Of all the fighters in China’s arsenal, none is as important as the J-20 5th gen. stealth fighter. But the J-20, like all Chinese aircraft, is plagued by a lack of high-performance and durable jet engines.
That problem has plagued China’s defense industry for a long time, and it’s one of the problems Beijing is working to overcome.
But the production of jet engines is extremely complicated. Timothy Heath, a senior defense and international research fellow at the Rand Corporation think tank (USA), told Insider : “There are a few technologies that are really at the cutting edge of manufacturing industries. ”, and jet engines are one of them. “These high-end technologies are difficult to master so very few countries succeed. Many countries have failed,” Heath added.
The main difficulty lies in the metallurgy and processing stages. For example, an engine on a Boeing 747 airliner has at least 40,000 parts. Temperatures in that engine can reach 1370 degrees Celsius, and its propellers can spin more than 3,000 rpm during a multi-hour flight.
The blueprints for such an engine could be copied, but the secret to manufacturing and shaping metal parts could withstand those temperatures and spin at such monstrous speeds for thousands of hours – not to mention external factors like wind resistance and corrosion – without cracking, not easy to find.
Another disadvantage for China is that the actors tasked with developing these complex machines are state-owned enterprises (SOEs).
Historically speaking, SOEs struggled with innovation and advanced technological development. Relying on reverse engineering (copying) suggests this is a Chinese problem, although there are certainly exceptions.
“They are good at just copying simpler components and building simpler things,” says Heath. All of this (copying aircraft engines) requires a level of expertise and competence that SOEs are usually not very good at. You have to recognize the limitations of SOEs in China when it comes to innovation.”
Last year Liu Daxiang, deputy director of the science and technology committee of the State Aviation Industry Corporation of China, called the development of domestic jet engines “a serious and urgent political task.” and said that China is facing an “unprecedented challenge”.
“Countries with established names in the aviation industry have become more strict with us when it comes to technology,” Liu said, adding that recent US efforts to restrict Chinese telecommunications company Huawei “tells us that important technology can’t be bought, even if you spend a lot of money.”
In an attempt to gain direct access to the secrets of jet production, Chinese state-owned airline Skyrizon, which has been blacklisted by the US government, attempted to buy a controlling stake in Motor Sich. of the Ukrainian company, one of the largest manufacturers of helicopter, jet and rocket engines. But the Ukrainian government this year stopped the deal, most likely due to pressure from the US.
Despite the setbacks, China has made some progress. Modern variants of the WS-10 engines are so advanced that a number of Chinese jets are being fitted with them, including many J-20s.
Chinese sources say the WS-15, an engine specially designed for the J-20, “could be completed within a year or two” and once those engines are installed, the J- 20 will be “on par” with the US’s fifth-generation F-22 Raptor.
But many challenges remain. The complexity of metallurgical materials and processes, the cost of hiring/buying and maintaining scientific and machining expertise, and the reluctance of other countries to support China for fear of retaliation Intellectual property theft is just a few of them.
China faces a similar predicament in the production of high-end ICs and semiconductors. Despite hundreds of millions of dollars and great efforts by SOEs, China has not yet been able to create its own computer chips.
“The reason is that some of these technologies are extremely difficult to implement and it doesn’t matter how much money you throw at it – if you don’t have the right combination of people, technology and skills,” said Heath.