Avic Engine, well into development of a technically conservative high-bypass turbofan, is pushing to replace affiliate ACAE as the supplier of a Chinese engine for the Comac C919 airliner.

In doing so, Avic Engine, the main propulsion subsidiary of state aeronautics group Avic, is offering a more dependable and realistic way for China to accumulate early experience in developing and building commercial aircraft engines.

Fellow Avic unit ACAE, by contrast, is focused on developing an engine matching the efficiency of the CFM Leap, the primary engine for the C919. The goal would take China closer to making a profitable business in aircraft propulsion, but it is one that looks increasingly remote.

Avic Engine is already test running several units of its SF-A turbofan near Shenyang, an industry official says, adding that it somewhat resembles the CFM56. Quite probably, Shenyang is aiming for at least the performance and efficiency of the CFM56-5, although even the technology of more than 20 years ago will probably be a great challenge for China. For example, the CFM56-5, used on the Airbus A320, features full-authority digital engine control, a technology in which China appears to have made little progress.

Developing 28,700 lb. of thrust and not attempting to reach the technology level of new Western engines, the SF-A is under development for the Y-20 military airlifter by the Shenyang Engine Design and Research Institute, a part of Avic Engine. Before ACAE was set up in 2009 and charged with developing a Chinese alternative to the Leap as the C919’s power plant, the institute pushed for its military engine to take that role, another industry official says.

The SF-A has been scheduled for production at Xian from 2016, but the first official thinks 2017 or 2018 is more likely, based on the current state of development. ACAE, meanwhile, is deferring its plans to contract suppliers for participation in its engine, the CJ-1000, evidently because it is making little progress in its attempts to enlist major Western help in developing it.

The CJ-1000 must target Leap performance because it has to meet the same propulsion specification from Comac. The SF-A’s inability to do that was the reason for its rejection around 2008. Implicit in that decision was the idea that the C919 and its Chinese engine had to be commercially competitive; they were not merely seen as technology exercises.

In promoting its engine to the government and upper levels of the industry (which largely overlap), Avic Engine is, in effect, calling for a technology exercise. Its argument must be that, as nice as it would be to have a Chinese engine of the standard of the Leap on the C919, in practice that probably cannot happen before the late 2020s. While waiting for ACAE to make serious progress toward its lofty target, the industry will be getting little experience in developing and making commercial engines and in working with customers to keep them running. Moreover, military funding is underwriting the SF-A, and the air force could only welcome commercial production driving down its costs.

For ACAE, Avic Engine’s campaign seems to pose an existential threat. Just as the creation of Comac bitterly disappointed Avic, which had long dreamed of developing a trunkline commercial aircraft, some senior officials at Avic Engine, which encompasses the great bulk of Avic’s aircraft propulsion activities, have questioned the decision to keep ACAE as a separate organization within the group. If Avic Engine turns out to make the SF-A as China’s commercial engine, then the case for it taking over ACAE will strengthen.