China has the world’s second largest defence budget next only to the US and with the future looking upbeat for China’s economy and for its military spending, defence manufacturers and contractors the world over are eyeing the Chinese military helicopter market. Meanwhile, the types being produced as “indigenous” lag behind the leading edge of helicopter technology as extant in the Western world. If the US relents over the arms embargo, there could be a significant change in the tenor and texture of China’s military helicopter fleet, with implications for a possible future Sino-Indian armed conflict.
China is now the world’s fifth largest exporter of arms…
In May 2011, US Navy Seals aboard three Black Hawk helicopters carried out Special Operations, landing in the compound of a building near Abbottabad in Pakistan where Osama Bin Laden had been hiding. Osama was killed in the operation but not before one of the helicopters impacted a compound wall and crashed. Before leaving, the Seals smashed up the instrument panel and blew up the helicopter with the blast throwing the largely intact tail section outside the compound wall. In August, news hit headlines that Pakistan had allowed Chinese military engineers to inspect, photograph and take samples from the remnants of the helicopter. While the Pakistani action of allowing the Chinese to study the wreckage may have been a petulant and defiant reaction to US trespass into Pakistani territory, the Chinese deed conforms to a pattern of “Beg, Borrow or Steal” in the regime of military technology.
Diligent and industrious tenacity along with technological acquisitions through subterfuge and stratagem, have been complemented by progressive growth in defence budget in the recent years and, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), China is now the world’s fifth largest exporter of arms. In the aerospace domain, while Commercial Aircraft of China is engaged in the task of producing large commercial aircraft, the defence aviation industry is the domain of China’s state-owned Aviation Industries of China (AVIC) which was formed in 1951 in reaction to the perceived lessons from the Korean War. In 1999, AVIC, which has defence and civilian development programmes, was split into AVIC-1 and AVIC-2; but in 2008, the two halves re-united. Today, AVIC employs 4,50,000 personnel, has ten major business units, nearly 200 subsidiaries, 33 Research and Development centres and has net earnings of more than some of the major US and European prime contractors, although falling short of Airbus and Boeing. Major AVIC companies engaged in helicopter production are AVIC Harbin Aircraft Industry Group Co. Ltd., AVIC Hingdu Aviation Industry Group, Changhe Aircraft Industries Corp (CAIC) and Qingdao Haili Helicopter Co. Ltd. The other helicopter producing entities are Eurocopters China Co. Ltd, AgustaWestland China and Shanghai Sikorsky Aircraft Company.
With Russian and Ukrainian help, the Chinese manufacturers developed their own engine, the WZ-9…
Major ‘Indigenous’ Helicopter Programmes
A list of current military helicopter holding of the Peoples’ Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF), Peoples’ Liberation Army Naval Air Force (PLANAF) and Peoples’ Liberation Army Ground Forces is presented in Table 1. In the Chinese military aircraft designation system, the prefix letter designator ‘Z’ denotes military helicopters, ‘Z’ being the shortened form of ‘Zhi Sheng Ji’, the Chinese name for ‘helicopter’. Logically, helicopter types ought to be consecutively numbered starting with Z-1. However, in reality, there are gaps in the series, possibly as some never having achieved operational status or retired from service as in the case of Z-5 which was a copy of the Soviet Mi-4. The Z-5 was followed by Z-6 and Z-7 programmes both of which came to nought for various reasons. 15 Z-6s were indeed built but proved to be a failure due to poor performance and unacceptable reliability. The currently significant types which are stated to be of Chinese design are discussed below.
The Z-8 is produced in the CAIC facility and is a three-engine, multi-role helicopter whose airframe design is derived from the French Aerospatiale SA-321 Super Frelon helicopter while the engine named Changzhou WZ-6, is a copy of the French Turbomeca Turmo engine. The Z-8 has four main variants and is used for civil and military roles. The military uses of the Z-8 include liaison, Search and Rescue (SAR), fire fighting, frontier patrol, troop transport, Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) and Emergency Medical Service. It can accommodate 27 fully armed troops or 15 medical stretchers. The Z-8 is fitted with an HS-12 dipping sonar, sono-buoys and an A244S torpedo under the fuselage section. It is also equipped with YJ-81 or YJ-83K Air-to-Surface Missiles (ASM) for anti-ship operations. The helicopter can accommodate rockets and gun-pods on the external pylons for anti-piracy missions. The Z-8JA is a ship-borne variant of Z-8 and is capable of alighting on water. It entered service in 1989 and about 15 Z-8JA/Z-8JH types are still being used by PLANAF. Another version, the CZ-8, is a tactical transport helicopter which can carry 39 armed troops; in addition, it can be used for cargo, SAR and Medical Evacuation.
The Z-9 is a classic example of Chinese circumvention of embargos and restrictions in pursuance of their aerospace development. The Western arms embargo against China since the 1989 Tiananmen Square incident is still in place; but China, in connivance with France, is violating it. The Z-9 is a licensed version of the French AS-365N Dauphin which is essentially a civilian platform. However, the Chinese have armed many of the Z-9s built by them with two 23mm cannons, torpedoes, anti-tank missiles and Air-to-Air Missiles. The Z-9WE is the armed, export version which is modified to incorporate Western electronics and weapon systems.
United Technologies and its subsidiary Hamilton Sundstrand were together fined $75 million in June 2012 for violating US arms export controls…
There is also an option to fit 57mm rocket launchers or a 12.7mm machine gun. This version, in flagrant infraction of the embargo, is using dual use equipment namely, the French Arriel 2C engine being built under license in China ostensibly for civilian use. Originally the Z-9 series was powered by WZ8A engines which were of Chinese design. However, the installation of the Arriel 2C engines rendered the helicopter far more superior in performance. The Z-9WE can perform various missions such as anti-tank, Close Air Support (CAS), armed patrol, anti-terrorism and law enforcement. Another version, Z-9EC is a ship-borne ASW type with advanced dipping sonar system, torpedo and search radar. This version can be used against submarines or for Search and Rescue (SAR).
The Z-10 is a design that relies on a blend of domestic and foreign technology, the latter by means that were not legitimate. This fairly modern and lethal platform resembles the Italian T-129 Mangusta, but has the size of the much bigger US AH-64 Apache. During a press conference at last year’s Heli-Expo convention in Las Vegas, Kamov general designer Sergei Mikheyev shocked his audience by disclosing that the Kamov Design Bureau had produced the initial conceptual design for China’s Z-10 attack helicopter. Mikheyev stated that in 1995, China asked Kamov to secretly undertake the basic design of an attack helicopter which was known internally as Project 941.
Presentation slides revealed graphics and wind-tunnel models of the project, showing it to be similar to the Z-10. Mikheyev stated that the Kamov project was handed over to China as a design ready for development and he praised China for subsequently bringing the Z-10 to fruition. Experts agree that the Chinese deserve appreciation for taking the helicopter from a bare design to a fully operational machine worthy of respect.
The Z-10 was designed with a universal engine bay and the first five prototypes were powered by two Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6C-67C turbo-shaft engines. United Technologies and its subsidiary Hamilton Sundstrand were together fined $75 million in June 2012 for violating US arms export controls by earlier providing ten PT6Cs and associated FADEC software to China. The Z-10 has also been powered by the Russian Klimov VK2500 and Ukrainian Motor Sich TV3-117. The latter appears to be installed in some airframes while Motor Sich is reportedly assisting in the development of the indigenous WZ-9 turbo-shaft that is ultimately intended to power the Z-10. With Russian and Ukrainian help, the Chinese manufacturers developed their own engine, the WZ-9. However, this 1,350hp engine proved to be inadequate for the eight-tonne Z-10 helicopter. In comparison, the eight-tonne AH-64 Apache is powered by a 1,690-2,100hp engine.
The Z-10 is a design that relies on a blend of domestic and foreign technology…
With the aid of French engine manufacturer Turbomeca, China then went on to develop a new engine, the 2,000hp WZ-16. The new engine makes the Z-10 a veritable aircraft which can carry laser-guided cannons, 57/90/130mm unguided rockets, two machine guns (7.62/12.7mm) and a heavy machine gun (14.5mm) or combination of 23/25/30 mm cannons. The 30mm cannon has an arc of fire of 180 degrees. The helicopter nose carries multi-functional sensor system, developed on the basis of French and Israeli models but now sporting Chinese software and combining a day TV and a night IR camera, combined with a laser device. The complex sensors are connected with targeting systems and HUD telemetry similar to the Honeywell M142 system used in AH-64 Apache. In addition, the crew can use night goggles and radar.
The millimetre wave radar, designated YH, is an equivalent of the US AN-APG-78 and weighs only 150 pounds in comparison to its Russian equivalent that weighs over 300 pounds. The Z-10 uses a universal data bus GJV-289A, making it compatible with both Western and Russian armaments and equipment. The cabin displays are digital and multi-functional and the control system design allows Hands On Throttle And Stick (HOTAS) allowing the pilot to access vital cockpit functions and fly the aircraft without having to remove his hands from the throttle and flight controls.
The Z-11 is a much smaller, two-tonne, single-engine design with two versions. The CZ-11 is a light, multi-purpose helicopter with six seats ideally suited for carrying passengers, as business aircraft or utility operations such as law enforcement, SAR, EMS and training. The helicopter can be fitted with either of three engine choices: a Chinese WZ-8D, a French Arriel 2B1A, or Honeywell’s LTS101-700D-2. Another version is the CZ11W light attack helicopter with either the WZ-8D or the Arriel 2B1A engine and equipped with integrated avionics systems, anti-tank missiles, rockets and machine guns. It can perform anti-tank, CAS, armed patrol, anti-terrorism and law enforcement by day and night.
Of special significance to India, is the possible role of the Z-20 to deploy PLA troops to the mountainous region of Tibet…
The Z-15 is a six-tonne medium utility helicopter jointly developed by AVIC Harbin facility and Eurocopter (now Airbus Helicopters) and is essentially the same as the EC-175. The Z-19 is comparable to the Tiger from Airbus Helicopters and has been seen in a version with a mast-mounted radar system, a chin-mounted cannon and anti-tank missiles. Like the WZ-10 mentioned earlier on, the Z-19 is a dedicated attack helicopter programme.
In December 2013, a new Chinese-made, medium-lift, general purpose helicopter was flight tested. It resembled the US Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk and was given the name Z-20 by avid watchers of Chinese military helicopters. With a capacity of ten tonnes, it is between attack helicopters and heavy transport helicopters. It may be mentioned that China had purchased 24 S-70C-2s in 1983 after having been impressed by that type at trials at high altitudes. This is a civilian version of the UH-60 but is believed to have been used by the PLAAF and not for civilian use. Moreover, as mentioned earlier, Chinese engineers had obtained access to the UH-60 wreckage at Abbottabad. Thus the Z-20 draws its inspiration from the UH-60 and is hardly indigenous as claimed by China. However, while the UH-60 has four-blade rotors, the Z-20 has five and is thus expected to perform better than the UH-60 at high altitudes like the Qinghai-Tibet plateau whose proximity to India makes it interesting to watch the evolution of the Z-20.
There are other differences between the UH-60 and the Z-20, the notable ones being cabin size (Z-20 is bigger) and different landing gear designs. Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post (SCMP) views the helicopter as extremely versatile with the ability to perform a variety of missions including assault, transportation, electronic warfare and special operations. SCMP also said Chinese media reports had speculated that it may be flown off certain Chinese ships, including the country’s only aircraft carrier. Of special significance to India, is the possible role of the Z-20 to deploy PLA troops to the mountainous region of Tibet. According to some speculative reports, the Z-20 will eventually replace all Mi-17 and Mi-171 in use with the Chinese military.
The Chinese have very ingeniously circumvented Canada’s export control regulations…
Transfer of Western Technology
The foregoing section looked at Chinese programmes euphemistically called “indigenous” at times by the Chinese press and establishment. However, as can be seen from Table 1, there is a large presence of foreign machines, a lot of them French in origin. Western commercial interests have found ways of circumventing the arms embargo by introducing technology with the professed purpose of civilian use which later gets hijacked for military use directly or through cloning exercises. In the context of the embargo, the US Department of Commerce has an end user programme that lists “trusted customers” in China to whom products can be sold. The embargo is thus honoured in letter but not in spirit as Chinese record of copying and reproducing technology is known and certainly not one that encourages trust in insulating military use of dual use technology sold to Chinese civilian entities for civilian purposes.
In recent months, several helicopter deals have been signed by China with Western manufacturers. In March this year, an agreement was signed between Avicopter, the helicopter business unit of AVIC and Airbus Helicopters in the presence of Chinese President Xi Jinping and French President François Hollande at the Elysée Palace in Paris. The agreement was for the production of 1,000 EC-175/AC-352 helicopters. The development has been carried out jointly by Airbus Helicopters and Avicopter for the EC175/AC352 project. Production also is to be shared, combining the capabilities of both companies. Coming from a common platform, two different helicopters are being built, the AC-352 assembled and supported by Avicopter, mainly for the Chinese market and the EC175, assembled and supported by Airbus Helicopters from Marignane, France for the global market. In May this year, the Civil Administration of China (CAAC) also granted approval for Sikorsky Aircraft to begin deliveries of S-76D helicopters for civilian use.
The Chinese have very ingeniously circumvented Canada’s export control regulations and used Montreal–based Pratt and Whitney Canada (PWC) engines in Chinese military helicopters, notably the PT6C-67C for the Z-10 attack helicopter. According to PWC, they delivered ten engines between 2001 and 2002 to Changhe Aircraft Industries in Jiangxi province for “a dual-use Chinese Medium Helicopter platform, which was to have both military and civil variants”.