For the first 15 years, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, China has remained the major buyer of Russian weapons, primarily in the domain of military aviation equipment. The situation is changing however: continuing development of the domestic arms industry has prompted Beijing to become more selective in its choice of Russian-made armament. If this trend continues, China may eventually evolve into one of the world’s largest military aircraft exporters.
The glorious past
China used to actively cooperate with Russia on a number of armament programs in the past, including the delivery of 48 Sukhoi Su-27SK/UBK fighters in the 1990s, the license production of up to 105 Su-27SK (locally designated J-11) fighters in Shenyang, and also the contracts to deliver 28 Su-27UBK combat trainers, 76 Su-30MKK multirole fighters, and 24 Su-30MK2 carrier-based fighters (these deliveries ran from 2000 to 2004). In all, China purchased and license-built 181 Sukhoi Su-27/30 warplanes. That number does not include the indigenous unlicensed J-11B/BS models, copied from the Su-27SK and Su-27UBK respectively, and also the J-16 fighter (copied from the Su-30). This makes China the largest customer for Russian-designed heavy fighters to date, far ahead even of India, which has ordered a total of 248 Su-30K/MKI fighters.
It was largely through these massive combat aviation acquisitions that China retained its top position in the volume of Russian weapons imports until 2007. The peak was reached in 2000, when the share of deliveries to China amounted to 60% of Russia?s total military exports. On average, this figure stood at 40-50%, for the exception of 2004 when the delivery to India of two Talwar-class frigates, 10 Su-30MKI fighters, and the first four Su-30MKI knockdown kits for licence assembly at HAL, boosted India?s share in total exports to 43%, whereas the Chinese share for that year dropped to 38%.
Having purchased that much equipment in the late 1990s and the early 2000s, China then focused its efforts on producing unlicensed clones of the Russian Su-27/30 fighters. The country also achieved considerable progress in the indigenous program to design the single-engined J-10 fighter and the export-oriented FC-1/JF-17 light fighter. Following the 2003 contract to supply 24 Su-30MK2s for the Chinese navy, which was completed in 2004, the only other order to come from China was for 38 Ilyushin Il-76/78 military transports and aerial tankers; this deal was never seen through. As a result, ever since 2007 India has remained easily ahead of China as the leading international customer for Russian military hardware. Back in 2007, Indian orders accounted for 30% of the $6 bln?worth of Russian arms exports, against just 24% for China. Even more striking was the disparity in the value of the newly placed orders for that year: the Indian contracts accounted for 45% in the total worth of $11 bln in newly placed orders for Russian weaponry, compared with China?s meagre 6%. In other words, the radical change that took place five years ago marked the beginning of China?s gradual departure from the top customers of Russian military aviation equipment.
Helicopters and powerplants
Between 2007 and 2010, China found itself overtaken in the volume of arms imports from Russia not only by India but also by Venezuela (which, at the peak of its arms purchases in 2011, took up 16% of Moscow?s total military exports by volume), and also by Algeria (12%), Vietnam (11-12%), and even Syria (9% as of early 2011).
The year 2011 brought signs of a major revival of China?s interest in Russian equipment. Beijing’s primary interests currently lie in air-borne munitions, helicopters, and aircraft engines. The latter category has seen the most impressive buying spree: in 2011 alone China signed contracts for the purchase of two powerplant batches, for its J-10 fighters and for the J-11/16 family of aircraft. The contracts were for 123 Salyut AL-31FN engines, valued at around $500 mln, and for 150 AL-31Fs (up to $700 mln). Another contract, signed in 2012, envisaged the purchase of a further 140 AL-31Fs. In just under two years the Chinese air force effectively bought 413 fighter engines for an estimated total of up to $1.9 bln. The procurement figures allow for a tentative analysis of how many aircraft China is planning to build. For example, the purchase of the 290 AL-31Fs indicates that Beijing could assemble at least another 100 J-11B/BS and J-16 airframes; these would require 200 engines plus around 30% spares. Part of the AL-31Fs could also be used for re-engining Beijing?s existing fleet of such fighters. Based on a similar formula (one engine per airframe plus 30% spares), the contract for the 123 AL-31FNs suggests China?s intention to build up to 100 more single-engine J-10s.
In addition, China in 2009 and 2011 purchased two batches of D-30KP-2 engines: first 55 and then another 184. The first 12 powerplants were delivered by the Russian manufacturer NPO Saturn in October 2012. Some 20 to 30 of these might be used to re-engine the oldest examples in China?s Ilyushin Il-76 fleet, while a further 12 to 16 engines could be involved in testing the new Chinese Y-20 military transport, a rough equivalent of the Russian Il-76 with elements of design adopted from the Boeing C-17 Globemaster. The remaining 200 or so engines will most likely end up powering China’s new cruise missile-capable H-6K bombers, of which 60 to 70 might be built, judging by the number of powerplants on order.
Finally, China continues to purchase Russian assault helicopters. Under a $700 mln contract signed in 2012, the Ulan-Ude production plant will build 52 Mil Mi-171E rotorcraft for Beijing.
The future of the Russian-Chinese military aviation cooperation remains extremely uncertain. Theoretically, China could purchase Sukhoi Su-35 land-based and Su-33 carrier-based fighters, a number of Il-76MD-90A military transports, and may continue to buy Russian-designed aero engines and helicopters. However, none of these potential contracts is immune from significant obstacles and risks. The possible Su-35 deal is being stalled by the parties? disagreements over the size of the batch to be ordered. Russia is interested in selling at least 48 airframes, possibly more, and would also like Beijing to promise not to clone this most recent fighter design, which will continue in service as the backbone of Russia?s tactical fighter aviation until the production launch of the fifth-generation model. Similar problems, exacerbated by the fact that the type is not in series production in Russia, apply to the possibility of selling Su-33 carrier-based fighters to China. In addition, China appears to be implementing its own program to develop the J-15 carrier fighter, which seems to be functionally equivalent to the Su-33.
As for possible Il-76MD-90A deliveries, China does indeed require aircraft of this class, but whether or not the contract will be implemented depends on Beijing?s progress with the effort to design its own Y-20 military transport. Besides, the price tag of the Russian airframe if built at the Ulyanovsk production plant may prove prohibitively high.
In general, Russia?s highest hopes with regards to Chinese exports are for continuing sales of aircraft engines to that country, or perhaps even of their individual hi-tech components (such as hot sections), and also for new Mi-17 contracts. Overall, however, the continuing growth of China?s industrial, technological and research capabilities might soon promote Beijing from an importer of combat aircraft to a net exporter of first trainers and military transports, and then eventually of strike airplanes.