Monday, November 12, 2012

What does J-31 tell us about China

There have been many articles written about the recent first flight of J-31. If you go to sinodefenceforum where I moderate, you can see pages and pages of analysis by amateurs like myself over what we think the roles of this aircraft is along with its capabilities. If you read enough online articles, they will start repeating themselves over how close J-31 resembles to F-22 and F-35. And while this fighter looks to have stealth shaping, there are much more to achieving stealth than just resemblance to shaping of F-35. As usual, the one article that did peak my interest was the one by Andrew Erickson and Gabe Collins. They looked at the growing Chinese aerospace industry and its increasing threat to Russia’s export markets.

I think that should be the general take away from this. In this year alone, Shenyang Aircraft Corporation has done first flights of J-31, J-16 (a fighter bomber along the lines of Su-34/F-15E) and J-15S (twin seat variant of J-15). In this past 2 years, China has flight tested 2 different 5th generation aircraft. The rumour is that the Y-20 heavy transport project will also make maiden flight this year. I personally consider Y-20 project and the associated WS-18 and WS-20 (or maybe WS-118) turbofan engine to be PLAAF’s most important projects because of its use in force multiplication and power projection. China desperately needs a platform like Y-20 that can be used for strategic lift, aerial refueling, AEW C&C, other C4ISR missions and as ABL platform. Regardless of how one would view Y-20s importance vs J-20/J-31, these are definitely the 3 most important PLAAF projects over the next few years. The short duration of 2 years between the maiden flights of these projects shows how much China’s aviation industry is growing. Each of these projects is also worked on by one of AVIC 1’s three largest aircraft companies (Shenyang, Chengdu and Shaanxi/Xi’an AC). In their civilian business, each of these companies is involved in the production of parts for numerous airliners for COMAC and Western aircraft manufacturers. When we include their military projects, we can see the amount of R&D that these companies are doing.

A while ago, I read about how Chengdu AC is now employing a whole new generation of engineers that learnt the entire fighter development process from J-10 project. This group of engineers has since developed JF-17 and J-10B. They are now the brains behind J-20, numerous new J-10 variants and UAV projects. I think they have also recruited foreign engineers (especially from Russia and Ukraine) that have really contributed in all the military projects. These companies are paying increasingly competitive wages to recruit capable engineers and employing modern Western design practices. 20 years ago, one would question whether or not China can actually develop a 4th generation fighter jet let alone a 5th generation fighter jet even if they received all of the necessary funding. With the experience from J-10 project, JH-7A project and indigenization of J-11 project, they now have the capability to develop modern fighter jet if given time and money. In comparison, Russia will be increasingly facing the question of whether or not it can develop modern aircraft due to a dwindling and aging engineering force from 20 years of brain drain. In the export market, Russia is still reliant on upgraded versions of flanker and fulcrum series of aircraft for most of revenues. With T-50 still years away from being available for export outside of India, Su-35 and Mig-35 are what Russia will be able to offer for its traditional markets. Once J-10 finally starts using domestic engine, China will be able to offer J-10 and JF-17 to compete against Russia in those markets. From the recent test flights, it looks J-31 will be available for export as F-60 not that far after T-50 becomes available. Until then, J-10B, future JF-17s and Chinese UAVs will be competitive against Russian exports. By the time J-31 becomes available, China will have something capable of taking serious market shares in the very lucrative fighter jet market. This has already happened to a degree in the naval export market, where the rapidly improving quality of PLAN ships have let to more capable ships available for exports. Chinese shipyards have been quite busy building smaller battle ships, FACs and OPVs for countries like Pakistan, Bangladesh, Thailand and African countries.

There are still many lingering questions about China’s aerospace engine industry. As we saw, J-31 made its first flight with RD-93 engines which are clearly not intended to fit the production versions of J-31. All of J-10A and JF-17 production aircraft are equipped with Russian engines. The first batch of Y-20 and H-6K will be equipped D-30KP2. However, it looks like FWS-10/A mass production has finally reached reliable stage. All of the recent batches of J-11B/S have been using FWS-10. J-15, J-15S, J-16 and J-20 prototypes have also been using FWS-10. In a recent photo, it looks like the first production J-10B may also be using FWS-10A. If that is the case, the majority of front line Chinese aircraft will soon be using Chinese engines instead of Russian ones.

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