Chinese Aviation Merger May Portend Military Applications
By WENDELL MINNICK
TAIPEI — Plans by China’s aerospace industry to merge two stateowned aviation mega-corporations officially are intended to create an indigenous manufacturing capability for large passenger airliners to fill domestic orders and compete on the international market.
But not everyone is satisfied the merger is for such innocuous reasons, and see strategic thought behind it.
China’s defense needs are expanding and becoming more advanced. Increasingly, rhetoric out of Beijing suggests China views the Pacific as a large Chinese pond. Plans include the development of advanced fighters and bombers, along with a stealthy unmanned combat aerial vehicle, the Anjian (Dark Sword). Access to advanced Western commercial aviation technology can rapidly migrate to assist military goals.
“One official purpose of the merger is to facilitate production of new commercial passenger aircraft. I seem to recall that the Luftwaffe used a similar program to develop bombers,” said Thomas Kane, author of “Chinese Grand Strategy and Maritime Power.”
The process to merge China Aviation Industry Corp. I and II (AVIC I/II) began in June and is expected to be finalized soon.
Though European and U.S. arms sales are restricted by embargoes put in place after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, commercial deals have mushroomed over the past 10 years.
Recent deals, particularly during the Farnborough Air Show in the United Kingdom, demonstrate foreign commercial aerospace companies are working closely with Chinese aviation companies.
During the recent show, AVIC I and Bombardier Aerospace announced a cooperative agreement in the commercial aircraft market, allowing Bombardier’s participation in the development of the ARJ21-900 aircraft.
Other deals included Boeing signing a $63 billion order with Air China for 15 777-300ER and 30 NextGeneration 737-800 jetliners. In June 2007, Boeing signed a $500 million deal with four AVIC I and II subsidiaries to manufacture parts for the 747 and the 787 Dreamliner.
Sikorsky created the Shanghai Sikorsky Aircraft Co. as a joint venture with Shanghai Little Eagle Science and Technology Co. in March 2003. The company is now manufacturing the S-76 helicopter in a joint venture between Shanghai Sikorsky and AVIC II.
Originally, AVIC was one consortium of aerospace companies spread across China. However, in July 1999, the corporation was split, retaining its original name, in an attempt to streamline and modernize its manufacturing capabilities and competitiveness.
AVIC I centered on larger and more complex aircraft, including upgrades and new variants of the Xian H-6 (Tu-16) medium-range bomber and JH-7 fighter-bomber, as well as newer Chengdu J-10 and FC-1 fighters.
AVIC II centered on smaller aircraft, including military fixed-wing trainers and helicopters. Helicopters include the Changhe WZ10 attack helicopter, Z-8 heavy transport helicopter and Z-11 light utility helicopter.
China’s Xian H-6 (Tu-16) “Badger” medium-range bomber meets the Air Force’s immediate needs with new variants still being unveiled. But projecting force beyond China’s borders will require a new, strategic long-range bomber capability in the next 20 years.
With a service life of 40 years, the H-6 is expected to continue in operation until at least 2020, but China is the only country in the world still using the Tu-16 and is beginning to look beyond its borders to secure oil and other resources in Africa, the Middle East and South America.
China has also struggled to upgrade its fighter arsenal to fourth generation and acquire heavy fixed-winged transports and aerial tankers. The love affair that once existed between China and Russia appears over, and orders for new Russian aircraft have shriveled up over the past 10 years.
Instead, China’s aerospace industry has been building a closer relationship with European and U.S. aviation manufacturers. The result could produce unexpected benefits for China’s military.
“China, like Britain, has an established tradition of adapting civilian hardware to military purposes,” Kane said. “So, if the AVIC merger works as planned, it has the potential to build up China’s force projection capabilities.
“If the merger and joint ventures with foreign corporations make the new AVIC more profitable, that will ultimately feed back into military capacity as well,” Kane said.
Improvements in China’s commercial aerospace industry will quickly equate to better military aircraft. Larry Wortzel, chairman of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, said the greatest improvements are coming from the exposure of AVIC personnel to U.S. quality control techniques, improved systems engineering and advanced researchand-development skills, which will no doubt give China’s Air Force a much-needed boost.
“Other areas that will probably be improved are the ability to work with and develop composite materials and to integrate fly-bywire systems and avionics,” said Wortzel, who served as a U.S. Army attaché in China.
He sees no way to stop U.S. commercial aerospace unintentionally influencing the military, but he recommends that the Pentagon “watch what Chinese engineers and technicians” are doing in the United States. “Also, we have to keep way ahead in developing new systems and countermeasures,” Wortzel said.