The PR Chinese military aerospace industry has established a pattern of achieving significant technological milestones but remains silent about these breakthroughs during major international expos where such news is typically announced. This behavior is not limited to Western conferences.
In the past, when Western defense correspondents could attend Air Show China, it was a running joke that news about Chinese breakthroughs would only surface after the expo concluded. In 2023, it seems the Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC) followed this script.
During the week of the Paris Air Show, the Chinese delegation did not provide any updates on their highly anticipated Chengdu J-20, a fifth-generation stealth fighter. The only indication of progress was a scaled-down model of the J-20 displayed at AVIC’s booth.
However, four days after the Paris expo, a video surfaced showing the J-20 making its first public flight equipped with two Xi’an-made WS-15 engines. The fact that the video remains online is seen as a deliberate move by AVIC and Beijing to showcase their achievement.
While this is not the first time the J-20 has been fitted with the WS-15 engine, the flight with two engines signifies a level of maturity and confidence. After years of delays, a domestically-built advanced fighter engine is now ready for deployment.
The operational readiness of the WS-15 is a significant milestone for the Chinese aerospace industry. With an engine that delivers the range and payload capabilities originally intended for the J-20, the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) has increased its combat capabilities. This development raises concerns for the US Navy and its partner nations in the Pacific, who may face the J-20 in combat.
The WS-15 engine is expected to substantially improve performance over previous engines used in the J-20, such as the Russian Salyut/Lyulka AL-31FN and the successive WS-10 variants built by the Shenyang Liming Aircraft Engine Company.
The development of indigenous jet engine designs has been a long-standing goal for the Chinese aerospace industry. Historically, Chinese military aviation programs heavily relied on imported jet engines from Russia. The J-20 and its predecessor, the J-10, initially used Russian engines. Even the jointly-manufactured JF-17 fighter jet with Pakistan used engines from the Mikoyan MiG-29.
Recognizing the need for self-sufficiency, China sought access to the AL-41F series jet engines by purchasing the Su-35S aircraft from Russia. However, Moscow initially rejected China’s request and only agreed after a prolonged negotiation process. This setback prompted Chinese defense planners to address the issue of domestic engine development.
In August 2016, AeroEngine Corporation of China (AECC) was established as an independent entity to consolidate various jet engine industry component units under one organization. The WS-15 was one of the ambitious projects undertaken by AECC.
Although the development faced challenges, including engine failures during ground tests, progress continued. The recent flight testing of the J-20 equipped with two WS-15 engines represents a potential milestone for Chinese military engines.
The significance of this test flight lies in the fact that both engines were operational, whereas previous practice involved flight testing a new engine in one nacelle alongside an older model engine in the other. The WS-15 engine series has progressively enhanced the J-20’s performance.
The thrust-to-weight ratio has increased with each engine variant, with the WS-15 surpassing 10, approaching the performance of the F-22A’sF119 engine. However, experts point out that the WS-15 still falls short of the strength exhibited by US engine designs.
The development of reliable and efficient fighter jet engines has been a long-term goal for the Chinese aerospace industry. While certain parameters and reliability aspects may currently lag behind Western designs, continued advancements in Chinese manufacturing capabilities can address these shortcomings over time.
It is worth noting that the US government has engaged with Ukrainian aero-engine companies, such as Motor Sich and Ivchenko/Progress design bureau, to prevent them from selling engine designs to China. However, interactions between these companies and the US government have diminished, leading to concerns over technology transfer.
The question remains as to why the Chinese choose not to announce their breakthroughs during major international events like the Paris Air Show. Instead, they control the timing of their announcements, aligning with their traditional approach of narrative control. By doing so, they ensure maximum exposure and have the world stage to themselves.
In conclusion, the recent flight testing of the J-20 with two WS-15 engines represents a significant milestone for the Chinese aerospace industry. The operational readiness of this domestically-built advanced fighter engine provides the PLAAF with enhanced capabilities. While the Chinese aerospace industry still faces challenges in achieving technological parity with Western designs, their progress in engine development cannot be ignored.