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Chinese Aircraft Engines Are Actually “Chinese”

The main part of the Military is Air-Force and the Heart of Air-force is their Aircraft’s deterrence which is measured on design. Coming to design, the Aircraft Design Engine is the Strategic and most important part of it. It is said that they are the “Heart” of Aircraft. Moreover, aircraft are designed on the basis of the Engine that would be used in it. American Engines are niche technology, Russain AL-41 Engine is advancing but still behind with western ones, where Chinese Engines Stand?

We all know, what happens when a heart gets a disease or doesn’t perform well. Well, just RIP. Similarly, an aircraft operating with Bad performing Engine will really be also termed as a bad aircraft. Earlier I made an article on Russian Engines, and also showed they are actually worse than Western ones. But here, we will see where the Chinese Engines stand. There are Quote in English

If you copy someone, you would never get the full knowledge of it.

Well, we all know, how much Chinese are in terms of stealing the data. If it was to be awarded a medal, every year China would get the Gold one. Reason for saying this is every breach in the US of data related to F-22 and F-35 has mostly linked to China. Well not just the leak, even China is going to Hit the Gold in Reverse Engineering. Everyone knows how is China Notorious in both of these fields. From a screw to big cars to Aircraft, there is nothing China cannot replicate.

“China ka maal he, chala to Chand tak, warna Sham tak”

Well, most of the Engines that are “Made in China” are derivatives or would like to say Copies of Russian Engines. We call to know “A copy is never as good as original”. Starting from the journey of the engine, China got an arms embargo in 1980. Means, China couldn’t get critical technologies. Since the embargo was from the US, western firms wouldn’t give technologies of Aircraft to China. Hence, China Decided to make its own Aircraft Technologies i.e. Engines.

A country that doesn’t care about such an embargo and is ready to give such technologies is Russia. Russia sold many of its fighters to China. We all know that to date there are many Soviet Planes in PLA-AF. But since the domestic engine was also to be built, China gave tons of money in every way to get it built. For those who don’t know, that was the sole reason why India even started to make KAVERI as we were also sanctioned after Smiling Buddha(1999) test.

WS-10

WS-10 Engine

The stealing of technology started in the same phase. Tons of money is used to develop the technology. But to steal it, you will require less. It is understood that the core of the WS-10 is based on CFM International CFM56 (GE F101) technology that China obtained in the 1980s. The purpose of this engine was to replace or make an engine at par with the Russian AL-31 series. The WS-10A, targeted for 130 KN of thrust, was already in development in 2002. An early version flew on a J-8II in 2002. In 2004, Russian sources familiar with the project reported problems meeting the thrust target.

A full-scale WS-10A engine was first seen at the 2008 China International Aviation & Aerospace Exhibition. But still, it was not successful. The engine took a much longer time to develop thrust than AL-31. Also, the thrust of it was 110-125 KN, lesser than desired. Now here the WS-10A engine had the Reliability of just 30 hours. Means the MTBO (Mean time between overhaul) was 30 hours. For those who haven’t read the Sukhoi Article, MTBO for Sukhoi Engine is 500 hours. Here, the technical life of the WS-10A engine is also less. however, it still was used to power J-11B in 2009. Mainly, this engine was made to power the 4th Generation Aircrafts.

For everyone let me tell you that also that the WS-10 was indirectly even reverse-engineered from the AL-31 series engine which was given in Su-27 to China.  After signing a deal to produce 200 Su-27 aircraft locally, China stopped the production line after just 100 units. Electing to learn from and change the design, the subsequent J-11 ruffled feathers as an unlicenced copy.

The TVC (Thrust Vector Control) was actually learned from the Russian AL-31 engines by China. It was then used in the further variant WS-10B of Chinese engines. The WS-10B is said to produce more thrust and reliability than that of WS-10A. Implying TVC in an aircraft reduces the thrust more. This means, if the aircraft is already struggling with power, thrust vectoring would reduce the power more. So this engine is currently powering most of the air fleet of China.

WS-13

It is a very lesser-known type among Chinese Engines. It will be used one day for Powering the UCAV. Also called is an interim engine between both WS-10 and WS-15. The engine is also many issues but very less information on this engine is available in the public domain. This engine will be used in place of RD-93 Engines. WS-13 produces 86KN of thrust in afterburner. WS-13 E produces 90 KN of thrust in afterburner.

WS-15

WS-15 Engine

Since for 5th Generation fighters, a better engine is required the WS-15 was started in making. The prototype of the same was made in 2004. In 2015 the WS-15 was onto the testbed trails. Many reports claim that the engine Blasted in 2015 itself during ground tests. The development of this engine was very crucial as the J-20 (Chinese acclaimed Stealth fighter) was in its final stages. But this, the incident hit a roadblock.

China realized the issues were with many technologies. Former Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC) chairman Lin Zuoming told state media last year that China’s third-generation single-crystal turbine blades could withstand temperatures of up to 3,632 degrees Fahrenheit (2,000 degrees Celsius) in WS-10 engines, extending the engine’s lifespan from 800 hours to 1,500 hours when compared with those using the previous generation of the turbine blade.

Why WS-15 Is Actually Important?

The stealth fighters need a Super Cruise Ability(Going over the speed of 1 Mach) with less possible radar detection. Now, if the engine doesn’t have this capability then, it has to bring the engine to the afterburner stage. For those who know, the afterburner stage of the engine leads to more detectability. Also, the thrust requirement was not fulfilled by them, the thrust to weight ratio was to be increased.

As of now, the current fleet of J-20 uses a WS-10H (Chinese Engines) or AL-31 (Russian engine). WS-15 was not developed on time. So, it doesn’t provide enough power to its internal systems. Also, it doesn’t give the required thrust. Consumes more fuel when in the afterburner stage of the Engine. There is also TVC in some versions, which again reduces the thrust so indirectly J-20 is not at all performing at the level which it is acclaimed of.

Why Stealing & Reverse Engineering Is Not Helping?

However, the stealing strategy remains constrained by bottleneck technologies due to a lack of testing data and industrial ecology. This problem is starkly illustrated by China’s ongoing difficulty in producing a high-quality indigenous jet engine. The problem of technology mismatch, at its root, is that the thief lacks trade secrets and human capital associated with the manufacturing and assembly of a system. At the very least, this absence can make the replication of foreign systems a costly and time-consuming process, as the thief needs to develop manufacturing procedures from scratch.

At worst, it can lead to seriously substandard components that reduce the capabilities and reliability of a system. Chinese efforts to reverse engineer certain Russian jet engines during the 1990s and 2000s invariably produced engines with extremely short lifespans, and without the power of their Russian Counterparts.

The proof of the same is also obtained from the fact that the JF-17 Thunder aircraft which Pakistan has currently operated with RD-93 MA engines. It shows us that if the Chinese engines were good why didn’t the Pakistan like country didn’t even choose it. However, they will use WS-13 in the future.

It is at least the third time the J-20 has changed engines. The aircraft’s maiden flight was powered by two Russian AL-31 engines, which are less capable than China’s WS-10B. It is also said that until WS-15 would get successful, China will use WS-10B IPE (Improved Performance Engine)

Why WS-15 Isn’t Yet Successful?

AL-41 Series of engines are much superior to AL-31. These same engines were going to be used in the Super Sukhoi Program of India. And these are also used in Su-35s. After the failure of WS-15 in 2015, the Chinese needed something to copy. So simple, go to Russians, get the Engine, and copy it. As a twist, the Russians refused to share the AL-41 engine technology with China. And told to purchase the whole Su-35s to get it.

At International Aviation and Aerospace Exhibition, Zhuhai Airshow 2012

As per Russians, they very much doubt China for copying the technology. The proven track record of Beijing making 5 Aircraft the direct copies of Russian Counterparts. The Su-35’s AL-41F1S, alternatively known as the ALS-117S, is an exceptionally powerful thrust-vectoring engine that represents a quantum leap over the AL-31. Russian sources claim it is nearly impossible to reach the “heart” of the engine without breaking it. If the Russians are correct, attempts at reverse-engineering would rob the PLAAF of advanced combat aircraft that would quite obviously be useless without engines.

Also, everyone knows Russia never gives true thing, it always gives a less good model. Because of source codes of the engine are really important. No one likes to giveaway the Billions of Money used up in R&D to someone who will just copy it at a fraction of cost.

The new-generation, single-crystal turbine blades designed for the WS-15 were supposed to be able to cope with the increased mechanical loads caused by significantly higher rotational speeds and extremely high temperatures. Here Single Crystal turbine blade is actually very very crucial for these engines. But they didn’t in 2015.

In December 2016, China struck a deal to import 24 Su-35S fighters—an order widely speculated to be primarily aimed at procuring the thrust-vector-capable Russian jets for study by Chinese technicians. Then in 2018, a J-10C Fighter outfitted with thrust-vectoring controls was showcased at the Zhuhai airshow, revealing Chinese development of the technology.

Conclusion

In the end, It was said that after 2015, WS-10 technology would take 3 to 8 years to mature. In 2018, several reports have said that the Chinese have developed the Single Crystal Blade technology. And speculations are made that the WS-15 will be developed by 2020. They have been proved wrong earlier. However, Beijing has stepped up the development of sophisticated jet engines since the turn of the century, with at least 150 billion yuan (US$23.7 billion) invested between 2010 and 2015.

The WS-15 engine in China is boasted to more capabilities than the American F125 i.e. 44 KN of thrust with afterburner. But these haven’t been proved by analysts. Now, even the engine is to be made, this would have very little life and reliability than American ones. The WS-10 was brought to the Technical Life of 1500 hours. Well, this is very very less than American Ones which have more than 10,000 hours at times.

Still, there is a long way to go for Chinese engines. Here, it is also proved that J-20 is actually not a stealth fighter and totally underpowered. And there are only 40-50 J-20 operational. And will not go to mass production until WS-15 gets operational. There are many problems with Russian engines, one of them is Breathing at higher altitudes. So, the same will also be present in Chinese ones, as very a times Chinese jets have been found struggling in Ladakh. But reports have claimed that the Chinese engines have overcome that issue, so this might give IAF a disadvantage.

So, if seen in the current scenario then India has an edge. But not for long. The domestic KAVERI engine has to be fast-tracked else, India will really lag behind in many terms. As the WS-15 might get ready in a year to two and might get operational in less than 3-4 years. So, India also needs to get the same technology in the same period.

Nirav Kotak

A Mechanical Engineer and a Defense Enthusiast wanting to share knowledge and learn more from others as well.

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