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China’s Development of its Military Aviation Sector

Updated: Sep 1, 2022

A heady cocktail of plagiarism, pilferage, piracy, subterfuge and deception but lots of lessons for India (Part – 1)

China’s achievement in developing its Military Aviation Sector (MAS) is admirable. They had their own share of successes and failures but they have remained steadfast in this objective. The last decade has been the best ever. Chinese military aviation capability acquired an accelerated momentum in tandem with their phenomenal economic success. What is even more commendable and impressive is that the Chinese are determined and commited to building an indigenous Military Aviation Sector (MAS). They hesitate at nothing. It is Saam, Daam, Dand, Bhed all the way! {1}

This paper illustrates how the Chinese took from others what they needed (the early years), how they improvised, reverse engineered and copied (the middle years). How they even steal when technology is not legitimately available (the present times). And today when China needs to prevail in its neighborhood but still lacks the capability, how they deploy ‘subterfuge and deception’; as is apparent from the following quote by Sun Tzu: “…appear strong if you are weak.”

Be as it may, despite many shortcomings, questionable integrity and several examples of ‘subterfuge and deception’, the author has a grudging admiration for the strides that China has made in developing its MIC. Starting from a similar base in 1950, the Chinese are now significantly ahead of India. There are several lessons in it for us in our own quest to build a modern, technologically competent MAC.

The paper is in five chapters:

1. Evolution and chronology of Chinese Aviation Sector (MAC). 2. Military Aviation Industry Development Models – China and India 3. Probable Lessons 4. A recommended ‘route map’ for India. 5. Conclusion

Evolution and Chronology of Chinese Military Aviation Sector (MAC).

The Early Years (1948 -70) had USSR as the Benefactor

In 1948.when People’s Republic of China (PRC) was founded it had the patronage of USSR{2} . China, then, a very backward society ravaged by war, and had very few industries. In the 1950s, USSR provided a loan of $300 million to China and used this to aid 156 industries (including many militarily related ones). The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) received equipment for 60 divisions and PLA Air Force (PLAAF) expand to 17 divisions and 34 regiments by May 1951 {3} . This level of assistance from one country to another is perhaps unparalleled in history{4} .

In early/mid 1950s, USSR also established seven aviation plants. These were Aircraft Factories (Nanchang and, Shenyang), Aero Engine plants (Zhuzhou, and Shenyang) and plants for components (Xian Aircraft Accessory Factory, Xinping Aviation Electronic, Wheel Brake Factory, and Baoji Aviation Instrument Factory). These became the core of China’s military aviation industry{5}

China’s first indigenous military aircraft the CJ–5 trainer was an exact copy of the Soviet Yak–18 trainer. It first flew on July 11, 1954. The Shenyang Aircraft Factory then produced J-5 {6} a copy of MiG–17 and the J–6, copied from the MiG–19{7} . USSR also equipped PLAAF with the Il-28, a modern bomber, in the early 1950s. A repair shop for Il-28 was set up in Harbin. China had no license to produce the Il-28 but China reverse engineered it as the H-5 {8}. Later it did the same with Tu-16, calling it H-6 {9}.

License or not, by the time of the 1962 Sino-Soviet split, China had managed to reverse-engineer and could independently produce copies of many Soviet aircraft{10} . Table 1 gives an indication of Chinese variants of different Soviet aircraft and missiles.

Original MiG 17 MiG 19 MiG 21 IL-28 Tu-16 K-13 AAM

Chinese copy J-5 J-6 J-7 H-5 H-6 PL-2{11}

Despite this, the Chinese aerospace industry was still very much in its infancy. Post the 1962 Sino-Soviet split, the only ‘original’ aircraft which the Chinese could develop was J-8 which too had the basic design of MiG-21, blended with the forward section of the Sukhoi Su-15{12} .

The Chinese could not master the complexity of a new design and all projects like J-9, J-12 and J-13 failed and were abandoned.

The Middle Years (1970-89) Synopsis: USSR remains out, US & West Europe come in, Israel and some Espionage helped.

With no latest Soviet equipment to copy, the Chinese aerospace industry in the 70s made only marginal improvements in developing its own aircraft. The J-8 had no worthwhile radar. The PLAAF back then was so weak that “…a Soviet Backfire bomber could have flown into Beijing unescorted, bombed it, and flown back without been threatened by J-8s{13} . PLAAF was inadequate against both USSR and Taiwan.

Sino-US rapprochement in 1971 led to the West and Israel opening up to China. UK supplied 50 Spey RB–168–25R fan-jet engines to China and these were locally manufactured as the WS-9. UK licensed a complete avionics suite for the J–7II and its F–7 export variants including the Type 226 Skyranger radar, weapons-aiming computer, and display systems. This was a huge boost for China’s military aviation. Chinese F–7s with Western avionics sold well. Air forces of Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Iran, Myanmar, and Bangladesh continue to fly the F-7 even today{14} .

Sino-US honeymoon began in 1980. In 1983, Defence Secretary, Caspar Weinberger finalized ‘the basic guidelines for Sino-American military cooperation’ which included sale of 24 S-70C Sikorsky helicopters and the ‘Peace Pearl’ project under which the J-8 was to be re-engineered to fit an airborne radar; navigation equipment; a heads-up display; mission computer; an air data computer; and a data bus to make it an all-weather, day-night capable modern fighter!{15} . With a top speed of Mach 2.2{16} and access to Western avionics, the J–8A became then the most sophisticated fighter with China.

The Israeli’s probably contributed to develop an analogue fly-by-wire (FBW) variant of the J–8. China had no legal access to this technology from Western or Soviet sources. Given the state of Chinese military avionics, it is unlikely that the knowledge to produce FBW controlswas developed through indigenous R&D. Several open source information suggests that Israel transferred some of FBW-capable Lavi fighter’s advanced technologies to China{17} .

France supplied the Super Frelon and Dauphin Helicopters and Matra R-550 radar AA missiles, Italy supplied Selenia Aspide Mk.1semi-active AA missiles and Israel sold the Rafael Python III infrared AA missile. These were all promptly reverse engineered: Table 2 below shows examples of how the Chinese prolifically copied from whatever source and whenever an opportunity arose

Original/Chinese Copy Super Frelon{18}Dauphin{19}MatraR55{20} AspidMK.1{21} Python III Z – 8 Z-9 PL-7 PL-11 PL-8

Soviet leadership changes between 1982 and 1985 broke the ice in Sino-Soviet relationships. By1983, USSR approved export of aircraft parts and by1986; it even offered to sell Mig-23 and MiG-29.

Post Tiananmen (1989 – 2004):

Synopsis: US/West Europe remain out, Israel buckles under US pressure, USSR comes back in and Espionage gathers momentum. From 1989 to 2004, China procured advanced fighter aircraft and subsystem technology from Russia, missile technology and naval aircraft technology from Ukraine, and AWACS and UAVs from Israel. Co-production and reverse engineering helped in subsystem design and manufacturing. This led them to innovate indigenously designed fighters.

Western Embargo Continued

In 1989 US and West Europe imposed an embargo on military related technologies to China. This led China to successfully use the lure of its growing market to get ‘dual-use’ technologies. For example, US supplied advanced computers to Xian Jiao Tong University for ‘educational’ purposes. Chinese accessed these computers in the mid-1990s to develop more sophisticated design capabilities{23} . The upgraded JH–7A, came out in 2000. It was the first Chinese aircraftbased solely on CAD design. The 602nd Aircraft Design Institute, the designers for JH–7A used the Xian Jiao tong University’s supercomputer{24} . Upon discovering that China had diverted some US supercomputers for military purposes, US passed a law in 1998 tightening restrictions on the technology. But it was too late. China’s own development of supercomputers since the late 1990s had made the law irrelevant{25} .

The Israeli buckles under US pressure Israel had played an invaluable part in providing China with advanced military aviation technologies in 1980s and 1990s{26} . The J–10 fighter program had drawn significantly on Israeli Lavi technology and design assistance{27} . Israeli defense sales to China through the early 1980s amounted to $3-4 billion {28} and Israel was China’s second largest source of military aviation technology in1990s {29} including areas such as the Phalcon Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) and the Harpy unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV).

Washington pressured Israel to cancel the Phalcon sale in 1990. Since then China has pursued its own domestic AWACS program. They had setbacks including in 2006 a prototype aircraft crash killing 40 people, including 35 technicians{30} . Since then, China has succeeded in producing several types of AWACS: the KJ–200, based on the Y–8 transport, and the KJ–2000, based on the Russian A–50 airframe {31}. They appear to be similar in design to the Phalcon{32} . It is not implausible that Israel might have provided China some design and technical assistance since Israel’s reversal on the Phalcon damaged its business and overall bilateral relations with China.Harpy, a 500 km range, all-weather, Israeli UAV which can “detect, attack, and destroy radar emitters with a very high hit accuracy,” {33} was negotiated in the mid-1990s, and China bought around 100 of these by 1999{34} . This was the last major Sino-Israeli deal and provided technical inputs to Chinese developments of UAVs{35} .

The Sino-Russian Rapprochement Tiananmen caused China, loss of legitimate access to Western defence technologies. Gorbachev’s 1989 visit to Beijing brought USSR back in play. In 1991 USSR collapsed, the Russian economy was in shambles, Moscow was ready to leverage the defence industry. China used this negotiating advantage to gain access to both advanced fighters and aviation technologies. Russian weapon deliveries to China Between 1991 and 2001 were around S15 billion {36} including 12 Sukhoi Su-27s delivered in 1992{37} which moved China’s military aviation industry from third-generation to fourth-generation.

In 1996, Russia signed a $2.7 billion licensing agreement with Shenyang Aircraft Corporation (SAC) for co production of 200 Su-27s{38} as the J-11. The agreement stipulated use Russian engines, radar, and avionics, which would not be licensed for co production{39} and prohibited China from exporting the J–11. By late 2004, SAC had taken possession of 105 CKD kits from Russia and produced 95 aircraft. After mastering co production China quickly moved on to developing its own version of the J–11 calling it the J-11B. China violated the agreement and began to develop engines, radar, and avionics indigenously. When Russia discovered the Chinese violation, Russia cancelled the contract. China’s violation of the Su-27/J–11 Agreement has had lasting consequences. Since 2006, Russia has refused all future co-production agreements like Su-30, Su-33 and Mi-17. It also had an adverse effect on the 2005 deal for 34 Il-76 and 8 Il-78 aircraft. This will be discussed in a later section of this paper.

After the 1995/96 Taiwan Strait crises, China needed an immediate upgrade in fighter capability. Again strapped for cash, Russia agreed to sell SU-30MKK (“K” denotes–“kitayskiy” meaning “Chinese”). 80 Su–30MKK aircraft entered service between December 2000{40} and 2002. In 2004 Russia sold 24 maritime strike capable Su–30 MKK2 to PLANAF. The Su–30MKK was a forward leap for the PLAAF, particularly in subsystems{41} . It is the most sophisticated fighter with PLAAF today.

Ukraine also emerged as an important source of air-to-air (AAM) and air-to-surface missiles (ASM) for the PLAAF{42} . Ukraine became a conduit for Russian military hardware that China had been unable to procure directly from Russia. In 2000–2001, the Ukrainian firm Progress{43} reportedly supplied China with air launched 3,000 kilometers range Soviet Kh–55 cruise missiles. Capable of carrying both nuclear and conventional warheads, these highly accurate Kh–55 boosted the capability of its aged H-6 bombers. Ukraine also supplied a single Su–33 (air frame T–10K) prototype to China{44} . China has used this aircraft as a template for its J–15 naval fighters reportedly having made its first test flight in August 2009.

Cyber Espionage

This period also saw expanded efforts by China to steal restricted technologies through industrial espionage employing both traditional and computer network intrusion techniques. “In the early 1990s the PRC’s clandestine collection operations in the United States expanded to the point where approximately 50 percent of the nine hundred technology transfer cases investigated annually on the West Coast of USA involved the Chinese” {45}. Cases of cyber espionage that track back to China provide more detail about the types of military aviation–related technical data attackers are after. Sufficient evidence exists to link these espionage attempts to China, and suggests the involvement of the military or intelligence organizations.

In 2004 a number of computer networks belonging to the U.S. military and defence contractors were attacked. This came to be known as Titan Rain and was definitively traced back to a location in Guangdong, PRC. A former U.S. military intelligence officer working as computer specialist at Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico surreptitiously monitored the activities of the attackers after the Sandia networks were attacked. He discovered an operation that involved 20 or more individuals connecting through three separate end nodes in Guangdong. The sort of data targeted suggests a military end user. The attackers also reportedly breached the systems of the Redstone Arsenal, home of Army Aviation and Missile Command, and stole technical data for the mission planning system of U.S. Army helicopters and Falconview 3.2 flight planning software used by both the U.S. Army and Air Force {46}Post Tiananmen, Chinese cyber espionage operations expanded rapidly in both volume and sophistication and targeted sensitive technical data across the US MIC board.

(The writer, Mr. Lalit Kumar, is Associate Member of the Institute of Defence Studies and Analysis(IDSA),New Delhi. Views expressed are his own.

Foot Note

{1} Srimad Bhagavatam 7.5.19 (Persuasion, Enticement, Punishment or Sowing Dissension). {2} On February 14, 1950, the Chinese and Soviet leaders signed the Sino-Soviet Friendship Treaty of Alliance and Mutual Assistance. Under this agreement, China gave the Soviet Union certain rights, such as the continued use of a naval base at Luda, Liaoning Province, in return for military support, weapons, and large amounts of economic and technological assistance, including technical advisers and machinery- See also Phillip C. Saunders and Joshua K. Wiseman, “Buy, Build, or Steal: China’s Quest for Advanced Military Aviation Technologies”, Strategic Perspectives, No. 4, Institute for National Strategic Studies China, p. 18

{3}Bates Gill and Taeho Kim, “China’s Arms Acquisition from Abroad: A Quest for ‘Superb and Secret Weapons’”, SIPRI Research Report No. 11, Oxford University Press 1995, page 26-28. accessed March 21, 2012. Also see Dai Zongfeng, “China/Russia Military Cooperation”, August 27, 2011, available at, accessed on March 21, 2012. {4}Dai Zongfeng, “China/Russia Military Cooperation”, August 27, 2011, available at, accessed on March 21, 2012. {5}ZIJUN, Duan (ed),”China Today: Aviation Industry”, China Aviation Industry Press, ISBN: 7800461599, 1989. Also see Phillip C. Saunders and Joshua K. Wiseman, “Buy, Build, or Steal: China’s Quest for Advanced Military Aviation Technologies”, Strategic Perspectives, No. 4, Institute for National Strategic Studies China, p. 19. {6}Chinese military aircraft follow the alphabet designation ‘J’ for Jianjiji (Fighter), ‘Q’ for Qianqiiji (Attack), ‘H’ for Hongzhaji (Bomber), ‘Y’ for Yunshuji (transport), and ‘Z’ for Zhishengii (Helicopter) {7}Jian-6 Interceptor Fighter, {8}Hong-5 Light Bomber; details available at, accessed on March 21, 2012 {9} Hong-6 Bomber; details available at, accessed on March 21, 2012 {10}See accessed on March 21, 2012 {11}Dr Carlo Kopp, “PLA Air to Air Missiles” Air power Australia, August 2009,, accessed on March 21, 2012. {12}See Global Security. Org, for more details. {13}Erickson, Andrew and Lyle Goldstein, “Chinese Aerospace Power: Evolving Maritime Roles”, joint publication of Cchina Maritime Studies Institute and the Naval Institute Press, July 15, 2011 available at {14}Phillip C. Saunders and Eric Quam, “Future Force Structure of the Chinese Air Force” in Roy Kamphausen and Andrew Scobell, eds.,” Right sizing the PLA: Exploring the Contours of China Military”, Carlisle Barracks, PA: US Army War College, Strategy Studies Institute ,2007, chapter 8, accessed on March 21,2012 {15}Martin L. Lasater, “Arming the dragon : How Much US Military Aid to China?”,The Heritage Foundation , March14,1986,Page5, /arming-the-dragon- how-much-us-military-aid-to-china accessed on March 21, 2012. {16}Zijun Duan.,”China Today:Aviation Industry”, China Aviation Industry Press,1989,Page192 {17}Yitzhak Shichor, “Israel’s Military Transfers to China and Taiwan,” Survival 40, no. 1 (Spring 1998), 68–91. {18}, also, {19}, also, {20} Dr Carlo Kopp, “PLA Air to Air Missiles” Air power Australia, August 2009, accessed on March 23, 2012, also Richard Fisher, Jr., “China’s Emerging 5th Generation Air-to-Air Missiles” Strategycentre, February 2, 2008 available at accessed on March 23, 2012. {21} Richard Fisher, Jr., “China’s Emerging 5th Generation Air-to-Air Missiles” Strategycentre, February 2, 2008 available at accessed on March 23, 2012. {22}Dr Carlo Kopp, “PLA Air to Air Missiles” Air power Australia, August 2009, accessed on March 23, 2012 {23} “Xian JH-7 Fighter Bomber Aircraft, China”,, accessed on March 23, 2012. Also “The New Chinese Army Air Force”, accessed on March 23,2012,also see Bill Gertz ,”China uses super computers illegally :Nuclear facility simulates blasts ” , the Washington Times June 27 2000. {24} Phillip C. Saunders and Joshua K. Wiseman,“Buy, Build, or Steal: China’s Quest for Advanced Military Aviation Technologies” Institute for National Strategic Studies China Strategic Perspectives, No. 4, p 33 {25} As of November 2010, China has the world’s second most powerful supercomputer, the Tianhe-1A, which has a peak-computing rate of 2.507 peta FLOPS per second. The fastest computer as on date is the K Computer in Kobe, Japan, which computes at the rate of 8.162 peta FLOPS. {26}Aron Shai, Sino-Israeli Relations: Current Reality and Future Prospects, Memorandum 100, September 2009, Tel Aviv: The Institute for National Security Studies, p. 27. {27} Richard D. Fisher, “How America’s Friends are Building China’s Military Power,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder (November 5, 1997). Page 8 {28}Aron Shai, Sino-Israeli Relations: Current Reality and Future Prospects, Memorandum 100 (Tel Aviv: The Institute for National Security Studies, September 2009). Page 27. {29}Ibid, Pages 26, 28 {30}Joseph Kahn, “Crash of Chinese Surveillance Plane Hurts Efforts on Warning System,” The New York Times, June 7, 2006. {31}”People’s Liberation Air Force 2010”. National Air & Space Intelligence Center, Ohio, August 1, 2010, Page 7,“people’s-liberation-army-air-force-2010”/ {32}Phillip C. Sunders and Erik r. Quam, “China’s Air Force Modernization” National Defence University, Institute for National Strategic Studies, JPQ/Issue 47, 4th quarter 2007, page 30 {33} Yitzhak Schichor, “The U.S. Factor in Israel’s Military Relations with China,” Jamestown Foundation, China Brief, July 19, 2005. {34} Ibid. {35} “China’s Leap in Unmanned Aircraft Development”, Defence Professionals, {36}Ariel Cohen, “The Russia-China Friendship and Cooperation Treaty: A Strategic Shift in Eurasia?” The hertage Foundation, BACKGROUNDER #1459, July 18, 2001 available at Accessed on March 23, 2012. {37}Robert Benjamin, “As Pace of Rapprochement Quickens, China Offers Soviets ‘Commodity Loans,’” The Baltimore Sun, March 1, 1991. {38} “Jian 11 Multi-role Fighter Aircraft,” at Web site {39}Phillip C. Saunders and Joshua K. Wiseman,“Buy, Build, or Steal: China’s Quest for Advanced Military Aviation Technologies” Institute for National Strategic Studies China Strategic Perspectives, No. 4, Page 35. {40} Ibid {41} “Su-30MKK Multirole Fighter Aircraft” accessed on March 23, 2012. {42}Richard D. Fisher, Jr., “The Impact of Foreign Weapons and Technology on the Modernization of China’s People’s Liberation Army,” Report for the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, January 2004. {43}“X-55 Long Range Cruise Missile”, Globalsecurity, also “Russia says Ukraine sold banned missiles to Iran, China,” RIA Novosti, June 30, 2006, accessed on March 23, 2012 {44} accessed March 23, 2012 {45} Nick Eftimiades, Author, “Chinese Intelligence Operations”Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1994, in a testimony before Joint Economic Committee, United States Congress, May 20, 1998, available at accessed March 23, 2012. {46}Nathan Thornburgh, “The Invasion of the Chinese Cyber Spies,” Time August 29, 2005. Available at,9171,1098961,00.html accessed on March 23, 2012

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