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China’s Jet Engine Problem Is a Fatal Flaw for Its Air Force (Until Now?)

China Jet Engine
Image: YouTube Screenshot.

Open-source intelligence indicates that China is now able to build its own advanced jet engines for several airplanes, potentially breaking the country’s reliance on foreign engine technology.

That is a really big deal, as advanced aircraft for military use such as bombers and fighters are far more than just missiles on wings. For example, jet fighters are literally built around their engines, which can limit or maximize fighter’s capabilities. In China’s case, their domestically built and designed engines have generally been more limiting than maximizing.

China’s Jet Engine Problem, Explained

Take the first Asian stealth fighter, China’s J-20. Until very recently, the People’s Liberation Army Air Force outfitted their few J-20 fighters with Russian-built AL-31F engines, as domestic Chinese engines lacked the necessary thrust output to propel the twin-engine fighter.

It’s not just the J-20 that has been forced to depend on foreign-built engines, however. China’s J-15 naval fighter — essentially a bad copy of Russia’s Su-33, an all-weather carrier-based fighter — also suffered a number of crashes and accidents, likely at least partly due to problems with the J-15’s reverse-engineered Russian engines.

More recently, China’s J-20 has reportedly ditched its Russian engines in favor of an upgraded domestic engine that has presumably overcome its past thrust woes. If true, China’s WS-10C engines might just be as good, if not better than the Russian-built AL-31F engines that previously powered the jet fighter.

Recent open-source intelligence suggests that another one of China’s jets, the Chengdu J-10, has overcome previous engine difficulties. According to photographic evidence, the WS-10B turbofan, an indigenous Chinese design, has been mated to at least one J-10 and may be cleared for service with the entirety of China’s J-10 fleet.

More broadly, the Chinese aerospace industry is moving to wean itself off all foreign designs via advanced domestic engine designs. One of the most significant recent advancements has been the suspected introduction of thrust vectoring engines onto the J-20 platform.

Jet engines with a thrust vectoring capability afford jets a very high degree of maneuverability known as supermaneuverability. The Y-20, a Chinese heavy transport plane, will also reportedly be soon outfitted with higher performance Chinese engines, replacing their legacy Soviet designed turbofan engines.

In a head-to-head engagement, neither China’s J-20 stealth fighter nor the J-10 would be likely to best some of the United States’ best fighters, especially against the stealthy F-22 Raptor or the F-35. Chinese aviation is however rapidly advancing and eroding the United States’ aerial edge.

Caleb Larson is a Defense Writer based in Europe. He holds a Master of Public Policy and covers U.S. and Russian security, European defense issues, and German politics and culture.

Written By

Caleb Larson, a defense journalist based in Europe and holds a Master of Public Policy degree from the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy. He lives in Berlin and writes on U.S. and Russian foreign and defense policy, German politics and culture.

2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. ONTIME

    May 14, 2021 at 4:47 pm

    That’s the game, if you want to pick a fight or prepare for one, you need good tools and in this day and time, you better have the best and lots of them and a lot of great tactical ability….Sun Tzu is well studied by all tacticians, the man had a lot of insight and experience to offer…..China hasn’t many friends but the one’s it does have are damn deadly….

    • Marshall Hall

      November 17, 2021 at 6:19 pm

      Looks like propaganda. Fact remains ; China has not overcome their problems with engine endurance and reliability for Jet engines totally made in China.
      Key problem is poor metallurgy with critical combustion parts and components of rotors – turbine blades melting or warping due to operating heat This is why China has not been able to make Commercial Jets, due to technical limits.
      Flying time for their Fighters can be as low as 30 hours before engine changes
      are required – this only applies to their Jet engines, made in China.

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