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Engine boost for China's J-15 fighter jets as Beijing tries to build up navy

China is moving closer to mass-producing an improved engine with a longer lifespan and more power for its first aircraft carrier-based fighter jet, the J-15, according to military analysts.

They said technical problems had been overcome and the WS-10H turbofan engine now had the thrust and lifespan to put it on par with the AL-31F Russian-made engine that was initially used in the fighter jet.

Details about the WS-10H emerged after military sources told the South China Morning Post this week that a new and improved engine for China's J-20 stealth fighter would be ready for mass production by the end of the year.

The WS-10H engine had been criticised as not powerful enough for the J-15 fighter jet, China's heaviest and only active carrier-based warplane, which has a maximum take-off weight of 33 tonnes. Instead, the Russian engine was earlier used in the fighter jets for the navy's first and only aircraft carrier in service, the Liaoning.

China plans to have at least four aircraft carrier groups operating by 2030 as it tries to build up a blue-water navy that can operate globally. That would mean the Chinese navy will need at least 130 carrier-based fighter jets in service by 2030. At the moment, the J-15 is the only carrier-based warplane in service " and the PLA Navy has less than 30 of them.

China 'nears mass production' of J-20 stealth fighter as engine issue fixed

Its first home-grown aircraft carrier has begun a second sea trial and is expected to enter service by October next year, while a third carrier is being built in Shanghai.

Li Jie, a naval expert in Beijing, said the WS-10H now had the thrust and lifespan of Russia's AL-31F, but it still lagged behind America's F414 afterburning turbofan engine, as used in the F-18 warplane.

The J-15 is the only carrier-based warplane in service, and China has less than 30 of them. Photo: AFP

"As a big power, China needs more carrier-based warplanes to support its naval ambitions, especially with its first home-grown aircraft carrier entering the final phase of sea trials and likely to go into service next year," Li said.

Hong Kong military analyst Song Zhongping said the improved engine could now cope better with conditions at sea, where all naval aircraft and equipment must be able to withstand the "three highs" " temperature, humidity and salinity.

"The J-15 is so far the most developed, reliable and capable aircraft carrier-based warplane, and it will remain the backbone of China's carrier battle groups in the future," said Song, a military commentator for Phoenix Television.

He said Shenyang Aircraft Corporation, which makes the J-15, was developing a new-generation fighter jet for aircraft carriers, based on its FC-31 fourth-generation stealth fighter.

"Once they make more progress with developing the FC-31, it's possible we'll see more drills involving mixed manoeuvres using the stealth fighters and the J-15 jet fighters in the future. That would also be in line with practical operations on an aircraft carrier," Song said.

China's first home-grown aircraft carrier is expected to enter service next year. Photo: Xinhua via AP

According to Zhou Chenming, another military analyst in Beijing, the J-15 no longer uses the Russian engine, so there was a need to get the WS-10H to mass production stage.

Many of China's home-grown fighter jets have had problems with their engines, aircraft design and modifications. Sources earlier told the Post there had been at least four crashes involving the J-15, though only two of them were reported by state media.

One pilot was killed and another was badly injured in those two crashes in 2016, which were said to have been caused by mechanical failures " though state broadcaster CCTV said the flight control system was a key factor, not engine problems.

Beijing has been pushing the development of more sophisticated jet engines in the past decade, investing at least 150 billion yuan (US$21.94 billion) in that goal between 2010 and 2015.

Leading the way on developing and producing aircraft engines and gas turbines in recent years is state-owned Aero Engine. The company, which has about 10,000 employees, was formed two years ago through the merger of 24 subsidiaries of the Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC).

AVIC's former chairman, Lin Zuoming, told state media last year that its latest single-crystal turbine blades " used in the WS-10 series engines " can now withstand temperatures of up to 2,000 degrees Celsius (3,632 Fahrenheit). He said that development had extended the engine's lifespan from 800 to 1,500 hours.

This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (SCMP).

Copyright (c) 2018. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

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