Key Point: It's not obvious when these critical systems issues will be solved.
The Chinese military is building up a meaningful force of J-20 stealth fighters, Y-20 strategic airlifters and other high-tech military aircraft while also developing a new stealth fighter, fighter-bomber and heavy bomber.
But for all of these advancements, Chinese industry still is struggling to manufacture arguably the most important subsystems for these new planes. Their engines.
Aviation website Alert 5 spotted a stock-exchange filing by the Hebei subsidiary of China’s Central Iron & Steel Research Institute. The filing including production projections for military engines for the next decade, and reveals some startling shortfalls.
Production and development gaps could result in the latest Chinese warplanes flying with older engine models, including imported Russian motors that might be underpowered and unreliable. The mismatch between airframes and engines could be a drag on the overall performance of Chinese military aircraft.
Perhaps the biggest shortfall is in the production of WS-15s and WS-19s, the custom motors respectively for J-20 stealth fighters and FC-31 export stealth fighters. “Data provided by Hebei Cisri Dekai Technology Co. Ltd. shows a maximum of only five WS-15 and WS-19 engines each year from 2020 ‘til 2026,” Alert 5 reported.
The first few combat-capable J-20s reportedly entered service in 2017. Flight Global’s survey of all the world’s military aircraft for 2020 listed 15 J-20s in front-line use. J-20s usually appear in public with Russian-made AL-31 motors, which experts consider to be inadequate for the heavy, long-range, supersonic fighter.
Even the up-rated 117S version of the AL-31F “would likely not be sufficient to extract the full performance potential of this advanced airframe,” wrote Carlo Kopp and Peter Goon, analysts with the Air Power Australia think tank.
A dearth of WS-15s could force J-20 regiments to continue flying with AL-31s. Meanwhile it could be difficult for Chinese industry to find buyers for the FC-31 if the plane lacks a custom engine. Prototype FC-31s fly with what appear to be Russian-made RD-93s.