The big curiosity at this year’s Airshow China was the prototype Shenyang FC-31 fighter that was making its first public appearance. Previously billed as the J-31, the stealthy-looking aircraft first flew two years ago. It is a smaller complement to the Chengdu J-20, which was the first of the PRC’s new stealth aircraft.
Although the aircraft has a configuration that resembles the American fifth-generation fighters, it is not yet possible to know just how successful the Shenyang design team has been in developing an aircraft with a low radar cross section. The proficiency of the Chinese aerospace industry in radar-absorbent materials (RAM) technology, and its ability to minimize both radar and infrared signatures, remains unknown.
The FC-31 is powered by two Russian-made Klimov RD-93 engines, which are a specialized variant of the MiG-29 powerplant There have been rumors that a team of Mikoyan designers assisted Shenyang in the development of the aircraft. Senior MiG officials deny this and state that the design is completely Chinese.
If they were involved in the FC-31 design, MiG officials might not want to take any credit, because the display at Zhuhai revealed some poor aerodynamic efficiency. The aircraft bleeds too much energy and the pilot had hard time keeping the nose up during turns and other maneuvers. He also had to engage afterburners far too often to maintain a proper energy utilization curve.
Western aerospace analysts point out that the FC-31 flown at Zhuhai was a “clean” jet. An aircraft configured for a real mission and fitted with weapons would be even heavier and would have an even more dismal flight performance, they said. A large-scale model of the FC-31 on display inside the halls at Zhuhai showed some detail changes of configuration, compared to the flying prototype.
Observers of China’s aerospace industry point out that the aircraft is designed primarily for export and that the PRC’s industry desperately wants to generate more export sales. Russia, for its part, has offered to integrate some of its weapons onto the aircraft so that its sale to a foreign nation would not compromise the technical details of Chinese weapons that Beijing would like to reserve for the exclusive use of the PLAAF.