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China Forges Ahead With Indigenous Avionics Base

February 1999
By James C. Bussert

But when it comes to front-line aircraft, imported systems still reign supreme.

The People’s Republic of China is grappling with an inherent conflict of relying on imported avionics technology while pressing to develop a state-of-the-art domestic manufacturing base. The country continues its long-term commitment to advanced avionics research and development both for internal use and for export, and foreign technology is one source feeding that endeavor.

China has demonstrated the capability to design and manufacture a variety of civil and military aircraft that indicate that its aircraft industry has finally matured. However, nearly all export models, and many aircraft flown within China, feature imported avionics suites.

Outside of China’s closest allies, the export market has been slow to materialize. One reason Chinese avionics have not been respected could be that China has yet to convince customers that its lower-priced units are equal in quality, technology and service support to those of mature Western companies.

The nation does have a large avionics education, research and production infrastructure in place. However, to succeed in the international marketplace, China must aggressively advertise and market these products; and opening factories to prospective customers may require a more open society than the present government could allow.

A look into China’s aircraft and avionics history offers some insight into what can be expected in this arena in the future.

When the Communists took over China in 1949, the country had no avionics factories. The first effort to create them did not occur until 1951, when the Soviet Union needed a local avionics capability to repair Korean War battle damage and supply support for the number of aircraft provided to China during the war. To accomplish this, China’s Communist mentor sent 20 avionics experts to train an initial cadre of 100 young Chinese technical students. The next year, the first three avionics repair factories were opened by converting existing plants to the new task. Horse sheds located on a Chinese army base were converted into machinery shops and became the Taiyuan Aeronautical Instruments Factory.

In 1953, China’s first Five Year Plan called for expanding five plants, making them capable of licensed production, and five new avionics plants were built in the Shaanxi province. By the next year, the first effort to go beyond repair and on to copy production began in Taiyuan, and the first avionics research and development training institute was opened.

Early in the 1950s, the government initiated a plan to establish six aircraft repair core factories. Two were designated for jet aircraft, two for bombers and two as piston trainer factories. Seven more plants were added in 1952 to support the Korean air war. In 1956, avionics unit factories were finally constructed in Xian, Xinping, Baoji and Shenyang. During the next year, an aeronautical electrical apparatus factory (AEAF) was built at Tianjing power systems, along with a new AEAF in Xingping. In 1959, Beijing built the aeronautical electric motor factory and the aeronautical instrument factory.

The second Five Year Plan mandated that China develop five more avionics factories. The disastrous Great Leap Forward was Chairman Mao Tse-tung’s plan for rural economic development that devastated China from 1958 until 1960. The program set back all technical work and avionics goals were not met for eight years.

Nearly all avionics plants were in the coastal region, known as the first line, and were at risk in wartime. In 1965, China began to relocate factories farther inland to an area designated as the third line. Coastal avionics plants in Tianjin, Nanjing and Shanghai were moved inland to Shaanxi and Guizhou provinces. These plants were not situated in cities but in far, remote mountainous areas.

The desire to create in-country design capability drove the production of six new avionics research and development schools in 1972. Six years later, the Third Plenary expanded beyond internal research and development to encourage foreign imports and technical exchange. By 1980, China included electronics and computers in avionics design as well as in the products themselves.

In the early 1960s, the original avionics factories expanded beyond mere black boxes to other new technologies. Even though six Shanghai avionics plants were relocated inland, 10 major aviation plants remained in Shanghai to design and build the Y-10 large transport prototype. These included airframe, engines and avionics. Last year, the China Aviation Industry Corporation (CAIC) totaled 111 enterprises.

To be able to design new aircraft or indigenous avionics, China needed new education and research institutes in aviation technologies, and the Aeronautical College of Qinghua, Sichuan University and Beijing Institute were formed. These three merged and became the Beijing Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. China formed four aeronautic secondary schools, and by 1965, there were 13. Early in this process, all avionics factories included on-site technical schools used for employee training.

From 1958 to 1963, the Communist party was overzealous in expanding the aviation schools, as it tried to build 30 new ones in two years. By 1963, 38 schools were closed or merged, and the 1966 Cultural Revolution completed the job of destroying the aviation education complex.

By the mid-70s, with the ebbing of the Cultural Revolution, the Communist party supported reopening and rebuilding the air schools. Shenyang, Nanchang and Zhengzhou were upgraded from secondary schools to aeronautical engineering institutes, and they are now major centers for avionics education. Specialized aeronautical research institutes were established for electronics and armament design, and last year, China had 36 aeronautic research and development institutes and six universities.

China began its institutional avionics efforts by reverse-engineering Soviet designs. It duplicated the Soviet TU-16 bomber, producing all of its systems, many of which were improved in China, and designated it the H-6. The Taiyuan factory manufactured a Soviet navigation system and designated it the HL-1. This system was later improved and integrated with a Doppler navigation radar and a new computer and designated the HL-3. A Chinese inertial navigation system (INS) was installed on the H-6. Later, major improvements in fluid float and microprocessors resulted in the Type 653 INS. The Lanzhou Aeronautical Instrument Factory developed the improved KJ-3 autopilot for the H-6 during the 1970s.

Autopilot technology is one example of Chinese avionics replicating Soviet technology. Copies of the Soviet AP-5 autopilot were used in China’s H-5 and H-6 bombers. The Aeronautical Automatic Control Research Institute began a complete redesign of this unreliable and inaccurate unit in 1958, and the new version was produced by the Lanzhou aeronautical instruments factory nine years later as the KJ-3 autopilot. Improvements and automation have progressed to the KJ-6 in the Y-7 civil transport and the KJ-12 in modern People’s Liberation Army (PLA) air force fighter aircraft.

Flight control systems have advanced to the Type 622 system that features triple redundancy with large scale integrated circuits, digital computers, microprocessors and embedded built-in test features. The latest Chinese navigation system in the prototype F-8BM features INS with global positioning system (GPS) satellite links.

After relying on copies of the MiG-15 through MiG-21—known as the J-4 through J-7—for nearly 25 years, China produced the indigenous J-8 design that featured entirely Chinese-manufactured avionics. These systems included KJ-12 autopilot, HZX heading/attitude reference system, Type SM-8 optical gun sight and Type III rocket ejection seat. The Chengdu plant improved air data systems from the Soviet Union, which featured single airspeed and altitude transducers, by fitting them with miniature servos to supply many of the flight parameters for the J-8.

In 1980, an improved J-8I replaced the Type SR-4 air intercept radar with an improved Sichuan Type 204. Unreliable Nanjing YB-20B hydraulic pumps were later replaced with improved ZB-34 hydraulics. The older direct current (DC) power system was replaced with a more capable Hubei alternating current (AC) 6 kilovolt-ampere power generator and Guizhou DC-to-AC static converters on the J-8II. A new Taiyuan head-up display (HUD) and digital flight computer were also installed. Future J-8II/F-8II upgrades would replace many of these Chinese avionics with foreign imports.

The J-8IIM flew in a 1996 air show with the Russian Phazotron Zhuk multimode air intercept radar linked to Vympel AA-10 and LY-60 air-to-air missiles, FC computer, Xian INS and GPS systems via an ARINC 429 data bus. Power generators were upgraded to 15 kilovolt amperes to handle the additional avionics. An F-8IIM was similarly upgraded, reportedly with Israeli assistance.

Although not known to be installed on operational fighters yet, a helmet-mounted look-and-shoot sight equipping Chinese forces with capabilities similar to those of the Russian Su-27 fighter aircraft was displayed by the Luoyang Electro-Optical Equipment Research Institute in 1996. Future buys of the Su-27 are linked to co-production by Chinese plants, which would include the array of state-of-the-art onboard avionics.

Despite government policies promoting domestic avionics, Chinese aircraft upgrade programs for military and civil aircraft have relied heavily on foreign imports. The Chengdu aircraft factory, for example, began the J-7M aircraft design in 1981 and delivered it in 1985. An export version, the F-7M, was produced jointly with GEC and named Air Guard. It featured a GEC-Marconi Type 956 HUD weapon aiming computer, Sky Ranger ranging radar, air data computer, HRA-2 altimeter, Type 602 digital identification friend or foe and AD-3400 very high frequency/ultra high frequency radio. A later upgrade, called F-7MP, was exported to Pakistan with a Collins AN/ARN-147 very high frequency omnidirectional range/inertial landing system, AN/ARN-149 automatic direction finder and Pro Line-2 digital distance measuring equipment.

A 1985 upgrade to the Y-7 100 by a Hong Kong company and Xian aircraft plant used U.S. avionics. Collins provided an extensive avionics suite including navigation, communications and air traffic control.

The PLA navy certified a maritime patrol version of the Y-8 with U.S. radar, navigation and communications, submarine detector and sonobuoys. U.S. firms also provided a major civilian upgrade to the Y-8. Systems included the Collins 618M-3 VHF radio, DF-206 automatic direction finder and DME-42 navigation, Litton APS-504 search radar, LTN-72 INS and LTN-211 Omega navigation system.

Until work was stopped following the Tiananmen Square incident, the Grumman upgrade to the J-8II was a milestone of military technology transfer to China. Prime contractor Grumman provided the LN-39 INS, pulse Doppler look-down air intercept radar, HUD and data computer with a 1553B data bus. Grumman also marketed a Super-7 upgrade fighter in the 1980s.

Two competitive upgrades to the A-5 attack model emerged in 1988. The A-5K upgrade from France featured a Thomson-CSF HUD and laser ranger and a Sagem Uliuss-90 INS. Italy marketed an A-5M upgrade with a Pointer ranging radar by FIAR, which was a license-built Elta 2001B, an Aeritalia MS-1553B data bus, and an Alenia model 58 HUD and navigation-attack system.

In 1990, a Y-11B upgrade included the installation of U.S. Bendix/King navigation, KR-87 ADF and twin VHF radio units. In the mid-90s, GEC-Marconi upgraded the F-7MG with Sky Ranger multifunction radar, navaids, HUD/WAC and a computer.

In 1996, the newest F-8IIM Finback combat aircraft upgrade flew with modern Russian multimode Zhuk-8 pulse Doppler radar, multifunction displays, a hands-off target assignment system and an integrated electronics countermeasure system.

Bidding was intense among three nations to provide a modern, long-range airborne early warning radar for China. The United Kingdom marketed the Searchwater radar by Racal and the Marconi Argus radar, Israel proposed the Phalcon radar, and Russia offered the Ilyushin A-50 Candid airborne early warning aircraft. China contracted for the Israeli radar on IL-76 aircraft that were bought from Uzbekistan.

Although China imports many foreign avionics units, several civil and military aircraft feature completely indigenous avionics suites. It is possible that Chinese airlines have not chosen their own avionics designs, but instead must use what their government policy dictates. China still imports nearly all its civil airliners, which include Western avionics. Most contrary to the goal of indigenous production is that even PLA air force aircraft are preferred with Western, and lately Russian, avionics.

China is also facing the reality that the key to successful international avionics competition is not merely mass-producing items priced lower than Western manufacturers. In the Western avionics market, purchases are based on quality, modern design, reliability and factory support. Western aircraft customers tend to require avionics brands and product lines that they know and respect.

China is addressing this problem by engaging in joint ventures to manufacture Western avionics. Examples include the AlliedSignal Aerospace partnership with the China National Aerotechnology Import and Export Corporation for auxiliary power units and with Shanghai Avionics for radar and radios. Rockwell is part of a joint venture for developing and producing GPS/INS systems. Chengdu Aeroinstrument Corporation is jointly producing Honeywell air data computers, and Collins has several production team deals in China.


James C. Bussert is a computer specialist with the Naval Surface Warfare Center, Dahlgren, Virginia.