RAND: Aircraft Deals With Western Firms Help China’s Military
By WENDELL MINNICK
TAIPEI — A new RAND Corp. report warns that European and U.S. civil aerospace companies are inadvertently improving China’s military by providing dual-use technologies and expertise while doing business with Chinese commercial aviation firms.
“Ready for Takeoff: China’s Advancing Aerospace Industry,” by RAND researchers Roger Cliff, Chad J.R. Ohlandt and David Yang, follows the recent unveiling of the J-20 Black Eagle stealth fighter jet and confirmation that China will begin sea trials of its first aircraft carrier this year.
China’s market is far too lucrative to be ignored by Western aerospace companies, especially as European and U.S. military and civil aviation budgets shrink. The nation’s airlines will add 4,000 jetliners in the next two decades to the 1,400 they already operate, while the helicopter market will grow from the current 200 aircraft to 1,200 by 2018, the report says.
But the economic opportunities come with dangers, the report said. High-bypass turbofan jet engines sold to Chinese airlines share components of low-bypass turbofan engines used on high-performance aircraft. Autonomous flight-control systems can be used on military UAVs.
Many satellite types, including communications, weather forecasting, and positioning, navigation and timing, have both military and commercial applications. In addition, the rockets that put them in orbit can be used for either purpose.
Even subcontracting the manufacture of parts to Chinese companies has boosted the country’s military, the report states.
“The mere act of machining parts to the specifications of Western aerospace manufacturers provides training that is potentially applicable to the machining of parts for military aircraft, especially if representatives of those Western manufacturers are present onsite to provide training and guidance in quality control,” the report says.
RAND cited China Commercial Aircraft’s (Comac) effort to develop the ARJ21 regional passenger jet and the C919 narrow-body jet airliner. The efforts are being aided by General Electric, Honeywell, Rockwell Collins and more than a dozen other European and U.S. aerospace component companies.
The report says the ARJ21 and C919 could spawn variants to carry troops, military cargo or gear for various special missions.
But not everyone agrees the sky is falling.
“People have been darkly warning about Chinese exploitation of commercial aerospace technology for decades,” said Richard Bitzinger, an analyst at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.
Bitzinger said China’s aircraft companies have been subcontracting to Western aircraft manufacturers since the mid-1980s with limited improvements to their own industrial capabilities. He cited the ARJ21 and C919 as evidence the Chinese have not actually capitalized particularly well on dual-technology transfers. Comac still imports most of the planes’ critical technologies, including the engine, flight controls and avionics.
“These systems are being shipped to China basically black-boxed — that is, as finished products without the attending design or manufacturing technologies,” he said.
Bitzinger said the only thing the programs might teach the Chinese is systems integration of large commercial aircraft.
The RAND report indicates that joint ventures and the transfer of production licenses are troublesome in helicopter production.
For example, Harbin Aircraft Manufacturing builds a variant of the Eurocopter AS365N medium utility helicopter. The Z-9, as it is called in Chinese production, performs civilian and military tasks, including anti-tank, anti-submarine warfare and search-and-rescue missions.
In 1997, Eurocopter accepted a contract to help China develop a 6-ton transport helicopter, but no such aircraft emerged.
“It appears that China instead applied the technology acquired to the Z-10 attack helicopter, which is in the same weight class,” the report said.
Bitzinger conceded that China, which has been license-producing and reverse-engineering Western helicopters since the 1980s, is indeed benefitting from technology such as rotors and transmissions, “I doubt if we can put that genie back into the bottle,” he said.
There is “no question that China’s growing aerospace capabilities have implications for U.S. security interests,” the report said, but it is “difficult to quantify” the influence that improvements to China’s civilian aerospace capabilities have on driving improvements in the military sector.
A U.S.-only ban would likely slow the development of China’s military aerospace capabilities by only a small amount while handing business opportunities to European and Asian companies and aggravating relations with Beijing, the report said.