Although China continues to lag approximately two decades behind the world’s most sophisticated air forces in terms of its ability to develop and produce fighter aircraft and other complex aerospace systems, it has moved over time from absolute reliance on other countries for military aviation technology to a position where a more diverse array of strategies can be pursued. Steps taken in the late 1990s to reform China’s military aviation sector demonstrated
an understanding of the problems inherent in high-technology acquisition, and an effort to move forward. However, a decade later it remains unclear how effective these reforms have been. Where are the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) and China’s military aviation industry headed? What obstacles must be overcome for China to join the exclusive ranks of those nations possessing sophisticated air forces and aviation industries capable of producing world-class aircraft?
This study identifies potential aviation technology development and procurement strategies, presents a general model of the options available to developing countries, and applies that model to explain Chinese procurement and aviation technology acquisition efforts over the last 60 years. The model articulates three main technology procurement avenues: purchase
(buy), indigenous development (build), and espionage (steal), and three subavenues: reverse engineering (combining buy/steal and build), coproduction (combining buy and build), and codevelopment (combining buy and build, with an emphasis on build). It examines the costs, benefits, and tradeoffs inherent in each approach. Four variables influence decisions about the mix of strategies: (1) a country’s overall level of economic development, in particular the state of its technical/industrial base; (2) the technological capacity of a country’s military aviation sector; (3) the willingness of foreign countries to sell advanced military aircraft, key components, armaments, and related production technology; and (4) the country’s bargaining power vis-à-vis