Mockup Of China’s Stealthy FC-31 Fighter Appears On Full-Size Aircraft Carrier Testing Rig
Evidence mounts that the long-rumored navalized variant of the FC-31 is indeed in the works.
Less than a week ago, we got our best view so far of China’s latest, in-construction aircraft carrier, which will feature catapults for launching aircraft, rather than a “ski jump”. Now, an apparent mockup of the enigmatic Shenyang FC-31 stealth fighter, or a derivative of it, has been spotted for the first time at the country’s land-based carrier test facility. The image in question shows the FC-31-like model positioned on the full-size mock aircraft carrier that’s located in Wuhan, China, and is used to evaluate aircraft for potential use at sea.
Although undated, the photo is, according to Chinese military aviation expert Andreas Rupprecht, fairly recent. The familiar configuration of the FC-31, with its twin canted tailfins, twin engines and high-mounted cockpit is clearly apparent from the rear aspect, although it’s exact relationship to the FC-31 is unclear. The image also shows that the island on the carrier mockup itself has been updated, likely to represent the one for the forthcoming Type 003 carrier — this will be the third carrier for the People’s Liberation Army Navy, or PLAN, and the first one to have a distinctly domestic design. The same photo showed mockups of J-15 carrier fighters, as well as one of a Z-18 series helicopter, a standard heavyweight rotary-wing type in PLAN service and a frequent visitor to its carriers.
While the Type 003 has been gradually taking shape observed by satellites and aerial photographers, the FC-31 program remains, in many ways, something of a mystery. However, there have been rumors for years now that the aircraft might serve as the basis for a future carrier-capable fighter, a stealthy complement to the J-15, a Chinese-made Sukhoi Flanker derivative that’s in service with the PLAN today, and which goes to sea aboard its first two carriers, Liaoning and Shandong.
“Development continues on the smaller FC-31/J-31 for export or as a future naval fighter for the PLAN’s next class of aircraft carriers,” according to an annual report on Chinese military developments that the Pentagon sent to Congress in 2020.
It’s worth noting, of course, that the FC-31 designation is applied to an export-optimized land-based fighter. There is speculation that the PLAN’s carrier-capable version could be designated J-21, or J-35, but this is entirely hypothetical at this stage. However, after years of speculation that there were plans to navalize the Shenyang design, the latest photo provides strong evidence that this is, at the very least, being seriously addressed and it would match with the Pentagon’s assessment.
Adapting a modern fighter jet like the FC-31 for carrier operations is a considerable undertaking. Typically, it may involve aerodynamic changes, optimizing the aircraft for the different angles of attack encountered on takeoff and landing, perhaps including additional high-lift devices on the wing. The flight-control system will need adaptation too, and then there are potential structural changes to reinforce the airframe for the stresses of launch and recovery. Invariably, the undercarriage will need to be beefed up and a catapult launch bar and arrester hook are requirements, too. More extensive use of composite materials may be required to prevent corrosion. Finally, for stowage on board ship, the wing panels would require folding mechanisms.
Meanwhile, what little we know about the FC-31 so far is related almost entirely to its export derivative, developed by Shenyang as a private venture, while the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) opted for the larger Chengdu J-20, which entered frontline service in early 2019. Both these jets incorporate low-observable features and fielding a stealth fighter aboard its carriers would provide the PLAN with a significant new capability to match its power-projection ambitions.
The FC-31 first appeared in scale model form in 2011 and a demonstrator aircraft took to the air in October 2012. Since then, only one more prototype has been confirmed, this featuring a number of improvements over the original, including aerodynamic refinements, among them smaller “clipped” and swept vertical tails, a less angular overall appearance, and cleaner surfaces. The powerplant exchanged the Russian-supplied RD-93 engines for a pair of indigenous WS-13E turbofan engines. This second example made its first flight in December 2016.
On the hardware side, therefore, there is little that’s official to point to the naval ambitions for the FC-31. However, in December 2019, a silhouette of the FC-31 appeared on the Weibo microblogging site of the Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC) — of which Shenyang is a subsidiary — described as a “future carrierborne fighter.” Days later, Shenyang announced it was developing a ‘new’ fighter, leading to speculation this was the long-awaited FC-31 carrier variant, although no such specifics were provided.
While unconfirmed, it’s been suggested that this new fighter may receive WS-19 turbofan engines and have a maximum takeoff weight around 30 tons, putting it in a similar weight category to the U.S. Navy’s F/A-18E/F Super Hornet. The aircraft will also almost certainly be tailored for catapult launch, with the Type 003 design expected to be equipped with an electromagnetic aircraft launch system (EMALS), rather than relying on the “ski jump” ramps used on the PLAN’s previous two carriers.
All in all, however, there is very little so far that’s confirmed about the PLAN’s future carrier fighter, which makes the appearance of the FC-31 or FC-31 derivative mockup at Wuhan all the more interesting. A mockup of the KJ-600 carrier-based airborne early warning aircraft had also appeared on Wuhan’s land-locked carrier by at least 2018. An actual prototype of this plane was spotted undergoing flight trials last summer.
What’s clear is that the PLAN does have a need for a new carrier-based multirole fighter. The J-15s that are currently in use, which are derived from the Soviet-designed Su-33 Flanker-D, have been criticized in the past on account of their “unstable flight control system,” which was blamed for two fatal accidents in 2016. Moreover, it will always be hamstrung when operating from the “ski jump” takeoff ramps on the PLAN’s first two carriers, which limits the weights at which it can be launched and, as a result, its maximum fuel and weapons loads.
In an effort to increase the total payload of fuel and weapons with which the J-15 can launch from the carrier, China has been working on a version that will be suitable for catapult launch, from the Type 003 and subsequent PLAN flattops.
At one time, it was expected that J-15 production might wind up after 24 series-production examples had been built, work that was completed in mid-2017. However, in early 2020, it was revealed that production of another batch of J-15s had begun, suggesting a requirement for some kind of interim equipment for the PLAN’s burgeoning carrier force. Meanwhile, work is also underway on improved versions of the J-15, including the J-15T demonstrator with catapult compatibility, and the two-seat J-15D with wingtip electronic warfare jamming pods, which is expected to operate in a role similar to the U.S. Navy’s EA-18G Growler.
Ultimately, however, the J-15 represents Cold War technology, albeit improved with more modern Chinese avionics and weaponry, giving it improved multirole capability compared to the Su-33 that the design was based on. With that in mind, a long-term successor is probably viewed as a necessity for China’s fast-expanding navy.
Even if the PLAN is now looking seriously at some kind of a derivative of the FC-31 for its future carrier air wings, that’s not to say that navalizing the jet will be straightforward, and developing a first indigenous fighter in this class is an ambitious undertaking, even for China. Currently, only three nations have indigenous carrier-based fighter jets in frontline service. Despite the hurdles ahead, however, the last few weeks have shown clearly that China’s carrier capabilities are developing at an impressive pace.
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