The Soviet Union and China were good pals at the start of the Cold War, but then they had a falling-out over some commie stuff. Like most arguments over what Marx actually meant, this one spiraled into low-key violence between the Chinese military and the USSR’s border patrol. And like any good capitalist, the United States decided to monetize the discord. The best way to divide your enemies is to offer them your sweet military tech, at low, low prices.
From 1979 to 1989, the United States sold numerous weapons systems to China, most notably the S-70 (UH-60) helicopter, which in its various incarnations is best known as the Black Hawk. 24 of these iconic staples of American soldiering were exported to the People’s Republic of China for a cool $140 million. After the U.S. stopped selling arms to China over the communist nation’s slaughter of unarmed student protestors, Sikorsky ceased technical support for the exported helos.
In the 1980s, China was becoming embroiled in border conflicts all along its mountainous south. The need for a high altitude helicopter was apparent to the People’s Liberation Army, and the Mi-8 Hip just wasn’t getting the job done. The Black Hawks were quickly plugged into roles transporting troops, supplies and VIPs across mountainous regions in Tibet and near India.
By the late ‘90s, 21 of the 24 original helicopters were still in use by China (three had been lost in crashes), and as late as 2015, they were used during the relief efforts after a 7.0 magnitude earthquake hit Sichuan Province. But the Black Hawks were nearing the end of their service life, and China needed a replacement.
Enter the Harbin Z-20 medium lift helicopter. Given China’s history of reverse engineering, it seems like a small stretch to think that they based the design on the Black Hawks they have been using for 30 years. The new whirlybird has trickled into service with the various PLA branches, and it does bear a resemblance to the Black Hawk.
It’s possible that the quick buck that the U.S. made back in 1983 could bite it in the ass one day. Too bad Sikorsky can’t hear you over the sweet new sound system in their Ferrari that the Chinese military paid for.