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The FC-31, China’s ‘Other’ Stealth Fighter
A look at the jet with many names – and its carrier-based future.

By Rick Joe
February 18, 2021

The FC-31, China’s ‘Other’ Stealth Fighter

Credit: Sina Weibo/9谢艺航6ADVERTISEMENT

China’s FC-31 is a twin-engine stealth fighter demonstrator, which includes two iteratively different flying airframes that have been under active flight test since late 2012 and late 2016, respectively. This aircraft has often incorrectly been dubbed the “J-31” and been given various other names over the years, such as “J-21.” None of these J-designations remain true to the aircraft’s current state. It is a self-funded technology demonstrator from Shenyang Aircraft Corporation (SAC) and AVIC rather than a project being actively developed by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Therefore the names “J-31” or “J-21” are incorrect.

However, for the last few years it has been accepted that the PLA Navy has selected an FC-31-derived airframe to be developed into its carrier-based fifth-generation fighter, resulting in an aircraft that will indeed receive a J-designation. The PLA watching community has often referred to this aircraft as “J-35”; however, such a designation would be quite a numerical jump from “J-20” and thus deviate from prior norms where aircraft designations were somewhat more sequential (see, J-10, J-11, J-15, J-16, all as fourth-generation fighters). It also seems rather on the nose, having the same number as the U.S. F-35. It goes without saying there is substantial room for confusion over this aircraft’s name alone.

This piece will review the history and rationale of the FC-31 demonstrators, as well as consider the future of its carrier-based derivative, whose arrival is now expected sometime in 2021. For the purposes of this piece, the carrier-based fifth-generation fighter derived from FC-31 will be termed “J-XY/J-35,” in reference to the past “J-XX” name used for J-20, as well as to acknowledge the commonly circulated but yet to be confirmed “J-35” name.

FC-31 and Its Rationale

If the J-20 was the stealth fighter that changed PLA watching forever, it could be said that the FC-31 was a reminder that PLA watching still had the capacity to surprise.

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Unlike the J-20, there was no long accumulation of rumors leading up to the FC-31’s unveiling. While some hints of a possible medium-weight fifth-generation aircraft bounced around in the late 2000s, the J-XX/J-20 was considered a much more credible aircraft to expect. In September 2011, less than a year after the unveiling of J-20, a model of a twin-engine aircraft with a convention configuration similar to the F-22 and F-35 (popularized since then, by the likes of KFX, TFX, and AMCA), was seen under the 601 Institute/SAC group at a UAV Innovation competition in Beijing, with the name “F-60.” The relatively generic nature of the aircraft depicted, as well as how recently the J-20 had emerged, made much of the community dismiss the F-60 model either as an internal study or some sort of subscale remote-controlled drone.

Therefore, it was a surprise when photographs emerged in mid-2012 of a suspicious looking, partially disassembled airframe being transported along roads and highways in China, with only its silhouette and shape visible through its protective covers. Initially this aircraft was thought to possibly be a disassembled JL-10 trainer or some other, more conservative aircraft. However, photographs taken at SAC a few months later in September revealed the complete and assembled aircraft with serial number 31001, virtually identical in configuration to the previously dismissed F-60. This aircraft made its first flight on October 31, 2012, just over a year and a half after the first J-20 technology demonstrator airframe, marking a milestone for China as only the second nation at the time to be actively flying more than one stealth fighter design at the same time.

The full-fledged development of the FC-31 into the J-XY/J-35 also presents an opportunity for the J-XY/J-35 to in turn be leveraged into a land-based fighter. A hypothetical land-based variant of the J-XY/J-35 would be capable of leveraging all of the development and subsystems work as part of the standard carrier-based aircraft, with removal of carrier-relevant details such as folding wings, structural enhancement, catapult nose gear, and tailhook, among others. Such modifications would not only reduce the weight of the aircraft, resulting in slightly improved kinematic performance, but also would be far less time consuming and complex than doing the reverse.

A land-based J-XY/J-35 could prove an attractive proposition for the PLA Air Force as a medium-weight fifth-generation fighter to complement the larger J-20, and if pursued might be production ready just a few years after the standard J-XY/J-35. However, an alternative medium-weight fighter may be a single engine aircraft powered by the WS-15. Holding all else equal, a single engine WS-15 powered fighter would enjoy benefits in operations cost by virtue of its single engine nature; however such an aircraft would likely have to be a clean sheet design compared to a land based J-XY/J-35, and there are also questions as to how the production of WS-15 can be scaled up to meet such demands.

Therefore, it remains an open question as to whether the PLA Air Force will commit itself to a land-based J-XY/J-35 variant, with some compelling arguments in favor of it. If such an aircraft is developed, it would certainly enjoy a rather convoluted development pathway, though there are some similar historical parallels. The YF-17 was a demonstrator fighter that competed with the YF-16 for the U.S. Air Force’s Lightweight Fighter competition, ultimately being declined in favor of the YF-16 (which became the widely used F-16). Meanwhile, the YF-17 was chosen by the U.S. Navy and developed into the F/A-18 as a carrier-based fighter – but interestingly, the F/A-18 was also developed into the F/A-18L, a land-based derivative of the aircraft for potential export. Ultimately, the F/A-18L did not result in any orders and was cancelled as a project, but interesting parallels exist, between the development path of the FC-31, J-XY/J-35, and a potential land-based J-XY/J-35, with that of the YF-17, F/A-18, and F/A-18L, respectively.

Furthermore, a land-based J-XY/J-35 would likely prove to be a viable export fifth-generation fighter, as such an aircraft will have been fully developed and adopted by the PLA. Such an aircraft might only emerge as a viable export product in the late 2020s, and therefore would likely be aimed at nations which desire a fifth-generation capability but are unable to purchase F-35s due to geopolitical alignment and/or cost. The most likely customer could be the Pakistani Air Force; however, Pakistan is currently also actively pursuing a fifth-generation capability dubbed Project Azm, whose stage of maturity is unknown, let alone what degree of indigenous industrial effort will be involved.

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In summary, the role and capability of the FC-31 may have been questioned and even dismissed in the early years of its existence; however, a significant level of confirmed and potential development now lies ahead. The most significant development on the horizon is the emergence of the first J-XY/J-35 prototype, followed by careful waiting to catch any hints of PLA Air Force interest in a land-based J-XY/J-35 variant.

LINK: https://thediplomat.com/2021/02/the-fc-31-chinas-other-stealth-fighter/
 

Last starfighter

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How many times you pressed copy paste ?
Sorry my mistake 🤗🤗🤗
Main post fixed.
Shukran
It mentions towards the end of the article about project AZM. Wouldn't it be possible that we receive some input in to that venture to help and speed up the process by learning from the hurdles that the Chinese have overcome in their persuit of 5th Gen birds.
 
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