Is China Stealing Russia’s Su-33?
By Wendell Minnick
TAIPEI — Russia is eyeing China following media reports that an unlicensed variant of the Sukhoi Su-33 carrier-borne multirole fighter has been developed.
Sukhoi officials are “closely monitoring that situation but have not said any official position yet,” said Sukhoi spokesman Aleksey Poveshchenko.
Ever since Beijing announced plans earlier this year to build its first aircraft carrier, speculation has been rampant over how the People’s Liberation Army Navy would acquire carrier-borne fighters.
Sukhoi’s Su-33, with its folding wings, is the only choice because of the U.S. and European arms embargo to China.
Russian officials, who say China is already illegally copying their Su-27SK fighter jet, have halted negotiations to sell the Su-33.
Beijing has not confirmed that it is working on a clone of the Su-27SK — dubbed Flanker by NATO.
“China will not acknowledge to the Russians that these are copies,” said Andrei Chang, a China military analyst at Kanway Information Center.
“They say it is an independent domestic production designed solely by themselves.” China owns a Su-33 prototype, which it obtained from the Ukrainian Research Test and Flying Training Center at Nitka, Chang said.
“In 2001, a Chinese delegation visited the Ukraine and convinced officials to sell the T10K prototype,” Chang said.
He noted that the intellectual property rights for the aircraft belong to Sukhoi, not Ukraine.
In 2006, there were reports that China was talking to Russia about buying up to 48 Su-33s. But the Russians ended the discussions after Sukhoi discovered the Flanker-copying effort.
Tracing the Trouble
The history of China’s Su-27SKs begins in 1995, when Russia signed a $2.5 billion joint production license agreement with Shenyang Aircraft Corp. to build 200 of the supersonic jets. Equipped with Russian avionics, radars and engines, the plane was dubbed the J-11A in Chinese service.
But the deal soured in 2006 after only 95 fighters when it was discovered that China was secretly developing the J-11B with Chinese avionics and systems.
The first Russian acknowledgement that its Su-27SK was being copied came from Mikhail Pogosyan, Russian Aircraft Corp.’s first vice president, in February at the Aero India show in Bangalore.
Pogosyan downplayed the quality and reliability of Chinese copies, saying the “original will always be better ... than making a fake copy.” Chang also charged that China is planning to copy Sukhoi’s new Su34 fighter bomber, a variant of the Su-27 with a side-by-side seat configuration. He said Chinese engineers are now conducting wind tunnel tests on a model.
Poveshchenko denied any knowledge of that.
“We have not heard about any wind tests of the Su-34,” he said.
In December, Chinese officials agreed to stop violating Russian defense intellectual property rights at the 13th session of a Chinese-Russian joint commission on military and technical cooperation in Beijing. Russian Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov and Pogosyan attended the meeting.
“The Chinese have a history of adapting other countries’ technology for their own purposes,” said U.K.-based Thomas Kane, author of the book “Chinese Grand Strategy and Maritime Power.” A close history between the former Soviet Union and China, going back to the Korean War, makes Russian military equipment an easy target.