China’s Air Force Boosts Tech by Buying European Companies

May 26, 2014 Updated: May 25, 2014

China just came a step closer in its bid to challenge U.S. airpower. On May 19, Guangdong Elecpro Electric Appliance Holding, a Chinese firm, announced plans to acquire two European aerospace companies.

One company, the Swiss-based Mistral Engines SA, manufactures engines for light aircraft, helicopters, and unmanned military vehicles (often called “drones”). The second company, Germany’s SkyTrac, develops helicopters with dual rotors.

Previous purchases include Aviation Industry Corporation of China’s (AVIC) acquisition of Austria’s Fischer Advanced Composite Components in 2009, and Germany’s Thielert Aircraft Engines in 2013, according to IHS Jane’s, a leading defense and security analysis company.

The acquisitions come amid a push by China to advance its aerospace programs and bridge the gap in military technical knowledge with the West, both for its civilian market and military systems.

Russian Deals

Aside from China advancing its aerospace development by buying European companies with established knowledge, the Chinese regime also got an extra push recently through its ties with Russia.

Russian President Vladimir Putin went to China on May 20 for talks with Chinese leader Xi Jinping. On the first day of the two-day meeting, China and Russia announced 49 new agreements, ranging from programs to enhance political ties to plans for military cooperation.

Most of the attention fell on a $400 billion, 30-year gas supply deal, which Xi and Putin signed on May 21. What received less attention, however, were the joint aerospace projects, which had been a large focus in the Russian press leading up to the meetings.

Russia will provide China with a new helicopter based on its Mil Mi-26, which is a military and civilian heavy transport helicopter capable of carrying up to 82 fully armed soldiers.

Russia and China will also be developing a 400-seat, wide-body commercial airliner, which they plan to pit against Airbus and Boeing.

Hunger for Development

China has plenty of interest in developing its aerospace sector. According to a 2013 report from the U.K.’s Royal Aeronautical Society, “aerospace has been targeted as a primary means of raising China’s overall economic performance through climbing ‘the ladder of high-tech industrial economic value.’”

The military interest is even greater, however, particularly due to China’s territorial claims, which are causing military tensions with nearly all its neighbors.

Development has been slow, however. According to a report from the U.K.’s Royal Aeronautical Society, China’s State Council issued a policy guideline in 2011 detailing the poor progress and various challenges of its civilian aerospace programs.

China’s civilian aerospace programs are likewise closely connected with its military programs, and its air force has been subject to similar setbacks.

The People’s Liberation Army, China’s military, claims to have at least 1,321 fighter aircraft between its navy and air force. Kyle Mizokami, an expert on defense and security in Asia, noted on his “War is Boring” blog that the number of planes is just slightly fewer than those under the U.S. military.

The problem for China is that most of its planes are really old. Mizokami notes that only 502 of China’s fighter aircraft are modern, of which 296 are Su-27s from Russia and 206 are its own J-10s.

As for its other 819 fighters, they’re mostly from models designed in the 1960s and built in the 1970s. Mizokami notes, “They wouldn’t last long in a shooting war.”

Thus, China has been putting its focus on developing its next generation of fighter jets, the J-20, but development is also coming along slowly.

Aside from the fact that even China’s J-10 still relies on AL-31FN engines imported from Russia, and that the J-20 is a suspected knock-off of Russia’s defunct MiG-1.44, the estimated completion date for the J-20 isn’t until between 2017 and 2020. By 2020, the United States is expected to be well into developing a new generation of aircraft.

Thus, China has been turning outward to advance its aerospace industry—buying foreign companies where it can, signing partnerships elsewhere, and stealing designs through cyberespionage when the offers are refused.

Follow Joshua on Twitter: @JoshJPhilipp