China Faces Hurdles in Procuring Fighters

Andrei Chang is editor-in-chief of Kanwa Defense Review Monthly, registered in Toronto, Canada.

Hong Kong, China — Some Western media have reported that China is negotiating with Russian aircraft manufacturer Sukhoi Corporation for the procurement of 14 Su-33 ship-borne fighters, claiming that the contract on the deal will be signed soon.

However, according to Boris D. Bregman, first deputy general director of Sukhoi, the talks with China are still only at the consultation stage. While confirming that contacts were ongoing, he said no official negotiations had been initiated so far.

The information that China intended to import 14 Su-33 fighters came from the Russian military industry delegation attending the Zhuhai Air Show in 2006. According to members of the delegation, China had indicated it would eventually require about 50 Su-33s to arm several aircraft carrier battle groups.

China had initially requested only two fighters, then raised its request to 14, to be procured in two groups of seven, a Russian military industry source said. However, given its past record of copying Russian technology, suspicions were high that the Chinese intended to produce their own version of the fighter plane, using the Su-33 as a model.

The Russian source said that producing only seven aircraft in one batch was not feasible, as production of the Su-33 had already been suspended and the cost of reconstructing the production facilities was too high for such a small order.

However, Bregman told the author that his company could produce an upgraded variant of the Su-33 for export, according to the purchaser’s requirements, if the deal was right.

Some reports have suggested that a version of the aircraft specifically designed for China – referred to as the Su-33K – could be built to the standard of the Su-30MK2, which has upgraded electronics that support anti-ship missiles, or even fitted with Irbis or Bars phased-array radar systems. The former is currently installed on Su-35 fighters.

However, these modifications seem unlikely. The Irbis has a maximum power output of 20 kilowatts, therefore the Su-33’s power supply would be far from enough to support it.

As for the Bars passive phased-array radar, it is mainly employed on the Su-30MKM/MKI fighters currently in use by the Malaysian air force and the Indian air force. The Russian Defense Ministry has not yet officially approved the export of this type of radar system to China.

Given that China and Russia have not yet been able to reach agreement on the procurement of the Su-33 fighters, with negotiations on the deal still only in the initial stages, China will place its priorities elsewhere in 2009.

The PLA Navy will continue its work on constructing an aircraft carrier; at the same time it will consider its options with regard to the selection of ship-borne fighter aircraft. Since the aircraft carrier construction is likely to take at least another five to six years, it is not impossible that China may develop a ship-borne variant of its own J-10A and J-11BH fighters during this period.

The possibility of Sukhoi eventually restarting the Su-33 production line does exist, however. This is mainly because the Russian Navy is about to resume its own “Grand Aircraft Carrier Program.”

Aviation weapons observers based in Moscow say that a more realistic purchase order of Su-33 fighters would be 24 or more in order to make the start-up of the production line cost effective. Therefore, China may either have to increase its order or find another solution to the problem of procuring ship-borne fighter aircraft. (Upiasia)

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