September 30, 2015: Strategy Page
Recently someone in China anonymously posted performance data for the new Chinese J-31 fighter. This was in the form of a sales brochure (for trade shows) that had not been distributed to the public. So far the manufacturer has been vague about J-31 performance data. This despite the fact that the J-31 has been showing up at Chinese weapons shows. But so far this promotion has been all about looking at the impressive appearance of the J-31, not crunching any numbers.
It gets more interesting when you realize that the recently posted data ascribes better engine performance than actual engines the Chinese have in service or access to. There were also descriptions of J-31 electronics that sounded more like a Chinese wish list than anything the Chinese have or are known to be developing. Many in the industry see this as some kind of desperate publicity stunt. Efforts to sell the J-31 have not been very successful so far.
In late 2014 China quietly approached some potential customers about interest in buying its 18 ton J-31 stealth fighter. For export customers the J-31 would be called the FC-31 and it was understood that this version would not have all the best stuff the J-31 has. Pakistan expressed some interest, but then Pakistan is the largest export customer for Chinese weapons. Pakistan apparently thought it best to wait a bit because it was unclear how ready the J-31 was for active service. Since 2012 China has been testing the J-31 “Falcon Eagle” (from an inscription on the tail). While it looks like the American F-22, it’s also smaller than China’s other stealth fighter (the 35 ton J-20, which has been around longer). The J-31 was built by the Shenyang Aircraft Corporation (which makes the J-11, the illegal Chinese copy of the Russian Su-27). The J-31 has some characteristics of the F-35 as well and appears to be something of an “F-35” to the earlier J-20s effort to match the American F-22. The J-31 flew for the first time in October 2012 and at that point there were at least two prototypes. The designer has talked of the J-31 being able to operate off an aircraft carrier (like the U.S. F-35 and the Chinese J-15, a J-11 variant).
One advantage the J-31 is that it has two engines, compared to one for the 31 ton F-35. In theory this means the J-31 could carry more weapons, but this is less crucial with all the guided weapons available. Moreover the J-31 is seen using Chinese engines, which are less powerful and reliable, even when two are used, compared to the single engine in the F-35C.
The J-31 is further evidence that China is determined to develop its own high tech military gear. While China is eager to develop advanced military technology locally, it recognizes that this takes time and more effort than nations new to this expect. Thus, China is trying to avoid the mistakes Russia made in this area. That means having competing designs and developing necessary supporting industries as part of that. All this takes a lot of time and involves lots of little (and some major) failures. The Chinese are doing it right and are willing to wait until they get military tech that is truly world class.
At this point the J-31 is scheduled to be ready for service in 2019 and have ground attack as well as air-to-air capabilities.