China is optimistic it will soon win permission from Moscow to use Russian engines in a new multi-role fighter planned for sale to Pakistan, according to a senior official involved in the project.
However, Rosoboronexport, Russia’s state arms trading agency, dismissed on Wednesday suggestions that Moscow was set to allow the re-export of the Klimov RD-93 engines to Pakistan as “premature and unfounded”.
Re-export approval would mark a considerable shift in Moscow’s policy toward Islamabad and offer a boost to backers of the new Xiaolong fighter, which is being jointly developed by China and Pakistan, where it is known as the JF-17 Thunder.
It would clear the way for Pakistan to buy at least 150 of the new fighters in a deal valued at an estimated $2.3bn and would set a precedent for further weapons purchases from Russia.
Moscow has for years banned Beijing from re-exporting the Russian engines used widely in Chinese military aircraft to Pakistan, a policy driven mainly by Russia’s long-term defence ties with India.
However, Li Pei, head of development of the Xiaolong at China National Aero-Technology Import & Export Corp (CATIC), said Moscow was now expected to approve the sale to Pakistan by the end of 2006 or in January next year.
“We feel optimistic,” said Mr Li, who has had close contact with Russian arms exporters. He added that an application for permission to re-export the Klimov engines had been under consideration by Moscow for about six months.
The Rosoboronexport spokesman did not directly deny that the Russian government was considering re-export approval but accused a Klimov representative at a recent Chinese air show of fuelling rumours that permission had been granted.
“This is what happens when industry people start getting into politics,” the spokesman said. Klimov group was not available for comment on Wednesday.
Any refusal to allow re-export of the Klimov RD-93 engine would be a blow to Chinese hopes that the single-engined delta-winged Xiaolong/JF-17 will spearhead the country’s emergence as an international supplier of combat aircraft.
The fighter, being jointly produced by the Chengdu Aircraft Industrial (Group) and Pakistan Aeronautical Complex, is intended to offer much of the capability of the F-16 fighter produced by Lockheed Martin of the US, but at a much lower price.
However, the reliance of the Xiaolong/JF-17 on a Russian engine highlights the difficulties China faces in mastering the technologies needed to produce internationally competitive weapons systems.
Last week, Pakistani officials said they would begin marketing the JF-17 at a defence exhibition in Karachi this month. Western defence officials in Islamabad say potential buyers could include a number of Arab and African nations.
Approval of the re-export of the engines would be likely to upset India, a big buyer of Russian arms. However, Moscow may judge it more important to please China which is reportedly in the process of negotiating the purchase of up to 50 Sukhoi Su-33 advanced fighters in a deal that could be worth $2.5bn.