China Fast Narrowing Fighter Engine Tech Gap with U.S. and Could Very Soon Lead the Field - Experts

China’s military aviation sector has since the mid 1950s produced a wide range of engines for various combat jet models, with its military aircraft such as the J-7 fighter and H-6 bombers powered by indigenous engines and gaining export orders across much of world. By the end of the Cold War, however, the country’s still undeveloped economy was more than two generations behind the Soviet Union and the United States, which were well on their way to producing fifth generation engines with revolutionary new capabilities namely the AL-41 and F119 to power the MiG 1.42 and F-22. China began to bridge the technological gap in the 1990s, primary with massive investments in research and development and through technology transfers from Russia and Ukraine which had inherited the Soviet jet engine industry. The first notably result for Chinese combat aviation was the WS-10, which entered service in the 2000s and, despite initial performance issues, by the 2010s was a reliable and very potent powerplant for Chinese fighters. The WS-10 initially powered J-11 series fighters, but would by the late 2010s power five separate fighter classes. The latest version of the engine, the WS-10C, began to power the country’s first fifth generation fighter the J-20 from around the year 2020.  

Regarding ongoing progress in the country’s development of fighter engines, member of the National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, Li Zhiqiang, elaborated in a report by China Central Television that the country was capable of resolving complex problems of warplane engines. Hot forming and superplastic forming of titanium alloy were areas in which Li specialised. Li stressed that the technology gap with leading countries in jet engine technologies had been narrowed, with a higher thrust-weight ratio, vector thrust control and variable cycle being under development. Li also headed the Manufacturing Technology Institute of the state owned Aviation Industry Corporation of China, and stressed that being able to independently supply jet engines was vital since reliance on imports would inevitably limit the capabilities of Chinese aircraft. Li’s statement came after J-20 fighters integrating domestically developed WS-10C engines made their first flight performance at Airshow China 2021, which marked an industry milestone and would reportedly facilitate a much larger scale of production for the jets. 

The J-20 is the only fifth generation fighter in the world in serial production and fielded at squadron level strength, other than the much lighter single engine American F-35. The fighter previously integrated AL-31FM2 engines supplied by Russia, with the first units entering service in March 2017. The aircraft has seen considerable investments made in improving its capabilities, ranging from new armaments and sensors to new engines, with a twin seat variant unveiled in October 2021. With Russia having yet to develop an engine matching the performance of the Soviet AL-41 prototypes that powered the MiG 1.42 (not to be confused with the less powerful AL-41F that powers the Su-35), the United States currently has a lead in the field with the F135 that powers the F-35. China has made strong progress towards developing a similarly and likely more powerful engine under the WS-15 program, which was first test flown on a J-20 fighter in January 2022 and is expected to enter service before the end of 2024. The WS-15 has the potential to propel China to the position of world leader in terms of the performance of its fighter engines, revolutionising the J-20’s flight performance in the process, with a significant possibility that fighters using the WS-10C could be re engined with the WS-15 afterwards.

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