China Is Building More Powerful Jet Engines, And Is Selling Tech
China's air force could be about to get a big boost.
Key point: China is quickly becoming an elite player in the Jet Age.
Chinese engineering has become so advanced that German jet engines could soon get a major boost from China.
Officials in China have begun talks to sell sophisticated aerospace technology and manufacturing equipment to Germany for the production of high-performance jet engines.
As China moves to rapidly build its commercial and military aviation industry, the nation has made significant engineering breakthroughs, most notably in turbine blades, which convert the heat from fuel combustion into thrust. Turbine blades are one of the most critical components of an airplane, determining a jet engine’s safety, power and endurance.
Engineers in China have developed new processes that can make lighter and stronger blades using a hollow structure as well as single-crystal alloys that can withstand high temperatures and a special coating to facilitate cooling. These advances mean Chinese-made turbine blades are able to withstand temperatures several hundred degrees Celsius higher than the melting point of metallic alloys.
These advances are at the center of a possible sale to Germany along with manufacturing equipment that uses lasers to drill ultra-fine holes in turbine blades to keep blades cool by increasing air flow.
“Our machine has outperformed [Germany’s] on some benchmarks,” an anonymous source involved in the negotiations told the South China Morning Post. “The Germans have seen and grown interested in our technology.”
Discussions for the sale are still in the early stages, but even the possibility of an agreement with Germany, which created the world’s first production-ready jet engine and has long been revered for its design and manufacturing prowess, is a major victory for China as it seeks to shift its reputation away from cheaply made knockoffs to high-end innovation.
Aerospace is one of the key sectors of the “Made In China 2025” initiative, which calls for massive government investment to create thriving self-sufficient domestic industries. But long before the initiative was announced, China has been hard at work developing domestically-produced military aircraft.
In 2011, China stunned the world with the J-20, the nation’s first stealth fighter meant to rival America’s F-22 Raptor. With the J-20, China became only the second nation after the United States with a tactical stealth jet in service.
Just three years later, China unveiled the J-31 stealth multirole fighter jet, which looks remarkably like the American-made F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Analysts believe the Chinese built the J-31 using stolen F-35 blueprints.
China’s fifth-generation fighters currently rely on Russian engines, but recent breakthroughs have given the nation the ability to manufacture their own. In September, images revealed China had built a stealth engine for the J-20 equipped with serrated afterburner nozzles and interior flaps to help minimize its radar signature.
As China turns its attention to commercial airliners, it is only a matter of time before it begins to produce jet engines for commercial use.
In China’s rapid rise, it has previously turned to German aerospace companies to gain intellectual property and industrial know-how. In 2013, China acquired Germany’s Thielert Aircraft Engines after it filed for bankruptcy. The agreement included Thielert’s technology as well as their manufacturing facilities and equipment.
More recently, China has set its sights on purchasing Cotesa, an innovative German aerospace manufacturer that supplies parts for Airbus and Boeing. But the deal is currently on hold pending a review by the German government under new rules that grant the state more authority to block foreign takeovers.
The rules were passed in the midst of growing concerns of Chinese companies acquiring German and other EU companies operating in sensitive industries like aerospace, robotics and computer chips.
China’s plan to supply Germany with jet engine turbine blade technology is likely to face similar hurdles as Germany partners with Pratt & Whitney, General Electric and other American engine manufacturers. Even if German authorities approve the deal, the sale could still be blocked by the U.S. government which considers jet engine manufacturers as strategic domestic companies.
Regardless of whether this deal succeeds or not, it is apparent that China is quickly becoming an elite player in the Jet Age.
Eugene K. Chow writes on foreign policy and military affairs. His work has been published in Foreign Policy, The Week and The Diplomat. This first appeared in January 2018.