China's aviation industry coming of
age By Carl O Schuster
HONOLULU - China's public release of its
J-31 Stealth fighter's early flights and those of
its new WZ-10 attack helicopter has drawn
significant commentary from defense analysts. Less
well reported were China's efforts to market its
first indigenous commercial jet, the C-919.
Although the C919 drew little interest
from foreign buyers, its development suggests
Western airline manufacturers should
scale back their sales
expectations from China's planned domestic airline
expansion. It also marks an important first step
in China's goal to become a major player in the
global aviation market.
competition in the long-haul market lies less
about a decade away. The three newly publicized
aircraft show a definite indigenous character,
signaling that China no longer has to rely on
reverse engineering and derivative technologies
for its aviation designs. Lost in all the
reporting is what this signifies; China's
engineering and scientific communities have now
recovered fully from the Cultural Revolution's
devastation. With its growing economic and
scientific resources, it may be in position to
challenge Western domination of the aviation
market by decade's end.
To understand how
far China has come, one need look no farther than
the state of its scientific community and
infrastructure 40 years ago. The Cultural
Revolution sent thousands of engineers,
researchers, scientists and teachers into the
countryside to toil away in collective farms where
thousands of them died. Hundreds fled to other
countries, depriving China of their knowledge and
talents. Laboratories and research facilities were
abandoned, ransacked or destroyed. Others fell
into disrepair and disuse.
importantly, the devastation caught a scientific
community just beginning to recover from the
ravages of 50 years of civil and foreign strife.
Classes and research were forced into a 10-year
hiatus at a time when global aviation technology
was advancing at a rapid and accelerating pace.
The Cultural Revolution effectively placed China's
scientific and engineering communities 40 years
behind the world's industrial powers.
Overcoming that gap while the
industrialized world continued to advance
technologically required a massive effort. Reverse
engineering and acquiring foreign technology
provided a means to skip a generation or two of
development. China is not the first to do so.
American, French and Soviet jet aircraft, missiles
and rockets of the 1950s were all derivatives of
German designs and systems from World War II.
More significantly, those three countries
had the advantage of employing the German
engineers and scientists in their efforts, both in
industry and educational institutions. With that
foundation and assistance, all three moved on to
develop their own more-advanced systems by the
China has had to climb a steeper
hill scientifically speaking and appears to have
completed the process. Problems still remain.
Chinese engine manufacturers still have problems
producing reliable, easily maintained jet engines
but most defense commentators note that Chinese
avionics are almost on a par with the most
advanced Western designs.
growing resources and focus on its aviation,
electronics, and information systems industries at
a time of declining Western financial resources,
it should catch up within the next five to seven
years. Only time will tell, but China has already
begun to market its own "Advanced Fighter Concept"
at the Zuhai Air Show, suggesting a new level of
confidence that wasn't evident five years ago.
For China's neighbors, who are concerned
about Beijing's intentions in the South China Sea,
these developments are potentially ominous. They
may signal that the day is coming when no country
can assume that acquiring the latest in Western
aircraft will give them a qualitative edge in any
That day is not near,
but a decade passes swiftly in today's world. As
its forces modernize more rapidly, Beijing's words
and actions will draw more notice, regionally and
globally. Beyond the security dimension, Western
aircraft manufacturers should also be on notice.
Chinese aviation is coming to the market place as
a major player, if not today, then comparatively
Carl O Schuster is a
retired United States Navy Captain based in
Honolulu, Hawaii. The views expressed here are his
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