China eyes South African weaponry


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China eyes South African weaponry
By Andrei Chang
Column: Military Might

Hong Kong, China — China has had a number of dealings with South African weapons manufacturers over the past decade, most of which have not resulted in actual weapons purchases. However, several recent China-made military technologies bear suspicious resemblances to their South African counterparts. In 2008, China acquired a fourth-generation air-to-air missile equipped with a thrust-vector control engine. The PL-10, or PL-ASR, is comparable to the U.S.-made AIM-9X air-to-air missile, or AAM.
According to a representative from the South African Denel Group, the PL-ASR is almost a replica of its A-Darter AAM. The Denel representative told the author during an interview in Cape Town that the Chinese had contacted the company in 2001 to explore the possibility of importing fifth-generation A-Darter infrared-guided AAMs, which included a TVC propulsion system and pilot helmet-mounted displays.
In the end, Denel did not sell the technologies to China, which it regards as its key competitor in selling air-to-air missiles on the African market. Company engineers were therefore surprised to find that the Chinese PL-ASR is nearly identical to the A-Darter in exterior structure, tail engine and even the diameter of the missile body.
The company strongly suspects that China reverse-engineered its A-Darter AAM after acquiring its technological materials.
This fits a pattern that China has followed in acquiring military technologies from many sources. When seeking a new technology, China contacts a foreign manufacturer and requests substantial technical information about its product, supposedly with the intent to buy. Instead, Chinese engineers study the materials and imitate the relevant concepts and designs.
Something similar occurred in the course of China’s development of a combat helicopter. In 1996 China and South Africa signed a memorandum to jointly develop a combat helicopter, when China was in the process of building its ZW-10 helicopter.
After being given a focused inspection of the Rooivalk combat helicopter’s subsystems, China wanted to purchase one helicopter from Denel, but the South African company considered the purchase of a single aircraft the equivalent of giving away its technologies. As a result, Denel decided not to sell China the helicopter and the cooperation came to an end.
Another item that appears to have been copied from South Africa is the optical-electronic pod on China’s ZW-9 combat helicopter, which bears a strong resemblance to the Leo-II serial O/E pods produced by the Zeiss Company.
Technical experts from the Zeiss Company told the author that about seven to eight years ago Zeiss exported two sets of an earlier variant of the Leo-II O/E pods to China, intended for use on helicopters. According to the source, the Chinese side explained that they needed a large number of this type of O/E pods for civilian helicopters, and therefore would like to purchase two sets initially for testing purposes. The source said the Chinese took no further action after receiving the test pods.
Currently, both the ZW-10 and the night version, the ZW-9, are equipped with O/E detectors very similar to those on the Leo-II.
China’s interest is not only in the O/E pod technologies used for helicopters. Chinese manufacturers have also engaged in active discussions with South Africa in hopes of acquiring TV video cameras and second-generation thermal imaging cameras used in Denel’s Seeker II unmanned air vehicle surveillance system.
The top military technology that China aspires to acquire from South Africa is without doubt the unmanned air vehicle. China’s New Era Group Corporation had several rounds of negotiations with Denel on the possibility of producing in China two types of Denel UAVs, which were on display at the 2006 Zhuhai Air Show, called the Golden Eagle and the Seeker II.
China hopes to obtain the technologies to assemble these two UAVs domestically. However, according to a source from the Denel Group, negotiations on the UAV deals have come to a halt and the company has decided that unless substantial progress is made on these negotiations, the company no longer wants to spend time dealing with the Chinese.

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