Ready for Takeoff: China's Advancing Aerospace Industry

  • Published

Ready for Takeoff: China’s Advancing Aerospace Industry by Roger Cliff, Chad J. R. Ohlandt, and David Yang. Rand, 2011, 142 pp.

Cliff, Ohlandt, and Yang’s monograph assesses China’s commercial aerospace production capabilities, its participation level in domestic and international aerospace markets, and supply chain factors that influence those capabilities. It covers China’s indigenous aviation programs, foreign joint ventures, and space programs including both boost and satellite technology developments. It provides an excellent overall reference to Chinese aerospace. The work also reviews an exhaustive list of US and other foreign companies currently pursuing joint system and subsystem ventures within China.

The monograph discusses current air travel practices within China and its aerospace market possibilities over the next 10 years. Chinese markets ranked within the top 10 internationally for revenue passenger kilometers (RPK), but most of that travel occurs domestically and on flights of short duration. RPK is a standard unit of measure for commercial aerospace based on income for miles flown. A quick analysis succinctly compares rail travel to air passenger and air freight routes before concluding that high-speed rail, even if improved, would have only a minimal impact on either activity due to cost and timeliness. The authors suggest that even if high-speed rail is implemented it will most likely travel between existing airports as the most efficient terminals. Chinese general aviation, including law enforcement helicopters, lags significantly behind the United States, with only 997 aircraft operating out of 71 airports, while US general aviation has 230,000 aircraft operating out of 18,000 airports (p. 10). The vast difference is attributed to Chinese aerospace management practices.

Despite China’s reputation for growth, no aircraft at any level are produced solely by China or with 100-percent Chinese parts. Almost all production occurs through foreign investment corporations that contribute at multiple levels. The Chinese government has an active policy of using joint ventures to procure dual-use items that advance its military modernization strategy. The Z-9 helicopter example illustrates how Eurocopter’s materiel assistance later proved to be critical to China’s attack helicopter development. Although China possesses the facilities and labor required to succeed with its aerospace endeavors, it lacks the design capability necessary for independent success. Chinese aerospace exports to the United States amount to about $421million annually, but US exports to China regularly top $5 billion. Additionally, the authors hint that many Chinese export contracts may be quid pro quo considerations required of foreign companies conducting business within China.

Personally, I found the space systems analysis to be the most interesting section. China’s boost technology is one of its strong suits and the only area where it currently produces all its own material. This technology did benefit from an illegal transfer during the 1990s when multiple Chang Zheng failures resulted in US corporate assistance. China’s satellites are characterized as communication, weather, civilian earth monitoring, military, position and timing, and other. The authors examine each category in detail and consider both civilian and military uses for the applications. They note that China’s geographic position means it does not require as many communications satellites as other nations to project power within Asia or South China Sea regions. Military strategy supports the idea that short supply lines are more easily secured supply lines.

Overall, the monograph provides many excellent references. It concludes that China’s aerospace production will increase but probably not be competitive outside the region. It also assesses that Chinese military modernization will continue to benefit from technology transfer in areas such as computer-aided design, manufacturing technology, and precision machining. Although most Chinese program transfers are not in cutting-edge areas, the cumulative result will still benefit China. The authors state that increasing Chinese capability does have US security implications, but any decision to ban interaction would only increase other foreign contributions and negatively affect the US economy.

This work provides an excellent reference to Chinese capability, and although it may be slightly dated, it is an easy introduction for any researcher. The joint venture overview is one of the strongest points but should have been duplicated for the space section. Also, as this text focuses mainly on commercial production, it does not consider specific military production other than mention of the Z-9 helicopter. The satellite capabilities overview should be beneficial to intelligence analysts considering space. One area not addressed, and of recent concern, is whether China’s alleged cyber exploitation has resulted in any technological benefit to its aerospace programs.

US national policy implications are omitted until the last two pages. Earlier detailed discussion might have aided the reader. Finally, statistical discussions could have used both more explanations and further levels of analysis to address the chosen points more specifically. Still, this comprehensive work provides an easy read and a good starting point for anyone interested in understanding Chinese aerospace.

Lt Col Mark Peters, USAF

Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."