One area of civil and military aviation where China has lagged behind the world is helicopters. Chinese domestic helicopters manufacturers still depend on foreign designs, and especially foreign engines to power helicopters built in China. There are nearly 10,000 non-military helicopters in the United States, China has only about 15 percent of that. While China has the second-largest economy ($14 trillion) which is about 65 percent the size of the $22 trillion American GDP, the Chinese government heavily restricts use of non-military helicopters. All airspace in China is controlled by the military and it is very difficult for commercial helicopters to get permission to use that air space. Airlines always operate in designated flight paths, with flight controllers and flight plans mandatory for fixed-wing commercial airlines. Commercial helicopters are a different matter and are popular and effective when they can be often used by businesses in a less regulated manner. Same with private and corporate fixed-wing aircraft. In China, private and corporation aircraft or helicopters are few in number because of the burdensome and time-consuming regulations controlling their use. This means Chinese firms do not have much of a civil helicopter market to develop local designs and engines. As a result, Chinese helicopters are often imported, especially the commercial models.
The situation isn’t much different when it comes to military helicopters. While the United States has 5,700 military helicopters China has only about 900. That’s fewer than Russia, which still maintains a fleet of about 1,500 helicopters. South Korea, with a military a quarter the size of China’s, has a military helicopter fleet of over 800 transport and combat helicopters and is now manufacturing locally developed helicopters. China still relies on licensed or stolen designs for the few helicopters it produces. For locally built military transport helicopters, China depends on licensed production of French Super Frelon and Dauphin models as well as “Chinese designed” models that are basically modified version of the French designs. The latest Chinese military transport helicopters, the Z-20, entered service in 2020 and is a clone of the S-70 (the civilian version of the American UH-60). Until 1991 China was buying S-70s but the U.S. halted those exports in 1991.
Russia did not halt the exports of its primary military transport helicopter, the Mi-8. Since 1991 the Mi-8 has evolved into the far more capable and reliable Mi-17 and Mi-171. The Mi-171 continues to evolve, and the latest development is the Mi-171E with much more powerful engines able to handle “hot and high” operations. Helicopters lose a lot of their lift at higher altitudes or warmer weather at any altitude. Most of the southern Chinese border (mainly with India) is very high, as in over 4,000 meters (12,500 feet), and often very hot.
China recently ordered more Mi-171E transport helicopters. A Chinese company assembles some Chinese Mi-171s but the 171Es come from Russia because China cannot yet make the powerful engines the 171E uses. China also imports other Russian transport helicopters, like the Ansat, a three-ton transport similar to the UH-1 and used as an ambulance, Ka-32s (the civilian version of the 12 ton Ka-27 naval helicopter that can carry up to four tons) and several other Russian naval helicopter models.
Despite having their own helicopter industry, including licensed manufacture of some European and Russian designs, China continues to buy Mi-171Es from Russia because China needs more military transport helicopters right now and still needs other types of Russian helicopters in such small quantities that producing them in China is not practical. The Russian military still has budget problems and the Russian Helicopter Corporation (a merger of most Russian helicopter firms) is geared mainly for export sales and has the capability to expedite orders for favored customers, which China qualifies as. Moreover, the 2014 sanctions imposed on Russia caused Russian Helicopters to lose some business, especially from Afghanistan (but paid for by the United States). Afghanistan is now replacing its Mi-17s with UH-60s.
China has been importing the Mi-171E for over a decade and is the major customer for this model. Nearly ten percent of Chinese military helicopters are the Mi-171Es. This model can carry up to 37 passengers or four tons of cargo and has engines that make this model essential for operating in Tibet. China is quite fond of the Mi-17E and the older Mi-8 it is derived from even though China has based its locally made designs on Western models. Then again so have the Russians, especially since the 1990s. But the Mi-17 is like the DC-3 or C-130; a design you can improve but not replace.
Currently China has about 250 Mi-17 type helicopters and over 700 locally made or imported military helicopters. Most (Z9/Z-19) of these local builds are based on the Eurocopter AS 365 Dauphin while another hundred locally built Z-10 gunships were based on a Russian design. China has shown a preference for the Mi-8/17 design and would like to more than double its force of Mi-17s.
In 2010 Chinese and Russian helicopter manufacturers established a joint venture to perform maintenance and refurbishment on helicopters, especially those of Russian design. This was part of a larger plan, which also included the factory in China building Mi-171s. That effort did not go much beyond assembling components, most of them Russian, in a Chinese plant. This was the result of a more ambitious deal that was to allow China to legally manufacture the Mi-171 at the Sichuan Lantian Helicopter Company Limited (SLHCL).
Russia has had long and painful experience with China stealing its military technology and building Chinese versions that are described as designed and developed in China. This sort of thing is a major issue with the Western nation but even with Russia, one of China’s few allies, the technology theft continues. There was also a proposal for China and Russia to jointly develop a large transport helicopter, based on the existing Mi-26T (a 20-ton aircraft that can carry 80 passengers). This effort is still under way, with both nations contributing technology and design ideas. The Mi-26T model was modified to suit Chinese needs and the Chinese military and commercial firms continue to buy it from Russia. There may be other joint development deals to produce updated versions of existing Russian helicopter designs. This sort of thing could be mutually beneficial. China now has a domestic source for inexpensive transport helicopters. Chinese civilian and military users are demanding a lot more helicopters but the government is not encouraging more non-military use of helicopters and wants to develop the ability to design and build its own military helicopters.
At the moment China is having a hard time designing and developing something like the Mi-171.This is basically an inexpensive transport helicopter. But it can easily be modified to carry weapons or any other specialized gear. Some of the Mi-171s are even being equipped with radars and other sensors for reconnaissance and surveillance. The Mi-171 is based on the 1970s era Mi-17, which is the export version of the similar Mi-8. Weighing about 12 tons, and carrying a four-ton load, the Mi-171 has a range of 590 kilometers at a cruising speed of 250 kilometers per hour. There is a crew of three and as many passengers as can be squeezed in (up to 40 people, but usually 20-30.) A sling underneath can also carry up to four tons. Nearly 500 Mi-171s have been exported by Russia. The helicopter is rugged, inexpensive ($4-5 million each) and better suited for less affluent nations. The development of this model was completed in 1998 and Russia has been pushing sales hard.