Quest for independence: China to make its own jet engines

In an attempt to decrease Chinese reliance on imported foreign technologies, state officials established a new company to design engines for military and commercial aircraft.

Gao Yiping/Xinhua/AP
A Chinese fighter jet flies during a patrol over the South China Sea, Aug. 6. On Sunday, Chinese officials established the Aero-Engine Group of China to produce jet engines domestically.

China already has a giant radio telescope, a new Mars rover, and the fastest supercomputer in the world. And soon, it plans to make its own jet engines.

On Sunday, Chinese officials merged existing engine manufacturers to establish the Aero-Engine Group of China (AECC). The state-owned company will design engines for military and commercial aircraft.

The firm’s formation has been called a “strategic move,” as China continues to decrease its reliance on imported technologies. But making a concerted effort to build jet engines doesn't necessarily mean that China will succeed in building engines as good as the ones the country is importing from the United States and Europe.

Aviation represents a major gap in Chinese technological independence. While the country’s aircraft are built domestically, all planes – including the Comac C919, an in-development commercial airliner designed compete with Boeing and Airbus – still rely on foreign engine manufacturers.

China currently buys commercial aircraft engines from General Electric and United Technologies' Pratt & Whitney, both American companies. Chinese military jets use Russian engines.

China publicly has admitted to a gap in its fighter jet technology, and it has struggled to close that gap, Reuters reported in January.

'Chinese engine-makers face a multitude of problems,' said Michael Raska, assistant professor in the Military Transformations Programme at Singapore's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

Among the issues, China's J-20 and J-31 stealth fighters cannot super-cruise, or fly at supersonic speeds like their closest rivals, Lockheed Martin's F-22 and F-35 stealth planes, without using after-burners, said two industry sources who follow Beijing's military programs closely.

After-burners remove a warplane's stealthiness, a capability that allows them to escape radar detection.

In June, a California woman was convicted of conspiring to illegally export US fighter jet engines to China.

President Xi Jinping has stated that national breakthroughs in engine development could improve China’s economic and military strength, according to state-owned Xinhua News Agency. The new firm has hired 96,000 employees and has about $7.5 billion (50 billion yuan) in registered capital. Aviation Industry Corp of China, a military aircraft developer, and Commercial Aircraft Corp of China (Comac) have also invested in AECC.

The establishment of AECC is just one of China’s recent moves towards technological advancement and independence. In June, Chinese researchers built the world’s fastest supercomputer: Sunway TaihuLight, which is capable of making 93 quadrillion calculations per second.

Just a few weeks later, the country completed construction on its $185 million Aperture Spherical Telescope. The 500-meter-wide telescope will scour the universe for neutral hydrogen, low-frequency waves, and perhaps even alien life. And last week, the China National Space Administration released images of its new Mars rover, which is slated to begin its voyage to the red planet in 2020.

This report contains material from Reuters.

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