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‘Copying failed’: the causes of China’s problems with aircraft engines

Back in 2018, the U.S. authorities announced a colossal special operation by China to hack into the computer networks of 13 major world manufacturers of aviation and space technology around the world, especially American companies. According to the Americans, both military intelligence of the People’s Republic of China and representatives of the relevant companies took part in this hacking attack of unprecedented scale. Beijing, of course, denied everything in the strongest possible terms, but the “siege,” as they say, remained.

It was concluded, first of all, that one of the firms, which was the subject of increased interest from cyber-breakers, was CFM International – a joint venture of the American giant General Electric and the French concern Safran. Meanwhile, this company is engaged in the most important business for the Chinese – the design and creation of turbojet engines LEAP-1C for the most promising Chinese airliner C919, which according to the plan of its creators will be a successful competitor for such machines as Airbus A320 neo and LEAP-1B for Boeing-737MAX.

Russian AL-31(upper) and Chinese WS-10 engine (Lower)
Russian AL-31(upper) and Chinese WS-10 engine (Lower)

The new aircraft’s “flame engine” is planned to be equipped with incredibly innovative features such as, for example, the 3-blade carbon fiber propeller made of carbon fiber material with honeycomb rubber core, made using 18D WRTM technology, which significantly increases the aircraft’s flight characteristics. Also, its “highlight” should be a two-ring combustion chamber, an improved cooling system and other points.

Interestingly, in China it was previously planned to create its own engines for the C919 – CJ-1000A and CJ-1000V. The first, in theory, was supposed to go for certification in 2022, the second – a year or two later. It was planned to launch these engines “into series” no later than 2025-2026. Nevertheless, so far there is no rumor or spirit about any significant successes of the Chinese aircraft manufacturers. Doesn’t this explain someone’s desire to dig into CFM International computers?

It should be noted that having accumulated a huge experience in reproduction with a high degree of accuracy of any mechanisms and electronic devices – from wristwatches, tape recorders and computers to fighters and aircraft carriers, Chinese comrades decided to go all the same usual way and in the construction of aircraft engines. However, this time the number did not pass.

general electric f404 turbofan engine
general electric f404 turbofan engine

Today, in fact, several countries in the world can create such high-tech products of the modern level, having, without exaggeration, centuries of experience in this matter, and, most importantly – the appropriate scientific and production base. USA, Britain, France, Russia. Japan and Germany might have “chased” with them, but there such things came under a strict ban after The Second World War. Simply to create a “clone” of the engine attracted proved almost impossible – the slightest deviation in technological processes or applied materials negated all efforts and tricks. Here are a few specific examples. Thinking about the creation of their own fighters,in china in the 80s of the last century “swinged” on the American F-404-GE-402 and F-404-GE-F1D2, produced by General Electric for F/A-18 and F-117A Nighthawk fighters.

However, in a thoughtful study of the issue, the Chinese comrades came to the conclusion that, if desired, they would not be able to repeat them in a capacity that would ensure reliable and safe operation of combat aircraft. It was not possible to copy.

Subsequently, relations between the United States and China finally deteriorated, and there was no talk of any military-technical cooperation. Then Beijing promptly “switched” to the Russian military-industrial complex – naturally, without abandoning its intentions to “borrow” technologies.

WS-10 engine for J-10 fighter aircraft
WS-10 engine for J-10 fighter aircraft

Here the business has advanced more successfully – Russian products are less complex and whimsical, but less reliable than American ones. Yielding to them in some technical parameters, they are often less “demanding” in terms of manufacturing and operation. However, with Russian RD-93 engine, which became the “hearts” of the new fighters of the PLA Air Force, everything also turned out to be far from as simple as expected. Yes, in the end China managed to copy them under the WS-13E brand (Taishan-21). However, it did not work to repeat exactly the alloys that are used in Russia to create engine compressor blades and allow it to work stably at colossal fuel combustion temperatures.

RD-33 engine from russia currently used in JF-17
RD-33 engine from russia currently used in JF-17

However, the Chinese craftsmen found a way out – they applied special ceramic compounds to the working surfaces of the engine, which instantly increased the heat resistance and extended its service life to 2200 hours. True, it took more than one year to complete everything, but today, for example, the Pakistani Air Force is already purchasing Chinese JF-17 fighters, equipped with just WS-13E. However, this engine is no longer enough for promising J-20 fighters. Flies in Russian …

China's J-20 aircraft with Russian AL-31F and WS-15 engine
China’s J-20 aircraft with Russian AL-31F and WS-15 engine

Today in China, work is underway on the WS-15, however, as far as is known, it has not yet been possible to achieve stability from it. What can you do – for all their persistence, the local comrades have not yet learned how to create flame tubes and gas turbines at the proper level. So it turns out that, for example, the only real engine capable of lifting such PLA Air Force machines into the sky as the Y-20 military transport board and the N-6 long-range bomber is the Russian D-30KP2, which is, in fact, the development of the Soviet The military-industrial complex of the 60s – 70s of the last century. The Chinese set out to create a worthy replacement for it – the W-20 turbofan engine. To do this, they are planning … Yes, that’s right – to copy the next product of the American General Electric as carefully as possible.

According to experts, despite all their current successes in the field of industry and science, the ability to demonstrate truly explosive growth in these areas, as well as a true talent in mastering new technologies, Chinese aircraft manufacturers cannot yet reproduce even Soviet aircraft engines at the proper level. However, taking into account the forces and means that the PRC are “thrown” into this industry, it is quite possible that here too it is not so long to wait for a “breakthrough”.


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