China’s Failure to Develop an Aviation Industry may Doom PLAAF

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Why does The People’s Republic of China Copy western military aircraft designs?

While it’s widely acknowledged among many western governments that Chinese industries regularly and blatantly violate international copyright laws, it doesn’t make sense to do so from a defense standpoint. Many countries spend billions developing technology to surpass their potential foes, arguably the most important of which is aircraft. So why does China copy its adversaries instead of developing superior airframes?

Although the extent of China’s aircraft imitations has only recently come to light within the past decade, this is nothing new. Having been a relatively underdeveloped nation throughout the first half of the 20th century, China did not have the resources (material or otherwise) to produce and maintain a modern fleet of combat aircraft. Their resolution came from buying Soviet-made aircraft and the American Lend-Lease program of May 1941, which transferred 100 P-40 Warhawks to China (China Defensive, US Army Military History Institute.) While this greatly helped the Chinese war effort, the long-term effects were detrimental as China failed to develop a fully independent military aviation industry after the war.

One of the U.S. P-40s in service with the Republic of China.

Until the 1970s, China relied heavily on foreign designs, most of which were Soviet. It wasn’t until the development of the F-16 and, thus, its Chinese counterpart, the Chengdu J-10 Firebird, that we saw China pursue American designs. However, China has recently exploded, “spurred by the 1978 market-oriented reforms which encouraged the formation of rural enterprises and private businesses, liberalized foreign trade and investment, relaxed state control over some prices, and invested in industrial production and the education of its workforce” (Hu, Zuliu and Mohsin S Khan, 1997.) This also allowed China to fully harness the scale of its population and open up trade with the Western world. While this has worked spectacularly for China, it’s also proven difficult to maintain a balance between investing in infrastructure and defense.

Early model of the J-10 Firebird

We can observe these effects with the development of the J-10 Firebird. In the 80s, the J-10 was China’s newest domestic design with the intention of rivaling the American F-16, but “In the opinion of some domestic experts at that time, catching up with the F16 was “out of reach” (, 2007.) These difficulties suggest China may not have focused on the research and development technology, tools, and especially systems required to keep pace with western adversaries. Instead, relying on outdated research, design, and acquisition (RDA) systems that encouraged dependence on imitation.

While not the sole cause of this failure to develop, the Chinese education systems tend to encourage imitation as China has a ”culture of ‘collectivism’ rather than ‘individualism…” (, 2022.) As with any nation, these teachings are fundamental to their culture resulting in their prevalence within their domestic economy. Contrary to popular belief, copyright infringement is illegal in China. However, the abundance of knockoff western designed fashion, cars, etc., suggests the government only enforces the law within domestic Chinese industry and, as we will see, participates in copyright infringement in international business relations. Initial observation of this strategy might conclude it is a practical approach for ensuring a modern fleet. However, a similar strategy denied China an organically independent aviation industry in the first place.

Three of the most influential factors for this industrial failure include the lack of proper RDA techniques, China’s commercial culture of risk avoidance, and lack of competition within Chinese industry, the latter of which has influenced their poorly performing RDA techniques. While the American capitalist system has relied on competition to derive the best product (or the cheapest) for hundreds of years, “in China (industrial competition) is a relatively new concept. This means that Chinese companies are less likely to take risks on new ideas and more likely to copy the ideas of others that have already been proven to be successful.” (, 2022.)

American corporations such as Northrop Grumman, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and General Electric are publicly owned instead of existing under the American federal government. Unlike the umbrella corporation, Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC), these companies must compete with other publicly owned companies for government contracts in order to sell relatively large quantities of their product. This is the reason why the US aviation industry is so successful. Competition is a vital part of innovation and has been since the beginning of history, as described by Nathan Probasco’s “Competition Drives Innovation: Assembling Gilbert’s Expedition” which is a historical example of how a competitive system accelerated the discovery and development of the New World during the Elizabethan era. Additionally, Harvard Business Review published Anil Rathi’s “To Encourage Innovation, Make It a Competition” which explores modern and much more apparent effects of competition on innovation. While reporting accounts over 300 years apart, both authors support the idea that government intervention to protect the ideas of private endeavors while avoiding government influence often results in the most efficient and effective methods to accomplish a goal.

Competition is important as whoever comes up with the best idea is often the most successful. (However, the Dreadnaught Effect proves that being too successful in the defense industry is possible.) The US’s economic system, while adapting, has largely stayed the same since its founding, meaning that since military aviation became an industry in 1909 ( Americans have been competing to design the best aircraft that technology can produce (even though sometimes being the best doesn’t mean the military will procure them (the F-16XL.) Additionally, military aviation development costs have exponentially increased since the industry’s founding.

Below is a list to compare unit costs of American military aircraft over the years. Numbers in parentheses are adjusted for inflation for fiscal year 2022.

Wright military flyer:  $30,000 ($836,406)

  • Dh.4:  $11,250 ($313,652)
  • P-40: $24,618 ($686,355)
  • P-51: $40,000 ($640,924)
  • F4U: $75,000 ($1,493,582)
  • P-38: $97,147 ($1,556,596)
  • P-80: $110,000 ($1,762,541)
  • F-86: $219,547 ($2,845,816)
  • F-4: $2,400,000 ($23,560,732)
  • F-14: $38,000,000 ($91,806,551)
  • F-15: $27,900,000 ($206,328,271)
  • F-22: $206,000,000 ($301,803,531)

This gives “legacy” corporations such as Grumman, founded 1929 (now Northrop Grumman), Alco Hydro-Aero plane Company, founded 1912 (now Lockheed Martin), and Boeing, founded 1916, the advantage over modern-day start-ups. This is why we often see the same, well-established companies compete for contracts. This trend can also be observed in small arms, heavy land systems, and air defense industries. The “legacies” entered the industry when entry costs were relatively low, allowing them to develop their products in sync with the evolution of warfare. Chinese corporations such as Shenyang and Chengdu weren’t established until the mid-20th century or later, severely hindering their ability to immediately produce modern aircraft.

Contrasted to the US capitalist system, China used to operate under a planned economy resulting in the government owning all domestic aviation companies under the parent organization AVIC.

Subsidiaries of AVIC:

  • Xian
  • Chengdu
  • Shenyang
  • Shaanxi
  • Changhe (CAIC)
  • Harbin
  • Hongdu (Formerly Nanching)
  • Guizhou (GAIC)
  • Shijizahuang (SAIC)

This system produced poor military procurement procedures where “the state would  “command,” That a design task be performed, designate a department to implement, and allocate funding directly” (Erikson, Bryan, 2014.) This system required aviation manufacturers to be managed by an agency and thus design their products to meet the managing agency’s requirements rather than the customers. The Chinese changed their RDA systems through the J-10 project. Prior to the initiation of the project, the Central Military Commission (CMC) and Deng Xiaoping implemented new decision-making and management hierarchies. With the J-10 project being managed by the Defense Industry Office (now called Commission   for   Science, Technology, and Industry for National Defense (COSTIND,)) the project was finally approved, and with it, the change of Chinese defense RDA (Erikson, Bryan, 2014.)  Instead of answering to AVIC, these changes made the airframe manufacturer (in this case, Chengdu) responsible for delivering a product that met the requirements of the Scientific Research Department (SRD) in 1987, and assumed responsibilities for monitoring contracts. The SRD and the Peoples Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) also placed representatives in manufacturing and research facilities. Within the responsibilities of the SRD was “coordinating on the criteria (such as system and subsystem requirements, quality control, and performance), budget, schedule, and on any technical problems that occur during the development process” (Section, 23 Air Force Weapons Development, in accordance with the needs of the PLAAF.

Simultaneous to these RDA evolutions, the J-10 project catalyzed a rival between the latecomer, Chengdu and well-established manufacturer, Shenyang that “has improved China’s state-owned centrally planned aviation industry by injecting new ideas and stimulating design improvements through competition”  (Erikson, Bryan, 2014.)  Thus, the development of the J-10 is often credited with China’s defense industry’s transition from the Mao era command programs to modern RDA systems.

Even after these developments, China still seems to rely on imitation for its modern fleet. Some obvious examples include the Z-20 imitation of the UH-60 Blackhawk, the Z-11 copying the Airbus AS350, and the Harbin Z-9 copying the Airbus Dauphin (although initially legal, China continued to produce the Z-9 with an expired license.)  Other examples are harder to spot; The Xi’an Y-20 was based on the C-17, and the Z-19 was based on the already imitated design, the Z-9. Many western nations, including the US and UK, used to trade arms with China, but the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre resulted in an arms embargo, preventing China from acquiring western designs.

Chinese Z-20 compared to the American UH-60 Blackhawk

However, prior to the arms embargo, China bought seven Sikorsky S-70C-2 (civilian version of the Blackhawk.) China is suspected of having reverse-engineered the legally acquired S-70s in order to produce the Z-20.  In 2002, Eurocopter made formal complaints about the continued production of the Z-9 after the license had expired, leading to intense negotiations to resolve the dispute. In 2016, Su Bin, a Chinese national, pleaded guilty to hacking into Boeing, stealing designs of the C-17 and other aircraft. Additionally, Su Bin “ analyzed and translated documents from English to Chinese, which he then emailed to the Second Department of the People’s Liberation Army General Staff Department” (Department of Justice, 2016.) In another example, China bought a prototype Su-33 from Ukraine and produced a reverse-engineered version, the J-15, instead of buying the Su-33s directly from Russia. Unfortunately for China, the J-15 has been riddled with problems as the Su-33 they procured was in the experimental phases of its development.

Russia has even accused China of stealing stealth technology from their MiG 1.44 program (never produced) to use for their new J-20. Consequently, western countries are holding their designs closer to the chest.  Designs that China managed to acquire are now on the brink of obsolescence, begging the question, what is Beijing going to do now that they can’t freely copy designs anymore? Throughout the 80s and into the early 2000s, China identified a need for a new medium attack helicopter. In an attempt to import an airframe, China pursued the acquisition of Russian Mi-28s, Ka-52s, American AH-1s, and South African Mangustas. All of these deals fell through, leaving China exhausted of all options apart from designing their own. The result of this led to the Z-10, revealed in 2006. Additionally, in 2010, it was made publicly known that work on the J-20 was underway and in just eight years, was in service with the PLAAF. With two domestic designs in the past twenty years, it’s clear that Beijing is now making bounds in its domestic aviation industry.

Chinese J-20 compared to the MiG 1.44

While China is regarded as one of the most technologically advanced countries on Earth and has been focusing more on its aviation industry in the past three decades (including the 1987 overhaul), it is evident China’s aviation industry is still lacking. The ability to acquire and copy foreign designs has left the domestically produced fleet small. The lack of competition among companies offers only economic security for those companies, resulting in low production and a lack of ideas and innovation. Possession of previously legally obtained airframes and China’s extremely capable cyber sector has only encouraged the continuation of imitation and puts the future of Chinese military aviation at risk of being rendered obsolete compared to their western rivals in the very near future. However, we are observing a possible turning point in Chinese military aviation. With the continued success of the J-20 program, China may have finally established the necessary systems within its industries to produce a purely domestic modern fleet and establish itself as a fierce global airpower.

Be sure to follow Aviation Identification for further air centric analysis.

United States Military Academy and American Military University Alumni. Victor covers flash military, intelligence, and geo-political updates.


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