China unveiled its first fifth generation stealth fighter at the Dubai Air Show but so far, the product has not gained the traction Beijing hoped for. According to China Military Online, it was the first such occasion in which the FC-31 Gyrfalcon, which commonly goes by the name of J-31, was showcased overseas.
Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC) introduced this aircraft with an aim to provide competition to Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. However, the FC-31 has so far received an underwhelming response to potential suitors in presenting itself as a worthy, yet cheaper alternative to the F-35. Apart from the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF), no other party has shown solid interest in buying these fifth-generation stealth fighter jets. The PLA Air Force, however, is reportedly locked in negotiations with AVIC in order to purchase the aircraft.
Stealth fighter struggling to woo away prospective clients
However, there have been no reports of when the PLAAF will strike a deal with AVIC for the purchase of this aircraft, and neither has there been any report regarding the number of jets the PLAAF will purchase. According to AVIC project manager Lin Peng, the PLAAF is not the only party to show interest in their product. AVIC sees Iran and Pakistan as other potential customers and is hoping to attract their attention in the coming months.
The FC-31 exhibited everything with perfect accuracy at the Dubai Air Show according to the AVIC representative. Lin stated that the stealth fighter showed outstanding situational awareness during the exhibition and presented their case further by stressing that the FC-31 has been designed by keeping in mind the demands of future battlefield environments.
A Chinese stealth fighter with American roots
However, things have not been working out for China’s indigenous aircraft the way they would have hoped for. Many people have argued that China’s FC-31 is a copy of the U.S.-made F-35 and that the aircraft design is believed to be stolen from Lockheed Martin. The arms manufacturing juggernaut sustained a serious cyber-attack in April 2009 when hackers breached their network and gained access to the blueprints of the F-35 plane.
Experts have evaluated the FC-31 and asserted that the airframe of the aircraft resembles that of the F-35 and that just like the F-35, FC-31 carries two internal weapons bays, which can carry both guided as well as unguided weapons. Its wings are capable of carrying 3,600 kg of payload. It can carry 2,700 kilograms of payload externally under its wings and 910 kilograms internally.
IHS Jane’s Defense Weekly ran a comparison between the F-35 and FC-31 and found that both aircraft have the same electro-optical targeting system, the EOTS-89. Both jets use two tracking mirrors and a flat-facetted optical window. And not only that, but the bottom fuselage in both aircraft is placed just behind the radar radome. Coincidence? Experts think not.
In addition to that, aircraft experts have discarded the notion that China’s stealth aircraft can compete with rival Lockheed-Martin’s F-35. However, a detailed assessment of the FC-31, claimed to be a fifth-generation fighter, cannot be entirely accurate at this stage. China’s AVIC has not made the details of their aircraft public, and it would be wrong to completely rule out its success in the future.
A bit of Russian technology
The FC-31 is a twin-engine aircraft, and its prototype is armed with a Klimov 8.29-ton thrust RD-33 turbofan of Russian origin. According to reports, China is working on the WS-13 Taishan turbofan, which is also an improved and developed version of the Klimov RD-33 turbofan. All these reports suggest that China’s FC-31 is based on the drawings of the American-made F-35 and that the technology this fighter is using is borrowed from Russia. A prototype of China’s FC-31 Gyrfalcon took to the sky for the first time in October 2012 and made its first public flight demonstration during the Zhuhai Air Show in China last year.
Although the test aircraft has been flying for a couple years now, AVIC has pegged 2019 as the year for the first flight of the production aircraft and 2022 for the year in which the aircraft will reach an initial operational capability if everything goes according to plan. And according to AVIC representatives, the JC-31 will reach its full operation capability in 2024.
With experts from the United States accusing the makers of the FC-31 steeling the idea from the F-35, it seems rather difficult for the makers of this plane to present a strong case to potential buyers. The aircraft has yet to reach its full potential. These are some areas that need to be addressed if the Aviation Industry Corporation of China wants to make this product a success in the future.