The J-20 prototypes are undergoing extensive trials to meet the operational deadline set by around 2020.
Guest Post by Abdus Samad Khan
The hazy picture of a Chinese stealth aircraft made quite a ripple once it first appeared online in 2010. Dubbed immediately by the western media as merely a large scale demonstration model of a heavy stealth jet in competition to the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor, the CAC J-20 was not taken seriously until the aircraft took to the air in early 2011. Since then four prototypes have been developed and are undergoing extensive tests.
The J-20 (top) had in fact caught everyone by surprise. China hadn’t produced a true 4th-generation fighter until the Chengdu J-10 in 2005 and was struggling to develop cutting-edge jet engine technology. It was widely considered that China was years away from producing stealth aircraft (5th-generation).
FC-31: All eyes on the aerial display as the FC-31 makes its debut at the Zhuhai Air Show 2014.
This year’s Zhuhai Air Show had another major revelation when the Shenyang FC-31 (previously J-31), a twin-engine stealth jet in the mold of the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightening officially made its debut.
Although the aircraft’s maiden flight was two years ago, the participation and aerial display at China’s premier airshow is a great milestone for the FC-31.
Reportedly, the stealth fighter has immediately caught the attention of the Pakistan Air Force, which might switch its interest from the J-10B and take a technological leap by becoming the first foreign customer of the FC-31.
PAK-FA: The T-50 is the prototype for the future Russian Stealth fighter known as PAK-FA.
The J-20 and the FC-31 represent a two-pronged Chinese approach to the development of heavy and light stealth fighters simultaneously, the latter being offered to potential export customers. Design of both aircraft can be considered conventional by stealth standards with their angular design features and both are powered by Russian jet-engines.
Interestingly, Russian participation in the development of Chinese Stealth jets doesn’t end with the provision of engines. In case of J-20, the airframe is greatly inspired by the now cancelled Mikoyan Project 1.44. Further, both J-20 and FC-31 will have advanced Russian munitions integrated in their weapons suite.
Let’s not forget that the Russia itself is working on a stealth fighter dubbed the PAK-FA, its answer to the F-22.
F-22: The expensive F-22 Raptor has set the modern warfare stealth fighter standards.
At the moment only the F-22 can be claimed as a fully operational aircraft fulfilling the baseline standards for any capable stealth fighter.
Of course, the F-22 is stealthy, its airframe has minimal frontal Radar Cross Section (RCS), it has internal weapons bays, it can super-cruise (which means the Raptor can go super-sonic without using its Afterburners) giving it more time over the battle space with much reduced heat signature and it has thrust vectoring which makes it exceptionally maneuverable.
The F-22 went through a very lengthy and tedious development process with costs rising beyond $150 million per unit not to mention its very expensive maintenance. Even with the experience of developing the F-22, Lockheed Martin and its consortium partners from Europe are having a very difficult time in development of the F-35 which is currently the most expensive fighter development program embarked upon by the US.
F-35: Despite experience from the F-22, development of the multi-configuration F-35 has been tough.
In addition to doubts related to avionics, AESA radar and performance of a variety of stealth features on Chinese jets, the real Achilles’ heel for the aircraft remains their Russian engines.
Both J-20 and FC-31 currently feature only improved versions of Cold-War era engines which do not have thrust vectoring and low-heat signatures, both deemed essential capabilities for any stealth fighter. How well China succeeds in developing and integrating complex technologies for its jets without much foreign help remains to be seen.
At the moment, the appearance of Chinese stealth aircraft is raising more questions than answers. The display of the FC-31 at the Zhuhai Air Show is already under much scrutiny by analysts. The introduction of the J-20 and the FC-31 is a strong statement of intent by China regarding its future military ambitions. Only time will prove how potent these stealth jets are once they enter service around 2020.
Abdus Samad Khan has grown up playing video games at home, cricket on the streets and watching Swat Kats on TV. Is a complete snob when it comes to his preferences in Aviation, Technology, Movies and Music. He has strong political views and avidly follows all the “nazuk morrs” this great country has taken over the last 20 years. His day job is that of an HR-Professional/ Trainer/ Educator spanning over six years in Private/Public sectors.
Also by Abdus Samad Khan:
See also: What we reported on China