Photo shows what is widely believed to be a prototype of China’s J-20 stealth fighter after an apparent runway test in early 2011. (Associated Press)

China’s inability to domestically mass-produce modern high-performance jet engines has been a persistent Achilles heel of the Chinese military aerospace sector, writes the Wall Street Journal.

General Electric, Rolls-Royce and Pratt & Whitney dominate global military jet engine market share, powering such aircraft as the F-16 Fighting Falcon, Harrier “Jump Jet” and F-22 Raptor, respectively.

China, on the other hand, has historically relied on Russian-made engines. According to authors Gabe Collins and Andrew Erickson:

  • China’s defense industry is working hard to become capable of mass producing Chinese-made military jet engines in order to end dependence on Russia, give China maximum strategic flexibility, and begin to compete with Russian-made combat aircraft in export markets.
  • Although Chinese military engineers have made progress is building jet engines, the effort continues to suffer from problems with standardization and a shortage of skilled workers, in addition to an inability to consistently produce high quality turbine blades.
  • With jet engines, “Western standards” would appear to remain relevant, as the world’s few top jet engine producers are all located in the U.S. and Western Europe (with Russia a distant second in quality).
  • One of China’s great theoretical advantages over earlier Soviet efforts—widespread access to and exploitation of foreign technology—has worked in other areas previously, but it may prove problematic in practice when developing and producing systems as complex and demanding as high performance jet engines.
  • China’s ability to resolve the domestic engine production problem matters because if China’s engine makers can attain the technical capability level that U.S. manufacturers had 20 years ago, China will be able to power its latest-generation fighter and strike aircraft with domestically-made engines.
  • The latest jet engine import numbers suggest Chinese engines may now power roughly 20% of the country’s most modern fighters and strike aircraft as well as the JF-17 fighters it is exporting to Pakistan.
  • That means at least 80% of China’s tactical aircraft fleet runs on Russian-made engines and will likely continue to rely substantially on imported Russian engines to support its tactical aircraft programs over the next two years.

Read the complete Wall Street Journal story here. The same authors also wrote an excellent in-depth analysis of China’s indigenous high-performance turbofan development last year.

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Ray Kwong is senior advisor to the USC US-China Institute, a charter member of the Asian International Business Advisory Group, a Forbes contributing writer and columnist for the Hong Kong Economic Journal. He is currently facilitating talks between China and U.S. interests on such matters as clean energy economics, nanotechnology and commercial aerospace. While it sounds way cooler than it really is, he is also a member of the Bloomberg BusinessWeek Market Advisory Board and the McKinsey Quarterly Executive Panel. You can follow him on Twitter @raykwong. Eyeball Ray's posts from Forbes ChinaTalk.
Ray Kwong has 17 post(s) on Asia Security Watch