New information on China’s jet fighter development has emerged this week, during the twice-in-a-decade Communist Party Congress (CPC). Many of the country’s senior defense industrial leaders also hold positions in the upper ranks of the party. As such, they use the event to try to gain advantage over their rivals in the budgeting process. In particular, significant developments in the stealthy J-20 and FC-31 programs have been revealed.
The Chengdu J-20 first flew in the beginning of 2011 but did not make its first public appearance until the 2016 Zhuhai Air Show—and then only in a brief flypast. The latest reports state that the aircraft has entered low-rate production and that it is close to being deployed with operational combat units. Official but anonymous Chinese sources have stated that putting the J-20 into service is aimed at creating leverage for China in advance of U.S. President Donald Trump’s state visit, scheduled for next month.
The same Chinese sources state that the J-20 now has a reliable domestically produced powerplant. Previous models of the J-20 were powered with the Russian-made Saturn/Lyulka AL-31F engine. The Chinese engine can still not match the performance of the Pratt & Whitney F119 that powers the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor, but it supposedly enables the J-20 to supercruise. There will be 100 J-20s in service by 2020 and another 100 by 2023, it is reported.
The Shenyang FC-31 has gone through a major redesign to correct a number of shortcomings seen in the original prototypes. Among other changes, the structure has been reworked so that it is now three metric tons heavier and between 20 and 30 inches longer. The aircraft’s Russian-made RD-33 engine has been replaced with a Chinese engine that is supposedly “smokeless,” and the aircraft’s planform has been redesigned in order to reduce its radar cross section.
The new FC-31 variant is also supposed to receive the new WS-19 engine in 2019 and will give this aircraft supercruise capability as well. The radar is also reported to have been upgraded with new modes, including the ability to carry out dependent targeting or battlefield management tasks. The extra airframe structure will help in the eventual design of a carrier-capable version.
Other Chinese sources are also claiming that Indonesia is a serious potential export prospect for the FC-31. Jakarta had previously taken a minor role in the development of the Korean KF-X stealthy fighter. But that cooperation has reportedly ended.
The J-10C is the third and most advanced version of the single-engine fighter produced at Chengdu. It has completed a number of weapons tests and other operational validation flights. Most recently the aircraft successfully demonstrated air-to-air refuelling with one of the PLAAF’s tankers.
A NATO intelligence officer with significant experience in China told AIN that this week’s news was significant for being all about "indigenous" Chinese programs. “You notice that nothing has been said about the Russian aircraft in the PLAAF, or the copies that Chinese industry now builds of the Sukhoi Su-27. That is not an accident, and it shows that in President Xi’s ‘new China,’ the emphasis is definitely on the country’s own home-grown weaponry,” he said.