Export of Aviation Equipment In the Russian-Chinese Military-Technical Cooperation

The military-industrial complex (MIC) of the People’s Republic of China is rapidly developing, but still cannot manage to meet all its needs without foreign aids. In the context of a current political situation becoming even more complicated, Beijing has fewer and fewer opportunities to import foreign samples of military equipment.

In September 2018, the United States imposed sanctions on China for conducting military-technical cooperation (MTC) with the Russian Federation. One of the weak points of the Chinese defense industry is still the production of manned aircraft and engines for them. In this regard, the import of technologies from the Russian Federation is of considerable interest to the state and military leaders of the People’s Republic of China.


The military-technical cooperation of the USSR and China in the field of aviation technologies began before the Second World War. From 1937 to 1942, to combat Japanese aggression, China received from the USSR about 840 combat aircraft: I-15, I-16, I-153 fighters, and SB, DB-3 and TB-3 bombers. In 1941–1942, a plant near the Chinese city of Urumqi was operating, and more than one hundred I-16 fighters were assembled using Soviet components and parts. The extent of Soviet aids and assistance level increased in 1950, after the victory of the communist party led by Mao Zedong in the civil war. La-11, Yak-11, MiG-9, MiG-15 fighters, Tu-2 and Tu-16, Il-28 bombers were delivered to the People’s Republic of China, the drawings of MiG-17 and MiG-19 fighters were supplied for production purposes. The An-2, An-12 aircraft were also delivered.

When the war on the Korean Peninsula was over, the emphasis of the Soviet-Chinese aviation cooperation shifted towards technological assistance to the aviation industry of the People’s Republic of China. Using Soviet licenses, China launched serial production of aircraft of various types and purposes: in 1957, production of MiG-17 fighters (“Jian-5” (J-5)), then in 1959 of MiG-19 (“Jian-6” (J-6)) was launched.

In the late 1950s, relations between the two countries soured. The Chinese leaders managed to detain the MiG-21 aircraft of Soviet supplies to Vietnam fighting against the United States. The Chinese version of this fighter, named “Jian-7” (J-7), was designed using the unlicensed copying method. This aircraft has become one of the most large-scale series in the industry of the People’s Republic of China and in service with the fighter aviation of the Air Forces of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) of China. Under a license of the Soviet Union, China launched serial production of Il-28 (“Hong-5” (H-5)) front-line bombers. On the basis of the design and technical documentation supplied before the collapse of the Soviet-Chinese military-technical cooperation, Chinese aircraft manufacturers launched the production of long-range Tu-16 bombers (“Hong-6” (H-6)), as well as An-24 and An-12 transport aircraft (“Xian-7” (Y-7), and “Xian-8” (Y-8)).

These aircraft formed the main part of the Air Forces aircraft fleet of the People's Liberation Army until the end of the 1980s, and the latest modifications of the “Hong-6”, “Xian-7” and “Xian-8” aircraft are still in service and capable of performing combat missions.

China has also become an importer of Soviet unmanned target aircraft developed by the Design Bureau named after Lavochkin – La-17 (they were produced in the USSR in several modifications from 1954 to 1992). The first flight of a UAV produced in the People’s Republic of China took place in 1966. The Chinese version of the La-17 aircraft was designed by the Nanjing Institute of Aeronautics with the use of a reverse engineering method. After the termination of cooperation with the USSR, Chinese industry started developing its own UAV. Its main difference from the La-17 aircraft was the use of the WoPen-6 turbojet engine (a copy of the Soviet RD-9 turbojet engine).


Military-technical cooperation was resumed not long before the collapse of the USSR. In 1991–1997, 50 Su-27 fighters (38 Su-27SK units and 12 Su-27UBK units) were exported to the People’s Republic of China amounting to about $1.7 billion. From that moment on, by mutual agreement of the parties, the content of the contracts, including their value, is not disclosed, and the data available in open sources can only be used for an estimation.

In 2000–2001, 38 multipurpose Su-30MMK fighters were delivered under the 1999 contract with a value of about $1.5 billion. In 2000–2002, 28 units of Su-27UBK fighters were delivered to China under the repayment of the state debt of the Russian Federation. In 2003, the second contract for 38 Su-30MKK aircraft was completed. In the autumn of 2004, the delivery of 24 Su-30MK2 units for the PLA Navy was completed.

In total, about 180 Su-27/Su-30 fighters have been delivered to China from 1991 to 2011, including 38 Su-27SK single-seat fighters, 40 Su-27UBK two-seat combat training aircraft, 76 Su-30MKK multipurpose fighters, and 24 Su-30MK2 fighters. In 2015, the Rostec State Corporation announced the conclusion of a contract for the delivery of 24 Su-35 fighters to the People’s Republic of China (China has become the first foreign purchaser of these aircraft). The contract value is estimated by experts at $2.5 billion.


In 1996, China acquired a license to produce two hundred Su-27SK fighters without the right to re-export them to third countries. The contract was valued at about $2.5 billion. The fighters were assembled at a plant built as part of a Russian project in the city of Shenyang (Liaoning province). Equipment for this plant was also manufactured by the Russian Federation.

By the end of 2007, 105 aircraft were assembled from Russian vehicle kits. China refused the remaining 95 kits for assembling the Su-27SK aircraft, giving as a reason that it had designed its own version of the “Jian-11” fighter plane (J-11, Shenyang). Taking into account 105 Su-27SK units assembled under the license, the total number of Su-series fighters in China amounted to about 280 aircraft.

After that, the Russian Federation supplied China with spare parts and weapons for the aircraft and provided assistance in aircraft maintenance and repair operations.


In 1993, the Russian Federation exported ten Il-76M military transport aircraft to China. In 2005, a contract was signed for the purchase of 34 more Il-76 aircraft and four Il-78 refueling aircraft with a total value of about $1.5 billion. However, the order was not completed due to some problems with the aircraft production at the Tashkent Mechanical Plant JSC (Uzbekistan).

At the end of 2011, the Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China agreed on the delivery of three used Il-76MD aircraft, in 2012 the number of aircraft increased to ten. According to the information available in the open sources, they were purchased by ROSOBORONEXPORT in the Russian Federation and then underwent modernization in Belarus.

Export of aviation engines to the People’s Republic of China

The largest military-technical cooperation programs involve delivery of aircraft engines of various types from the Russian Federation to China. Thus, in 2005–2010, ROSOBORONEXPORT signed a contract with China valued at $238 million for the delivery of 100 RD-93 engines (export version of RD-33) for JF-17 fighters (FC-1, ‘Thunder’) of the Chinese-Pakistani joint production, as well as spare parts and maintenance services.

In 2009–2010, the Russian Federation exported 43 more RD-93 engines to China, and in 2014 signed a contract for the delivery by the end of 2016 of the next hundred RD-93 engines, and also maintenance and repair services for them. In addition, the Moscow Engineering Enterprise named after V.V. Chernyshev (part of the United Engine Corporation (UEC)) and the Chinese CATIC (China National Aero-Technology Import and Export Corporation) signed a contract for the modernization of the RD-93 engine.

In 2009–2011, the NPO Saturn JSC completed a contract for delivery of 55 D-30KP-2 aircraft engines to China (for Il-76, “Hong-6” bombers and “Xian-20” transport aircraft). In 2012–2015, under a contract signed in 2011, the NPO Saturn JSC has delivered 184 D-30KP-2 engines to China. The cost of this order was more than $500 million.

In 2011, China purchased 150 AL-31F engines (used on Su-27 fighters and Chinese “Jian-11”) and 123 AL-31FN engines (to equip Chinese “Jian-10” aircraft). In 2012, Beijing and Moscow signed a large contract for the delivery of 140 AL-31F aviation engines. The contract value was $700 million. According to the estimates of the ROSOBORONEXPORT experts, in 2012 aviation engines amounted to about 90% of all Russian military export volume to China.

In 2016, the United Engine Corporation JSC signed contracts with CATIC, AVIC International and Tianli companies for delivery of spare parts, provision of technical support services for operation and maintenance of aircraft engines, with a total value of more than $65 million.


In 2016, the governments of the Russian Federation and China signed the Intergovernmental Agreement on Cooperation within the program on designing a prospective civilian heavy helicopter. Within the signed agreements, the Russian Helicopters JSC would assist the Chinese state-owned company AVICOPTER in the development of a heavy helicopter for its series production in the People’s Republic of China. The Russian Helicopters JSC also signed contracts with Chinese companies Qingdao Helicopter, Jiangsu Baoli, Easy Best Group, Wuhan Rand Aviation Technology Service, Jiangsu Baoli Aviation Equipment for the delivery of 14 Ka-32A11VS and Mi-171 helicopters in 2017–2018.

The Russian Helicopters JSC signed a framework agreement with the Chinese companies AVIC International Holding Corporation and CITIC Offshore Helicopter Corporation to establish a maintenance and repair center for Russian-made helicopters on the territory of China.

In 2019, the Rostec State Corporation certified the VK-2500 helicopter engine in the People’s Republic of China. In 2020, the Civil Aviation Administration of China validated the ‘Ansat’ helicopter type certificate issued by the Federal Air Transport Agency. From now on, the power plants will be operated as part of Russian helicopters on the territory of the People’s Republic of China, which will expand the geography of sales and operation of Russian ‘Mi’ and ‘Ka’ helicopters.


The Russian-Chinese cooperation in the field of joint development and technology exchange continues. Long-term negotiations are being carried on in some areas, for example, regarding aforementioned agreement on the joint development of a heavy helicopter. This contract set a record in its discussion time period. The Russian Federation and China started negotiations in 2008–2009, but only by May 2016 a framework agreement was signed on the helicopter joint works.

At the beginning of 2017, the Russian and Chinese parties made statements about their readiness to sign a contract for the design of a helicopter with a take-off weight of 38 tons and a payload capacity of 15 tons by the end of 2017, but so far the contract has not been signed.

Another major joint dual-purpose project on a wide-body long-haul aircraft (ShFDMS, Chinese designator – C929) has gained a faster pace. The parties agreed to establish a joint venture called China-Russia Commercial Aircraft International Co., Ltd. (CRAIC) at the end of 2016. In 2017, a memorandum of cooperation was signed on the development of a gas turbine engine for the prospective wide-body long-haul aircraft. In November 2018, during the Airshow China international aviation exhibition held in Zhuhai (People’s Republic of China), the United Aircraft Corporation PJSC and the Chinese corporation СОМАС jointly presented a full-scale model of a wide-body long-haul aircraft CR929, the first deliveries of which are planned for 2025–2027. Preparations are underway for the development of a joint engineering center in Russia and the company's headquarters in Shanghai. The parties agreed to develop and produce PD-35386 engines for the project.

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By Roman Koshkin
©New Defence Order. Strategy  №4 (69) 2021


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