Monday, November 26, 2012

China's aviation industry coming of ageBy Carl O Schuster

HONOLULU - China's public release of its J-31 Stealth fighter's early flights and those of its new WZ-10 attack helicopter has drawn significant commentary from defense analysts. Less well reported were China's efforts to market its first indigenous commercial jet, the C-919. 

Although the C919 drew little interest from foreign buyers, its development suggests Western airline manufacturers should scale back their sales expectations from China's planned domestic airline expansion. It also marks an important first step in China's goal to become a major player in the global aviation market. 

Chinese competition in the long-haul market lies less about a decade away. The three newly publicized aircraft show a definite indigenous character, signaling that China no longer has to rely on reverse engineering and derivative technologies for its aviation designs. Lost in all the reporting is what this signifies; China's engineering and scientific communities have now recovered fully from the Cultural Revolution's devastation. With its growing economic and scientific resources, it may be in position to challenge Western domination of the aviation market by decade's end. 

To understand how far China has come, one need look no farther than the state of its scientific community and infrastructure 40 years ago. The Cultural Revolution sent thousands of engineers, researchers, scientists and teachers into the countryside to toil away in collective farms where thousands of them died. Hundreds fled to other countries, depriving China of their knowledge and talents. Laboratories and research facilities were abandoned, ransacked or destroyed. Others fell into disrepair and disuse. 

More importantly, the devastation caught a scientific community just beginning to recover from the ravages of 50 years of civil and foreign strife. Classes and research were forced into a 10-year hiatus at a time when global aviation technology was advancing at a rapid and accelerating pace. The Cultural Revolution effectively placed China's scientific and engineering communities 40 years behind the world's industrial powers. 

Overcoming that gap while the industrialized world continued to advance technologically required a massive effort. Reverse engineering and acquiring foreign technology provided a means to skip a generation or two of development. China is not the first to do so. American, French and Soviet jet aircraft, missiles and rockets of the 1950s were all derivatives of German designs and systems from World War II. 

More significantly, those three countries had the advantage of employing the German engineers and scientists in their efforts, both in industry and educational institutions. With that foundation and assistance, all three moved on to develop their own more-advanced systems by the 1960s. 

China has had to climb a steeper hill scientifically speaking and appears to have completed the process. Problems still remain. Chinese engine manufacturers still have problems producing reliable, easily maintained jet engines but most defense commentators note that Chinese avionics are almost on a par with the most advanced Western designs. 

Given Beijing's growing resources and focus on its aviation, electronics, and information systems industries at a time of declining Western financial resources, it should catch up within the next five to seven years. Only time will tell, but China has already begun to market its own "Advanced Fighter Concept" at the Zuhai Air Show, suggesting a new level of confidence that wasn't evident five years ago. 

For China's neighbors, who are concerned about Beijing's intentions in the South China Sea, these developments are potentially ominous. They may signal that the day is coming when no country can assume that acquiring the latest in Western aircraft will give them a qualitative edge in any potential crisis. 

That day is not near, but a decade passes swiftly in today's world. As its forces modernize more rapidly, Beijing's words and actions will draw more notice, regionally and globally. Beyond the security dimension, Western aircraft manufacturers should also be on notice. Chinese aviation is coming to the market place as a major player, if not today, then comparatively soon. 

Carl O Schuster is a retired United States Navy Captain based in Honolulu, Hawaii. The views expressed here are his own. 

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