Domestic industry still struggles with outdated technology, analysts say

China is keen to expand its fast-growing indigenous helicopter industry by reaching out to the Indian market, People’s Liberation Army (PLA) officials said on Tuesday.

The PLA for the first time showcased its Z-9 armed reconnaissance helicopters as it opened its fourth regiment — its first armed helicopter unit — to foreign journalists.

PLA colonels and pilots spoke of both the advantages and difficulties China has faced in developing and relying on home-grown helicopters.

China has, so far, struggled to sell its Z-9 and the more advanced Z-11 helicopters, relying on Pakistan and a few African countries as export destinations. But officials said they said they believed their technology was “fast improving”.

“We are happy to sell these helicopters to India and other countries,” said PLA Colonel Yu Guo Yi.

But India, analysts said, is unlikely to show any interest, with China still relying on outdated expertise. This is in the face of persisting arms embargoes that have restricted access to new technologies from the West since the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989.

The 20-year-old Z-9, for instance, was developed following a licensing agreement with France, based on its older Eurocopter models. The helicopters, still very much in use by the PLA, began being rolled out in 1991 from a manufacturing base in north-eastern Harbin. A variant is being used by the Pakistani Navy.

China, like India, has also relied on Russian helicopters, widely using Mi-17s. But renewed Russian reservations have limited Chinese access to technology.

“Russians have concerns, and feel that China could pose a challenge to them 15, 20 years down the line,” said Srikanth Kondapalli, an expert on the Chinese military at Jawaharlal Nehru University. “They are reluctant to give them strategic technologies which could make them self-sufficient”. As a result, agreements, that reached US $20 billion in 1990 have trickled to around US$ 1 billion today.

India has also been looking to upgrade its helicopters, particularly after a number of accidents. Recent deals with the United States to purchase Apache helicopters have looked to update the aging fleet.

“The Chinese have nothing in that class,” Professor Kondapalli noted.

“India is looking for fourth generation now, but China is still at second or third generation.”

That, however, may soon change. At the PLA’s fourth regiment base in Tongzhou — an eastern Beijing suburb — officers spoke of sweeping changes the army had seen in the past two decades. Once relying on old French and Russian aircraft, the PLA is now looking to induct widely its more advanced Z-11 home-grown helicopters that are a source of pride to the military.

“The biggest change since I joined the army in 1989 is that now, we can totally depend on ourselves to make our helicopters,” said Group Captain Liu Hao (48), who has clocked 2,400 hours of flying time.

Resting his hands on a still-hot Z-9 — after he took it through gravity-defying manoeuvres — he spoke of the benefits of not having to rely on foreign technology.

“We don’t need to import materials and depend on foreign countries making these planes any more,” he said. “Now, we depend only on ourselves.”

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