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Who Wants To Buy Chinese Stealth Fighters?

August 9, 2022
Via Chinese social media.

Only three countries (China, Russia, the USA) today are selling genuine stealth fighter jets but the United States is alone enjoys massive profits from exporting the Lockheed Martin F-35A/B. During the Zhuhai Air Show last year, also known as Air Show China, a twin engine model branded as “FC-31” was put on display to mark the achievements of the national aerospace manufacturing sector. Not to be confused with the PLAAF’s J-20, at the time Chinese media claimed the FC-31 was destined for the navy’s aircraft carriers–a very prescient admission as the completed hull of the Fujian was launched in June.

The FC-31’s transition to a carrier-based fighter does looks underway. Earlier this year the US military’s open source analysis of Chinese military aviation found evidence that new twin engine fighters are being tested for the navy. This model was observed to be spun off from the export approved FC-31 also known as the “Advanced Multirole Fighter” or AMF, whose earlier designation is the J-31, but many important details about it are uncertain. On June 17 the fully assembled hull of the Fujian, a new CATOBAR aircraft carrier with a flat runway (rather than a ski jump runway on earlier vessels), was launched with more than the usual fanfare. The Fujian is still a work in progress, however, with further construction and then sea trials pushing its eventual commissioning with the PLAN to the mid-2020s.

It’s now expected the Fujian is receiving a batch of “J-35” stealth fighters whose dimensions, engine type, and payload are tailored for catapult-assisted take off like on US Navy aircraft carriers rather than the ski jump launches of the PLAN’s J-15’s. Yet the fuzzy timeline for the PLAN’s largest carrier and its intended fighter jets doesn’t provide a clear enough picture of how far the J-31’s development is going to extend. If another CATOBAR aircraft carrier is launched before 2030 then the J-35’s production is certainly reaching a hundred units. Meanwhile, while China’s navy have their own stealth fighter the air force have bet on the J-20’s potential along with older fourth-generation plus models such as the J-10 and the J-16 that have very long careers ahead of them with extensive upgrading. This is aside from the PLAAF’s continuous development of the J-20, its harnessing of networked long-range UCAVs for kinetic military operations, and long-term ambitions for a strategic bomber fleet.

The PLAAF’s choices begs the question if the FC-31–dubbed by Chinese media as the “Gyrfalcon”–can prove a viable export, which it has been for almost a decade now with no confirmed sales. The existence of the Shenyang Aircraft Corporation’s (SAC) J-31 was known by the early 2010s and its original appearance went through dramatic changes as it was promoted at industry events–its first commercial appearance was the Zhuhai Air Show in 2014. It didn’t begin flight tests until 2016 and constant redesigns have been added since. Tabletop models of the J-31 and other aircraft were also seen at the Paris Air Sow in 2017, where it featured a redesigned canopy, diverterless inlets on either side of the fuselage, and carried a full payload under its wings, and then during the Zhuhai Air Show in 2021 it was shown again but rebranded as the FC-31. Although SAC is recognized as the manufacturer of the J-31/FC-31 it’s promoted in the product catalogs of other state-owned aerospace giants AVIC and CATIC. It’s best to recognize this specific model as a “whole-of-industry” effort bringing together China’s leading aerospace and military-industrial enterprises.

It was only this year when Chinese media revealed that SAC was still in the planning stages for FC-31 sales abroad even when it considered the model “technically mature.” A crucial drawback for the FC-31 is the global market it’s supposed to compete in is very limited. The air forces of NATO are obviously closed to it while the lucrative Middle East and North Africa region is dominated by French and US fixed wing combat aircraft–Chinese fighter jet exports there vanished in the 1990s. Even the slim chance of an ally like Algeria ordering FC-31’s is far-fetched as its air force depends on Russian-made aircraft. This leaves minor opportunities in Central Africa–where functional air forces are almost non-existent–and South America with almost no prospects in Southeast Asia.

Current product descriptions of the FC-31 aren’t doing it any favors. For potential end users there are genuine concerns about the reliability of its “Chinese-made medium-thrust engines” and its classification as a “fourth-generation multirole fighter” rather than a fifth-generation platform. It’s already known the FC-31 is priced to beat rival models, which means SAC and its partners are prepared for large orders, but as a twin engine fighter jet its best selling point is limited to beyond-visual-range targeting with the export variant of the PL-15 air-to-air missile. Without an indisputable combat record, in terms of payload and performance the Russian-made Su-35 and the US-made F-15EX are the real game-changers for air forces today. The fact the FC-31 uses external hardpoints under its wings puts it on par with the South Korean KF-21 Boramae rather than a peer to an American equivalent. The shared characteristics of the FC-31 and KF-21 limits their appeal to highly maneuverable fighters with impressive situational awareness and diminished radar cross-sections.

China’s aerospace sector might have entered a new era but its best performing niche doesn’t threaten the primacy of Western combat aircraft. If cost-effective fixed wing models for air forces on a budget are considered then Chinese manufacturers do offer optimal choices. The FC-31 looks like one of them.

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