DN - Defence Notes

Insight: How China’s military machine still runs on Soviet technology

5th February 2019 - 03:22 GMT | by Reuben F. Johnson in Kiev


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Ever since it first flew in January 2011, the J-20 fighter has been the poster child for China’s massive military build-up. The aircraft’s first flight, purposely timed to coincide with a Beijing visit by then US defence secretary Robert Gates, telegraphed a message that Beijing continues to articulate today: that China intends to challenge the US military with every kind of weapon system its industry can produce.

Almost eight years later, the US Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) issued its first public and unsurprising assessment of the increasing threat presented by Beijing’s military.

The J-20 is a step above the previous generation of Chinese-produced weapons in both performance and the technology exhibited by its onboard systems. Two decades ago, it was almost inconceivable to project that China’s combat aircraft designs could come this far this fast.

The DIA’s report offers an explanation for what made this possible. China, reads the document, has assimilated technology ‘by any means available’, which has put the Chinese military ‘on the verge of fielding some of the most modern weapon systems in the world’.

Abundant attention has been focused on how both the J-20 and Shenyang FC-31 could have been developed at a faster-than-normal pace. For example, Chinese agents illegally hacked into US military databases to acquire design data on the latest US weapon systems. In 2014, Chinese businessman Su Bin working in Canada was extradited to the US on charges of stealing classified design data on numerous US weapons, including the F-22, F-35 and C-17.

Unsurprisingly, China’s weapons industry has turned out analogues to all three of those US programmes: the J-20, FC-31 and Xi’an Y-20. However, while there are undoubtedly innovations embedded in these aircraft that were purloined from classified US computer networks, these aircraft are also powered by hardware and technology from Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and other former Soviet republics.

By way of example, these three aircraft took to the air only because Chinese designers purchased Russian-made jet engines to power them. Aerospace technology remains one of several areas where Chinese dependence on Russia and former satellites is almost absolute.

Chinese industry is working on its own indigenous jet engines, but the PLA does not have a high level of confidence in national products. Thus, all four J-20s that flew at November’s Airshow China were powered by Russian-made AL-31F engines.

Today in the Ukrainian capital Kiev, the degree of Chinese dependence on Soviet technology is clear to see. This is where Beijing’s weapons makers are now looking to buy whatever they need in the way of defence technology.

One Ukrainian defence plant has been the primary source for the radar sets installed in the J-11B fighter – China’s pirated copy of the Su-27. Ukraine’s defence electronics firms are equally sought after for onboard systems needed to kit out China’s copies of Russian fighters, naval vessels and missile batteries.

Ukraine makes an attractive target for Chinese firms for two reasons, said a local defence industry executive. One is that ‘most Russian systems the Chinese operate can be upgraded with components, missiles, radar technology they can acquire here. Most of our sales for more than two decades have been to nations – and not just China – that want us to modernise weapon platforms originally built in Russia, but they prefer to deal with Ukrainian (and not Russian) suppliers. Our solutions tend to be more advanced and cheaper to acquire.’

The second reason, more than one Ukrainian firm say, is that ‘there have been few initiatives by the US and EU nations to engage Ukraine’s defence industrial complex. Our companies have all number of capabilities to work with Poland, the Baltic states and other regional NATO-member nations, but they do not often approach us. Instead we see a dramatic increase in the number of Chinese defence companies buying up technology here – along with a dramatic increase in the number of Chinese ‘talent scouts’ residing in Kiev and other cities.’

The head of one of Ukraine’s leading defence firms said, ‘We would love to be doing all of our export business with the US and other NATO states – that’s our optimum desirable business case. That is what the Americans should want us to be doing, and they should equally not want us to be selling anything to the Chinese. But that’s not what’s happening.’

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