nothing automatically keeping Shenyang or AVIC from selling the J-31 to a country like Iran. The Iranians, with a dismal track record of indigenous front-line aircraft production, would love to buy a squadron of these (if their economy weren't collapsing). For that matter, any number of Persian Gulf countries would love to get their hands on this type of technology... and Lockheed isn't going to sell them any F-35s.

Second, it implies a degree of go-get-'em that you don't usually see from Chinese arms makers. There is still a lot of old-school production inertia, by which I mean a Cold War Soviet-style process in which the government decides what it is looking for and orders its design bureaus to come up with it. Shenyang, by contrast, appears to have stone cold designed a plane without a PLAAF mandate. And now it needs to recoup the money it spent on research and development.

And third, of course, it underscores the limitations I outlined earlier in Chinese production of high-tech aircraft. And to be fair, AVIC seems to realize this:
“Operational effectiveness will be higher than current or upgraded fourth-generation fighters or almost equivalent to typical fifth-generation,” says Avic. The reference to fifth-generation aircraft presumably indicates the Lockheed Martin F-22 and F-35.

Not to keep flogging a deceased equine, but it's easy to build an airframe that looks nice. These days, it's even relatively easy to build and program computerized flight controllers (necessary to make the inherently unstable facets of a stealthy plane stable enough to fly). But making an effective warplane--that has the hardware to accelerate, climb, find targets and destroy them in a high-threat environment without being tracked--is much, much tougher.

So tough, in fact, that the J-31's foreign buyers might find themselves with little more than the equivalent of a winged white elephant with racing stripes... and a high-profile dud will have Shenyang crying all the way to the state-owned bank.


Professor of the Forest said...
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Professor of the Forest said...

Do these chinese cats name all their military aircraft after cities? Or do Shenyang and Chengdu mean something else in Chinese? Lame. The name should inspire fear in enemies, using the name of birds of prey or warring tribes. What's wrong with these people? Do they want to take over the world?

Professor of the Forest said...

Chengdu? Shanyang? Oh gosh Chairman Mao, I'm really scared of aircraft named after your dirty industrial cities...look out here comes a Cleveland A-25! Watch out! There's a dive bombing Flint I-70. What's wrong with these people? How are they going to dominate the world when their Aircraft are named after the places they're prolly built?