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China Is Making New Fighter Jet Engines

February 1, 2023
Via Chinese state media.

With the popular Zhuhai air show now a yearly event the scope of its exhibition has grown to unimaginable size. For two years running the largest state-owned enterprises have gathered in the venue and gone all out to advertise their latest products and inventions. A highlight from the 2022 event that didn’t garner enough buzz despite the glowing media coverage is Aero Engine Corporation of China (AECC) whose pavilion was crowded with, no surprises here, engines. AECC is responsible for the country’s civil and military aerospace supply chain and much more. At Zhuhai it displayed a “family” of its Taihang engines for the PLAAF’s fixed wing combat aircraft. The real eye-catcher among them was an unnamed “2D thrust vector” model (pictured above) that was once considered impossible to develop in China, much less by a local aerospace manufacturer.

What AECC put on display at its indoor pavilion isn’t used by any Chinese military aircraft and this adds to its mystique. A mock up of a J-31 did appear at the same pavilion and a news clip showed the back of the aircraft had the arrow-shaped flaps for two thrust vector control engines in place between the stabilizers. This is a very exciting possibility for the J-31 manufactured by AVIC since it’s offered for export as the FC-31. The fifth-generation J-20 from AVIC that’s flown by the PLAAF uses a different engine type and it’s unknown if it’s receiving another pair of new engines in the coming years. The J-20 remains in production and is still evolving; a twin-seater cockpit is expected to enter service.

The J-31 mock up with the new Taihang engines. Via Chinese state media.

It might be tempting to conclude AECC’s latest Taihang engine is a poor copy of the Pratt & Whitney F119 that powers the F-22 Raptor. This is a very imprecise assumption as the rival engines don’t even resemble each other. What AECC unveiled at Zhuhai last November could just be a prototype with an improved sibling under wraps but on the way. It’s possible other Chinese aerospace manufacturers may have their own attempts at engines with thrust vectoring features in the works. At this point so little is known about this AECC model other than cursory news and Chinese media is often out of the loop when it comes to breakthroughs in the military-industrial sector, which means its editors and journalists end up relying on commentary from bloggers and social media.

There are two important trends worth watching connected to AECC’s rapid progress with the Taihang “family.” First, it’s now clear that a complete supply chain for fourth and fifth-generation fighter aircraft exists in China and this will have a serious impact on the global aerospace market. The strategic risk for the US and its allies can’t be ignored as countries that align with China can acquire a new generation of fighter aircraft that were once unaffordable and unreachable for them. Second, the export potential of Chinese-made fixed wing combat aircraft could grow dramatically this decade. Between AVIC and CASIC are an impressive catalog of affordable fighters with full arsenals to go with them. (To cite one example, the beyond-visual-range or BVR air-to-air missile the PL-15E is approved for export and has a market potential spanning 40 different countries.)

The Pratt & Whitney F119. Via Wikimedia Commons.

If a new AVIC FC-31 “Gyrfalcon” multirole fighter equipped with these latest Taihang engines is approved for export it will certainly attract a lot of potential end users. The resulting variant qualifies as one of the most advanced fighter aircraft in the market today. But if China’s aerospace sector is competitive from an engineering and production standpoint what it lacks is the “whole of government” approach the US enjoys when furthering its aerospace industry. This combination brings together the personal decision making of a sitting American president aligned with robust foreign policy and a competitive technological base that allows for a lucrative commerce in advanced fighter jets. Simply put, the US wields influence over multiple alliance networks whose members can afford overpriced war planes. China doesn’t possess the same clout and its aerospace giants have no access to at least five big markets: India, Japan and South Korea, NATO, the Russian Federation, and South America.


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