CHINA’s made a significant step forward in its bid to equal — and eventually surpass — United States air superiority. China’s J-20 stealth fighter jet, one of the few fifth-generation jets in the world, has been deployed to the South China Sea and is armed with live weapons to patrol the disputed waters. The People’s Liberation Army said that the J-20 entered combat service on February 9 2018 and had been working alongside other fourth-generation aircraft, such as the J-16 and J-10 fighters and the H-6K strategic bomber. In May it took part in island encirclement drills around Taiwan.
The state conglomerate Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC) presented its second stealth fighter, the J-31 or FC-31 in its export version. China’s fifth-generation stealth fighter jet FC-31 showcased its latest upgrades at the ongoing Paris Air Show in June 2019, and analysts that the displayed model shows noteworthy changes in design that could significantly improve its capabilities. The Chinese military industry wants to show the world that it is capable of developing a stealth aircraft of the same level as the American Lockheed-Martin’s F-35.
China has also become the second nation to have two stealth fighter designs: The Chengdu Aircraft Industrial Corporation (CAC) ‘J-20’ and Shenyang Aircraft Corporation (SAC) ‘J-31’. The J-20 and the FC-31 are fifth-generation stealth aircraft with high maneuverability, low-observability, internal weapons bays, and capable of operating in a network-centric environment.
According to AVIC, the first flight of a production model should intervene in 2019, while the plane would obtain its initial operational capacity around 2022, for an entry in operational service in 2024. But according to many experts, this timetable is considered very optimistic. Chinese industry does not yet fully master complex stealth technologies. The quality of the coating applied to the fuselage, in particular, is essential to guarantee a low radar signature.
The Chinese navy reportedly is considering acquiring a new stealth fighter to replace existing carrier-launched warplanes that have proved unreliable and unsafe. The People’s Liberation Army Navy could buy “fourth-generation” FC-31 fighters from the Shenyang Aircraft Design Institute to replace older J-15s, state-run Global Times reported.
China plans to export its stealthy twin-engine J-31 fighter, which would become the first aircraft of its kind available to global customers who face US export restrictions or cannot afford Lockheed Martin’s F-35 joint strike fighter. The potential customers include Ally Pakistan, Iran, and Venezuela. For countries looking to buy an advanced stealth fighter jet, the FC-31 is similar to the US F-35 but much cheaper, and China does not attach political conditions to arms sales as the US does, Wang said.
China second Nation to have two fifth-generation stealth designs J-20 and J-31 and second largest number stealth fighters
China flew its second stealth fighter J-31, on December 26, 2016. The new J-31 prototype is three tons heavier and about 20 inches longer than the original technology demonstrator; it also had key improvements like an IRST sensor, stealthier wings, cleaner burning engines, and an improved radar. In addition to avionics and datalinks that enable sensor fusion, SAC officials state that the production J-31s (which could appear soon as 2019) could have supercruise capability, giving them a leg up over current F-35 fighters.
China showcased Shenyang J-31 (or “FC-31”) stealth fighter jet on the opening day of the Dubai Air Show. The test aircraft has been flying for more than two years, AVIC project manager Lin Peng told reporters after the briefing. AVIC is planning first flight of the production aircraft in 2019, with initial operational capability scheduled for 2022. The FC-31 will be fully operational in 2024.
Experts believe this would mean the Air Force plans to operate two stealth fighters for different missions, like the U.S. Air Force with the F-22 Raptor and F-35 Lightning II; the heavier J-20 would primarily be a high-altitude dogfighter, while the J-31 would perform a multitude of medium and low-altitude missions (in addition to air-to-air) including close air support, air interdiction, aerial bombardment, and suppression of enemy air defenses.
Some Experts also speculate J-31 to be complement to the J-20 stealth fighter, as a carrier-based fighter for the People’s Liberation Army Naval Air Force on the Liaoning Aircraft Carrier and future Chinese carriers. The type features the heavy-duty landing gear and twin nosewheel that are standard on carrier aircraft that must endure high-impact landings. In January 2018 Global Times cited an unnamed military official saying that the drone would operate from future Chinese carriers. China is known to be working also on a new stealth fighter bomber concept dubbed as H-20.
The J-31 is a mid-weight, twin rudder and twin-engine jet, It appears to be a smaller and more agile aircraft than the Chengdu J-20. It also shares with the F-35C (and most other carrier based fighter jets) having the twin forward wheels. J-31 incorporates stealth characters such as forward swept intake cowls with diverterless supersonic inlet (DSI) bumps and a two-piece canopy. Officials touted the aircraft’s “outstanding situational awareness” achieved with advanced radar, high maneuvering capabilities, and multi-spectrum low-observability.
According to AVIC, the structure of the FC-31 can support between +9g and -3g, to carry four missiles of average range in its two holds, for a useful range of action with the combat of approximately 1 200 to 1 250 km. It does, however, have six external take-away points, both for weapons and spare fuel drums. The FC-31, which closely resembles the F-35, is a medium-sized, low-observable aircraft designed for “the demands of future battlefield environments,” AVIC project manager Lin Peng told reporters during the briefing.
Like the F-35, the J-31 has two internal weapons bays that can each carry two medium range missiles. The FC-31 will carry the Small Diameter Bomb, as well as a variety of guided and unguided weapons, officials said.
Overall U.S. military and industry officials believe that the J-31 enters will be a match for existing fourth-generation fighters like the F-15 Eagle, F-16 Falcon, and F/A-18 Super Hornet but it lags behind the United States’ F-35 technologically. However, AVIC President Lin Zhouming made bolder prediction, saying, “When [the J-31] takes to the sky, it could definitely take down the F-35. It’s a certainty.”
On the engine side, Lin Peng revealed that the FC-31 is now equipped with two Chinese engines, the Guizhou WS-13A 100 kilo-newtons thrust engine (with afterburner), offering the aircraft a maximum speed of Mach 1.8 (about 2,200 km/h). The prototype which was flying until now was equipped with Russian Klimov RD-93 engines of 84 kilo-newtons.
Its WS-13 engines would be replaced by domestic WS-13E or WS-19 turbofan engines to give it that advantage in speed. The combination of the J-31’s high speed performance, and suggested payload of 6 PL-12 or 4 PL-21 long range air to air missiles suggests that the J-31 has been optimized as an air superiority fighter, though it can be fitted with a wide array of Chinese precision guided munitions like the LS smart bombs
Chinese military observers and media said the model on display appears to have undergone many changes compared to the aircraft’s past designs. The area behind the cockpit and the areas where the two engines are housed are now bulkier, Weihutang, a military column affiliated with China Central Television, reported in June 2019.
The optimized aerodynamic design further reduces wind resistance, the report said. Wang Ya’nan, chief editor of Aerospace Knowledge magazine, told the Global Times that these changes could mean the aircraft has been made more agile and is capable of carrying more fuel, which will give it a larger operational range. It might also carry additional electronic devices for communication or satellite links, Wang said.
The upgraded FC-31 might even feature a pair of new engines, reported Ordnance Industry Science Technology, a Xi’an-based periodical on the national defense industry. The nozzles of the engines on the FC-31 model displayed in Paris are very different in structure and shape than the ones previously used, the periodical said, noting that this means the warplane will become more competitive on the international market, giving it a better chance of joining the People’s Liberation Army if it gets new and more powerful engines.
Wang said that the warplane will continue to boost its capabilities. For countries looking to buy an advanced stealth fighter jet, the FC-31 is similar to the US F-35 but much cheaper, and China does not attach political conditions to arms sales as the US does, Wang said.
The J-31’s chief designer, Sun Cong, has said that he hoped that the aircraft would follow his J-15 onto China’s aircraft carriers. The carrier-borne fifth-generation fighter could hypothetically give China greater first-strike capability in the event of a war. However, industry sources say development of the J-31 was provided entirely by the PLAAF with no input from the PLAN.
The test aircraft has been flying for more than two years, Peng told reporters after the briefing. AVIC is planning first flight of the production aircraft in 2019, with initial operational capability scheduled for 2022. The FC-31 will be fully operational in 2024.
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