China’s J-31 Multi-role Fighter: Export Cinderella or White Elephant?

international relations, analysis, J-31
Shenyang J-31 at the Zhuhai Airshow. Image credit: Wikipedia

By Adrian Calderaro, 4 December 2014.

China’s new J-31 took to the skies for its first ever public appearance at the Zhuhai airshow in late November, however of more interest is the plastic scale model that was featured inside the air-show exposition.

The less than envelope-pushing aerial display of the prototype J-31 did not reveal anything that was not already known about the aircraft. Its design appears to have capitalised on western design courtesy of intellectual espionage through the widely publicised attacks on secure US websites, including Lockheed Martin and BAE Systems – the manufacturer and sub-contractor of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Visually one can see a distinct similarity between the entire front fuselage section forward of the wings of China’s J-31 and the US F-35. The Divertless Supersonic Inlets, obtuse angled rather than 360˚view bubble canopy – omitted on the F-35 but traditionally a standard US Aircraft feature – are two very obvious features that appear to have been ‘borrowed’ from western design.

What is telling is the reliance and use of the smokey RD-93/RD-33 family of engines, the power-plant of the 4th Generation Russian MiG-29. It is unclear as to whether the engine is a locally produced WS-13 variant of the engine, but this detail is almost irrelevant; the engine itself whilst proven yet criticised for good reason, is 1970s – 1980s technology nonetheless and is a far cry for what should be powering a so-called 5th generation fighter. The use and reliance upon this engine is a clear indication to western intelligence that despite the advances in what we can speculate to be aircraft design and manufacturing processes; Radar Absorbing Material (RAM) technologies are perhaps utilised for J-31 airframe design, Chinese engine technology has a long way to go.

This point is reiterated by the debuting of China’s Y-20 heavy lift transporter aircraft, somewhat reminiscent of Boeing’s C-17 and Airbus A400M. While the prototype is a leap in China’s heavy lifting capability, the aircraft’s long, cylindrical engines suggest that it is equipped with what seem to be low-bypass turbofan engines with an integrated exhaust nozzle. This sort of power-plant/airframe combination was commonplace on early turbofan equipped transport aircraft such as the C-141 StarLifter, long-range bombers like the early B-52 Stratofortress and airliners like the Boeing 707 and 727. As technology advanced, high-bypass turbofan engines became commonplace, introducing lower emissions and noise pollution, increased thrust and serviceable life, lower maintenance costs and hours and higher fuel efficiency and increased range. These engines are the industry standard for any large aircraft, civil or military. According to some internet sources, a high-bypass variant is in development for the Y-20, however it will be interesting to see if Full Authority Digital Engine Control (FADEC) systems are under development and will be implemented.

The J-31’s manufacturer – Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC) – displayed a 1/2 scale J-31 mock up sporting a two-tone camouflage not unlike that worn on the F-22 and F-35. Looking closely, and although a mock-up, it visually insinuates what technologies may be in store. The mock-up sports a golden metallic-tinted canopy, a measure utilised by US aircraft manufacturers to further reduce radar cross-sections emitted from the cockpit. Looking under the nose, there is another F-35 like feature: what seems to be an Electro-Optical Targeting System (EOTS). Finally, the exhaust nozzles of the aircraft feature distinguishable low observable technology, like the F135 engine of the F-35 but completely dissimilar to the more advanced F119 engine of the F-22. The sorts of questions raised by this mock-up aircraft’s features are multifaceted. How far away are these technologies? How good are they? And who will have access to them?

The J-31 has been speculated to be an export fighter. It is not clear whether the J-31 will also be employed by the PLAAF and or the PLANAF. Domestically, the J-31 may be China’s first low observable aircraft with great potential to capitalise on various emerging technologies that will be made available throughout its service life courtesy of China’s burgeoning aerospace industry. Internationally, the J-31 may be China’s way of extending their comparative manufacturing  advantage into more unchartered territory, offering yet another alternative to the American, Russian and European multirole fighter offerings. A J-31 featuring an AESA radar suite could potentially be a very attractive alternative to the 4.5th/5th Generation American, European or Russian multirole fighter aircraft that are currently available.

A production version J-31 featuring the upgrades seen on the mock-up will add a new dynamic to Chinese air power development. Moreover a North Korea, Iran or Pakistan with access to low observable aircraft would be an interesting strategic consideration. Emerging blue water naval platforms such as India’s INS Vikramaditya may be better equipped armed with low observable J-31s than their current MiG-29Ks. Nevertheless contemporary aircraft design no longer requires brute aircraft performance as a prerequisite. Technological advancements have resulted in a strategic shift in design parameters.  Current design emphasises systems integration and AWACS enhanced situational awareness. Additionally aircrews’ ability to receive and share information in a dynamic battle space between other aircraft, ground crews and intelligence services rermains an important contemporary consideration. With these considerations in mind, several important questions remain unanswered. What degree of interoperability will the J-31 offer to potential foreign buyers’ current aircraft inventories? Will additional and costly additions on top of required investments in infrastructure and technical support be required (such as the Xian KJ-2000) to integrate the J-31 into a capable force structure equal to, or surpassing that of its contemporaries?

Finally and most importantly, does the J-31 highlight China’s new comparative advantage in contemporary fighter aircraft design, or will it end up being an expensive investment with problematic future repercussions in an already well-accommodated fighter market?


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