How An American Company Helped China Build Its Cutting Edge Z-10 Attack Helicopters

Electronic Engine Control software was exported to China without a proper licence.

Photo: Youtube

For those observers of China’s aggressive efforts to modernize its armed forces, it certainly did not come as any surprise that the country sought foreign technology for use in the development of its
Z-10 attack helicopter.  Recent high profile projects, such as the completion and launch of China’s first aircraft carrier in 2011 – the refurbished Soviet-era Varyag – and a number of other defence projects have relied heavily on foreign technology.

Nonetheless, confirmation this week that an American defence contractor ultimately facilitated China’s efforts – in this case, United Technologies (UTC), U.S. subsidiary HTC, and its Canadian subsidiary, Pratt & Whitney Canada (PWC) –  raised eyebrows, as it flew in the face of the Arms Export Control Act. To clarify, the latter was enacted as broad legislation to control the export of sensitive technology abroad, and was amended in 1990 (on the heels of the Tiananmen Square incident) to include more specific language towards China in particular.

The technology in question now is software – Electronic Engine Control software – exported by PWC to China between 2002-2003 without an export licence, and used to test engines which had been provided by PWC about a year earlier. As multiple outlets already reported, the charges are ultimately an indictment by the U.S. government of UTC/PWC’s failure to properly delineate technology provided to China under the conditions of a “civilian” project, versus that used in the development of military technology. Or rather, the fact that the defence contractor took it upon itself to make such a decision, evidently lured by the potential of entering China’s burgeoning civilian aviation sector. More importantly, the DoJ references false information provided during an initial inquiry in 2006 to the U.S. State Department – though it is worth noting that ultimate blame for the export of the controlled software is pinned to PWC in particular.

Still, considering that the engines were already acquired under (some have said guise, the DoJ alludes to “imagined”) of a parallel civilian project, was the technology provided to China of a truly sensitive nature? According to Michael O’Hanlon, Senior Fellow with the Brookings Institution, China’s military can of course reverse engineer any acquired civilian technology – as such, preventing spillover is clearly a challenge. As part of its settlement, UTC has committed to hiring an independent export compliance monitor and providing further training to its employees.

As for the Z-10 helicopter itself, though Changhe Aircraft Industries Corporation has delivered initial units, the design is still undergoing constant refinement, and has faced technical hurdles due to
its indigineously produced composite materials. It is also worth noting that China’s program to build a domestic attack helicopter can be traced as far back as 1994, and the multiple contracts associated with its components, such as its initial rotor system and airframe vibration testing, can be linked to various other countries, including Italy and France.

Ultimately, as with China’s recently revealed J-20 stealth fighter, the Z-10 project is the culmination of years of  aggressively sourced foreign technology and reverse engineered components. Evidently, in
the case of China’s first military attack helicopter, at least one overly eager defence contractor was involved in its development.

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