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China air show shows off latest fighter jet engines

The deputy head of the PLA Air Force on Wednesday visited the China’s leading air show, where he made a detailed inspection of a range of engines, long considered the weakest part of the military’s fighter jet technology.

Lieutenant General Zhang Honghe spent about 30 minutes touring the engine showroom, including a display by Aero Engine Corporation of China, at Airshow China in coastal Zhuhai in Guangdong province.

Aero Engine, a state-owned company, was set up in late August to develop and build aircraft engines and gas turbines. It has 24 subsidiaries with about 10,000 employees.

Zhang, who was previously deputy head of the air force’s armament department and president of its Engineering University in Xian, Shaanxi province, asked a stream of questions about the abilities and limitations of the engines, including the star of the air force, the WS-10, built by Shenyang Aeroengine Research Institute, an Aero subsidiary.

The engine is used in some ­J-10 and J-11 jets, although others still rely on Russian-designed engines. Aero Engine is developing its successor, which is expected to power the carrier-based J-15 and stealth J-20 jets.

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Among the visitors to the display was Peter Fallon, a global strategy manager specialist in aerospace and defence at US-based Sensata Technologies. His company had partnerships with Chinese-owned civilian firms, and he saw signs of some of the sensing technologies transferred from his firm in the WS-10.

“Just from the layout of things, due to the big sensors … I am sure the biggest development is for efficiency savings,” Fallon said. The next generation of the engine would focus on “smoothing” the exterior, he said.

“The Russian engine is very good and mature, I am sure they will work together [with China],” Fallon said. “Of course, the US engine is also mature, but we can’t sell it [to China] for military use. There is global cooperation in other ways in the past years … with some of the technologies that can be used in both commercial and military purposes.”

China has long struggled to build its own aircraft engines, and boosting its capacities has been a priority as the nation seeks to increase its military clout.

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Aviation observers estimate Beijing spent about 150 billion yuan (HK$172 billion) to come up with its own engine for fighter aircraft such as its J-15 in its 2010-2015 five-year plan.

Airshow China opened on Tuesday and ends on Sunday. The highlight has been the debut of the J-20, which made a fly-past on Tuesday. But it will not make another, according to the organiser.