China Revs Up Its Jet Engine Making

JET ENGINES FOR aircraft have long been high on Beijing’s lengthy priority list of technologies to be indigenized. The current Five-Year Plan has aviation engines in the top 10 of 100 state-sponsored projects over the next 15 years intended to increase the country’s technological capability.

China has now formally launched the Aero Engine Corp. of China (AECC) to build them, with a ceremony in Beijing on August 28th. Two former Aviation Industry Corp. of China (AVIC) executives, Cao Jianguo and Li Fangyong, were appointed party secretary and chairman and deputy party secretary and general manager respectively earlier this year.

They will be running a company being created out of more than 40 firms working on some aspect of jet engines. These include three listed companies, AVIC Aviation Engine Corp, Sichuan Chengfa Aero-Science & Technology Co. and AVIC Aero-Engine Controls Co.

AECC will have initial capital of $7.5 billion and start with 96,000 employees. AVIC, which makes military aircraft, and Commercial Aircraft Corp of China (Comac), which makes the C919, China’s biggest domestically-produced passenger plane, are investors in AECC along with the government.

Creating a jet-engine behemoth by merging lots of smaller companies fits the pattern adopted for the rail equipment makers and in some basic industries—consolidating the state-owned sector to create national champions that can be globally competitive.

Galleon, a Shanghai-based aviation consultancy, has estimated that China will invest $300 billion over the next 20 years in aircraft engine development, a sector in which progress to date has been weak.

This is all part of a grand vision for advanced manufacturing, encapsulated in the Made in China 2025 document made public in March, which includes the longstanding ambition to rival the world’s two leading aircraft makers, Europe’s Airbus and the United States’ Boeing. Chinese-built airliners will need Chinese-built engines, not those bought from General Electric, United Technologies’ Pratt & Whitney or Rolls-Royce.

It is not just civil airliners that will need Chinese engines. Increasingly so, too, will China’s domestically built military aircraft, which now use mostly Russian engines or inferior Chinese-designed ones. The PLA-Air Force’s J-20 and J-31 stealth fighters, for example, cannot fly at supersonic speeds like their closest rivals without using after-burners, which makes them detectable by radar.

“The founding of [AECC] is a strategic move that will help enhance national power as well as the capacity of the armed forces”, President Xi Jinping said in a message to this weekend’s ceremony, and called for a speeding up of R&D and manufacturing of aircraft engines “to make China an aviation industry power”.

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