Author's Note: Unsurprisingly a great deal of information about China's new stealth fighter is unknown. Specific details such as radar cross section figures are nonexistent at this point. Estimates and theories comprise the bulk of public "knowledge" about the J-31 and are thus subject to change and scrutiny. As a side note, I'm sorry for the late post but being a full time student and finding the time to write these is pretty hard.
It has been more than a month since China's second stealth fighter made its public debut. A cloud of speculation still shrouds China's second stealth fighter. Even its exact designation has not been confirmed hence the use of the J-21, J-31, and F60 designations by many sources (they all refer to the same aircraft). The primary purpose of this article is to list what few details are known about jet. Following this, the article will discuss the educated guesses by aviation experts as to its origin, purpose, capabilities, and impact on the region.
Image 1: Among the first images of the J-31 released. The aircraft shown is designated 310001 hence the theory that the aircraft is designated as the J-31. Furthermore the writing on the tail, 鹘鹰, is Chinese for “Falcon Eagle” (Cenciotti, 2012). Hence, the J-31 designation will be used for the remainder of the article.
What is Known
- First images released by Tiexue.net Chinese military forums prior to Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta's visit to China on September 19th.
- Images taken outside a Shenyang Aircraft Corporation airfield
- Weapons bays underneath fuselage, no side weapon bays.
- The aircraft is approximately the size of an F-35 (estimated by using objects in image as reference)
- Twin power plant with non thrust vectoring engine nozzles
Origin and Purpose
As stated before there are virtually no details as to the circumstances of development or resources devoted to the J-31 project. The J-20, China's first stealth fighter, is being developed and built by Chengdu aircraft corporation/conglomerate. However, the J-31 made its debt outside of a Shenyang corporation airfield. Shenyang the chief competitor to Chengdu.
"The various plants of the Avic group, such as Chengdu Aircraft and Shenyang Aircraft, have a long tradition of rivalry. To overcome that, the group began bundling them together from 2008 into specialist subsidiaries in which they were supposed to work together. But the defense ministry opposed tight integration of the defense subsidiary—including Chengdu and Shenyang—in order to maintain closer control and probably to retain and foster competition among them." - Bill Sweetman
Some theorize is possible that the J-31 lost to the J-20 in a fighter aircraft competition. However, the design differences between the J-31 and J-20 suggest they were designed with completely different roles in mind. The J-20 bears many of the characteristics of heavy fighter or strike aircraft vs the lighter build of the J-31. It is unlikely that the two aircraft competed for the same role. Traditionally the PLAA has a history of procuring a light and heavy fighter.
“In traditional PLA thinking, there has always been a necessity for ‘light’ plus ‘heavy’ in terms of equipment.” - Gary Li, 2012
The most plausible theory put forward is that the J-31 will serve as a light fighter supplementing the heavier J-20. Both aircraft are in their prototype stages. However, it is also possible that the J-31 is merely a test aircraft and not a prototype with a finalized version to enter production. The United States built several prototype stealth aircraft that never entered service e.g. the Lockheed HAVE BLUE demonstrator aircraft.
The shaping of the intakes on the J-31 bear remarkable similarities to those on the F-35. The tail design and chined nose emulate the F-22 closely (However J-31 design features conventional tail nozzles).
Of particular interest to some observers is the use of twin wheels on the front landing gear. Aircraft featuring twin wheeled landing gear are typically carrier based aircraft. However, the implementation of a twin wheeled landing gear system is hardly grounds to suggest the J-31 is destined for carrier operations. Building a stealth fighter is difficult. Building a stealth fighter for carrier based operations is extremely difficult. Its unlikely that the second stealth fighter ever produced by China would be carrier capable. Carrier based aircraft must include fold-able wings, tail hooks, strengthened heavy landing gear, and an extremely durable airframe that can take the structural strain of carrier landings. The current J-31 design only features ONE of the listed criterion, possibly two. Furthermore, the J-15 is already been developed for carrier use on the Liaoning.
Bill Sweetman believes the J-31 is equipped with twin Russian RD-93 engines. China's domestic jet engine designs continue to prove problematic and demonstrate poor performance and reliability. The J-31 is further hampered by China's lagging domestic fighter radar designs. For example, the domestically produced radar used in the 4.5 generation J-10 can track 10 targets while engaging 4 targets vs the F-15's AN/APG-63 (V) 1 radar built in the 1990s can track 14 and engage 6 targets. Without sufficiently capable internal systems, the J-31 will look externally impressive but will be outclassed by other 5th generation fighters.
Part II will contain sources and uncovered information mentioned in outline.