Five Ways Russia Could Help China's Military Become Even Deadlier
Editor’s Note: Please see previous works by Robert Farley including The Five Most Overrated Weapons of War, America’s Troubled F-35: Five Ways to Replace It, Will the F-35 Dominate the Skies?, Five Best Bombers of All Time, Top Five Fighter Aircraft of All Time, and Five Revolutionary Soviet Weapons of War that Never Happened.
The continued deterioration of relations between Russia and NATO may not yet have resulted in a new Cold War, but it’s undoubtedly produce an environment in which Russia has independent reasons to try to hurt the United States.
While the arms trade between China and Russia exploded after the fall of the Soviet Union, shipments of major systems slowed in the early part of last decade. Part of the reason was demand; China felt that it no longer needed to pay top dollar for Russian systems that it could build itself. Another reason, however, involved Russian intellectual property concerns stemming from Chinese copying, and potential export, of Russian military systems. This made Russia reluctant to export its most sophisticated weapons.
But now we find ourselves in a situation where Moscow has become willing to take risks in order to give Washington a headache. One way in which Russia can do this is overcoming any internal obstacles to the export of sophisticated weapons to China.
Although the Russian defense industry has decayed since the end of the Cold War, it still retains a great deal of expertise and human capital, which China (a growing military power) could use to good effect. What kind of systems might this involve? Here are five areas in which Russia-China collaboration could prove useful to Beijing, and problematic for America.
Engine construction has been one of the biggest roadblocks in the Chinese aviation industry over the past decade. Problems with power and reliability afflict not only legacy systems (such as the J-10, J-11, and J-15), but also China’s new stealth fighter prototypes, the J-20 and the J-31.
Russian engines don’t have a reputation for extraordinary reliability, but they have consistently performed better than their Chinese counterparts. One analyst argues that China’s interest in acquiring Russian Su-35 Flankers stems from an interest in examining and replicating the engines, which would jumpstart China’s own jet engine industry.
Assisting China’s jet engine industry would represent a major risk for Russia. It would eliminate one of the largest potential customers for Russian engines (China), while also improving China’s export position. Nevertheless, under certain circumstances a long-term relationship might make sense, especially if Russia expected few new orders from the PRC in any case. And Chinese jets with more powerful, reliable engines would prove a much more impressive threat to the U.S. Navy (USN) and the U.S. Air Force (USAF).
The People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) continues to operate the H-6, a derivative of the old Soviet Tu-16 “Badger” bomber, a very rough equivalent of the US B-47. Various reports suggest that China is looking into a new bomber, with at least one potential prototype in the works.
Russia has considerably more experience with heavy bombers that China, and still operates several variants that exceed the capabilities of anything the PLAAF has flown. These include the Tu-95 Bear (and its maritime variant, the Tu-142), the Tu-22M Backfire, and the Tu-160 Blackjack. All of these models are old, but would still represent an advance on what China currently operates.
Indeed, as the Soviets expected their strategic bomber force to operate against NATO naval forces, the Russian experience with bombers comports nicely with Chinese needs. Soviet bombers provided a critical threat to U.S. carrier battle groups during the Cold War, and would fit snugly within China’s anti-access system of systems.
Analysts have periodically raised the idea of a potential sale of Tu-22 Backfire bombers from Russia to China, but no deal has ever come to fruition. The resistance appears to have come from the Russian side, out of concern about potential knowledge leakage and excessive growth of Chinese airpower. Indeed, Tu-22Ms would give China an additional long-range strike potential against U.S. bases and warships in the Pacific.
Whether Russia decided to export Tu-22Ms directly to China, to license their production, or simply to provide technical assistance with China’s new bomber projects, collaboration could produce a much more lethal PLAAF.