Sunday, November 30, 2008

China to build large military cargo plane

By Andrei Chang
Column: Military Might

Hong Kong, China — Ukraine and China have been engaged in negotiations on the joint design of a large military transport aircraft, according to sources in the Ukrainian Antonov Aircraft Company. The agreement was expected to be inked this month, with the aircraft project to begin soon afterward.

According to a source in the Ukrainian military industry, the basic design concept of the aircraft has already been finalized. The Chinese military transport aircraft will adopt different design concepts and technologies than the An-70 transport aircraft designed by Ukraine and Russia, the source said, and will be powered by four jet engines. Additional technical details of the transport aircraft are to be finalized after the November signing.

In recent years, China has greatly reinforced its strategic military ties with Ukraine in a variety of areas, but this is the two countries’ first collaboration in developing a large aircraft. A source from the Russian aviation industry says that China did not ask for Russian assistance on this project, suggesting that China is shifting its design cooperation away from Russia and toward Ukraine. It also indicates that the new aircraft will be an upgrade of the An-70 rather than a duplication of it.

China expressed keen interest in the An-70 as early as the mid-1990s, when the aircraft was undergoing flight tests in Russia and Ukraine. The aircraft did not get off to an auspicious start, however. The first prototype was tested in Kiev, Ukraine, in December, 1994, but the same plane crashed the following year. The second prototype was damaged in an accident at Omsk, Russia, in 2001.

In 2002, Russia and Ukraine agreed to each take a 50 percent stake in the project, and two more prototypes were manufactured. But by April, 2006, following the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, Russia decided to withdraw from the project.

The aircraft is still under test. The Ukrainian Air Force appears to be the only buyer, having announced its intent to procure five of the An-70s. China’s decision to design its own large military transport aircraft on the foundation of the An-70 technologies is apparently intended to take advantage of the extensive testing the aircraft has already undergone, to save research and development time.

The Anatov source has confirmed the Chinese military transport aircraft will not be fitted with the An-70’s D-27 engine, though it did not disclose what type of engine will be used. The D-27 has an output thrust power of 14,000 horsepower, maximum payload of 47 tons and a flight range of 6,600 kilometers (with a payload of 20 tons).

China has recently imported 240 D-30 KP-2 engines from Russia to use in upgrading its H-6K bombers. It is unlikely that this engine would be used for the military transport plane, however. Russia is already replacing some of the D-30KP-2 engines on its Il-76 airlifter with upgraded D-30 KP-3 or PS-90 engines. The D-30KP-2 does not meet Europe’s latest noise control standards, so the Il-76 aircraft powered by these engines are not allowed to land at European airports.

The dispute over a deal involving China’s import of 38 Russian aircraft – 30 Il-76 transport aircraft and eight Il-78 air-to-air refueling tankers – has not been completely resolved. The Russian side insists that the price of the aircraft agreed in a 2005 deal is no longer viable.

The Il-76 is still the mainstay export platform for Russia, hence Russia has not agreed to transfer its production technology to China, nor have the two sides initiated negotiations on this particular issue, according to a source from the Russian aviation industry. It is because of this that China has turned its attention to Ukraine.

Alexander Mikheev, vice president of Rosoboronexport, Russia’s official defense industry exporter, told the author in a recent interview at a U.K. air show that China still intended to pursue the negotiations on the Il-76 and Il-78 aircraft, and the contract was still in effect.

“We demanded to re-discuss the price of the aircraft,” said Mikheev. He denied that a price had already been agreed upon, however. “We are only demanding that the new price should be in line with the international standard,” he said.

Regarding the timeline of resuming production and assembling the aircraft, he stressed that Russia had already allocated funds to build a new factory at Ulianovsk, and the production of the Il-76 transport aircraft would begin in 2011.

China does not have much experience in the design and production of large transport aircraft, nor are its current projects in this area proceeding smoothly. An example is the Y8F-600 medium-sized military transport plane, for which Antonov agreed in 2002 to provide design assistance.

Even though reports from China claim the plane has already been tested, a source from the Ukrainian aviation industry says its maiden flight has been repeatedly put off and has yet to take place.

According to the original design, the Y8F-600 is powered by four PW150B turboprop engines produced by Pratt & Whitney Canada, with British R408 propellers. Test engines have been delivered to China from Canada, purportedly for use in civilian aircraft.

Yet due to pressure from the United States to restrict exports of military technology to China, it is questionable whether Canada will ultimately allow the export of enough P&W engines to meet China’s production needs. Under this circumstance, China will have no choice but to use Russian or Ukrainian engines in its military transport aircraft.

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