China with the ambition of a new generation fighter

China has long been regarded as the master of technology cloning. Now the country has gone a step further by copying Western air combat tactics – or rather, paying Westerners to teach the Chinese those tactics.

The J-20 is China’s first stealth fighter, one of four 5th generation fighters in service.

China has recruited former pilots from the militaries of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to train its pilots, allowing the Chinese air force to not only capitalize on experience of the West and replace the rigid doctrine of the past, but also help them better understand the fighting style of potential adversaries.

In February 2023, the German newspaper Der Spiegel reported that former German fighter pilots had gone to China, where they appeared to have taken training jobs in exchange for salaries “usually reserved for professional athletes”. industry or top executives”. “The German security officials believe it is very likely that these pilots passed on their military expertise and covert combat tactics, and even practiced separate attack scenarios,” the newspaper said.

The article was published just a few months after it was reported that up to 30 former British military pilots had been hired to go to China and were paid salaries of up to $ 270,000.

Even American pilots appear to be targets of Chinese “headhunters” companies. Daniel Duggan, a former US Marine pilot, has been accused of violating the Arms Export Control Act by training Chinese military pilots. Duggan, now an Australian citizen, insists he only trains civilian pilots. He is currently in prison in Australia and faces extradition to the US.

At the same time, China is actively seeking Western aviation technology, especially jet engines. China’s aviation industry has made impressive strides and in fact has developed its own J-20 stealth fighter (borrowing parts of the American design). J-20 is China’s first stealth fighter, and one of only four 5th generation fighters in operation in the world. The J-20 first flew in 2011 and officially entered service in 2017. It is estimated that there are currently 50-60 J-20s in operation in the Chinese air force.

But, China’s aviation “Achilles heel” is still the propulsion: The country illegally imports or copies Russian engines. Initially, China’s J-20 fighter relied heavily on the AL-31 engine model imported from Russia. However, in 2019, China changed these engines to domestic WS-10C engines. The WS-10C exhibits good performance but does not meet the full capabilities of the J-20. Beijing decided to test the WS-15, which not only met the expectations of the Chinese military, but also made the J-20 the best fighter in the country’s air force. China’s efforts to develop the advanced WS-15 engine began in the 1990s, but only recently has it made technological progress.

According to a report released by the US Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in March, “in addition to trying to develop engines that meet the requirements for the thrust-to-weight ratio of the machine, 5th generation flight, Chinese aerospace engineers are struggling to ensure meaningful reliability.” “Currently, Chinese jet engines are at most only a quarter of the life of Western engines,” the report said.

The irony is that Western countries were once happy to sell aviation technology to China. When relations with China thawed in the 1970s, Beijing was able to import a lot of hardware, such as British-made jet engines, but then Western sanctions on North Business due to human rights abuses in 1989 brought much of that trade to a standstill. To manufacture engines, China still needs to import complex machinery and tools, including equipment made in Germany, Japan, Italy and South Korea.

In addition, China also seeks to exploit Western know-how, while its own scientists and engineers gradually accumulate experience. This includes collaborating with foreign universities to access technical knowledge.

China is not the only country doing this. Nations have always borrowed military expertise and technology from their friends and enemies. The Ottomans blew down Constantinople’s high walls and destroyed the Byzantine empire in 1453 using historically unprecedented cannons developed by a Hungarian gunsmith. The Russian tsar employed foreign commanders, including American naval hero John Paul Jones, who became a Russian admiral. After World War II, the US and Soviet Union brought in former Nazi scientists to work on their space exploration and ballistic missile programs…

Ultimately, Western countries will have to make a choice, finding ways to block Chinese experts and companies from accessing their hardware, machinery and know-how, which also means separating themselves from the Chinese market. The vast nation has helped drive economic growth for decades.

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