Singapore Air Show

China Fifth-gen Fighters May Still Not Match Up

 - February 3, 2018, 12:05 AM
Chengdu J-20

Over the past few years, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) military aircraft industry has turned a corner from past decades. Chinese military aircraft design and production centers are today turning out indigenously developed models, a marked change from a time when there were two major fighter aircraft production centers turning out copies of foreign designs.

Back then, Shenyang Aircraft Works (SAC) in the Dongbei region of northern PRC built its versions of the Russian-design Sukhoi Su-27 family of aircraft, including the J-11, the Su-27SK (built at SAC under license), the J-15 carrier-capable facsimile of the Su-33, along with the J-16, a modified version of the Su-30MK series.

Chengdu Aerospace Corporation (CAC) and the co-located Aircraft Plant No. 132 in Sichuan province were famous for the J-10, a single-engine fighter that bears similarity to several different existing design concepts: the Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) Lavi; the Lockheed Martin F-16; and—in the case of the J-10A’s air inlet design—the Mikoyan Multirole Fighter (MFI)/Project 1.44 prototype.

New Generation: The Chengdu J-20

Having mastered producing fourth-generation fighter aircraft designs and the ancillary technologies associated with them, both enterprises have spent the first part of the 21st century developing platforms closer to what would be considered fifth-generation designs. Their two concepts are far more original in their configurations than almost any previous PRC programs, and appear externally to be optimized for a low radar cross-section (RCS).

The larger of the two is the Chengdu J-20, which first flew at the beginning of 2011. This “official” first flight occurred during the January 11 state visit of then-U.S. Defense Secretary, Dr. Robert Gates.

One of very few Beijing-based Chinese academic specialists in U.S.-PRC relations authorized to speak to the foreign press told Western news outlets at the time, “Some people may feel that China is looking too weak, and this is to show some muscle. This [first flight] says, ‘We’re not weak; we’re also developing our own technology.’”

The actual status of the J-20 program and its mission profile have been held at a level of secrecy that is unusual even for a nation like the PRC. The aircraft made its first appearance in Zhuhai at Air Show China at the end of 2016, almost six years after its first flight. Even then, the showing of the J-20 was limited to aircraft that performed a single fly-past of the airshow reviewing stand during the flight display. The aircraft were not even based at the Zhuhai aerodrome, where they could be seen on the static line, but instead were flown from an air base in nearby Foshan.

Shenyang Falcon Hawk

In October 2012, almost two years after the J-20 first took to the skies, SAC’s FC-31 twin-engine, medium-weight fighter had its maiden flight. The FC-31 is considerably smaller, but like the J-20, it launches missiles from an internal weapons bay to maintain a low RCS. It still retains the possibility of carrying extra munitions on optional external hardpoints, however.

What is notable about the FC-31’s public profile is that despite a later start than the J-20 into its flight test validation program, the aircraft was displayed at Air Show China in Zhuhai in 2014. This was a full two years before the J-20 made its first appearance.

Neither manufacturer has been talkative about these new fighters, but more has been seen and discussed about the FC-31 in several respects. First, according to officials from Avic (the PRC’s state-owned national aerospace industrial corporation), the FC-31 was developed entirely from internal company funds, and the program has had no PLA sponsorship. While there have been no definitive official statements, the FC-31 has been presented as an export product, whereas the J-20 is supposed to be a “for PLA only” platform.

Second, the FC-31 is seen as a lower-cost and less advanced design than the J-20.

Third, the FC-31 has been more of a “work in progress” than the J-20. In mid-2017, it was revealed that the aircraft had gone through a major redesign. The “ver 2.0 prototype” is three metric tons heavier and 20 to 30 inches longer. The planform re-design supposedly reduces its RCS. The aircraft’s Russian-made Klimov/Isotov RD-93 engines are supposed to be replaced with a smokeless Chinese engine.

Both aircraft show that PRC’s aerospace industry is now capable of emulating the external design forms of stealthy U.S. fighters. What remains to be seen is how advanced the aircraft’s materials are, as well as how capable their on-board systems. “These are the factors in modern fighter design that make all the difference,” said a U.S. defense industry representative. “You cannot copy these or make them appear to be ‘the same as’ those of U.S. aircraft. And they will make the difference in how effective these airplanes are.”