China’s Highly Evolved FC-31 Stealth Fighter Makes Its First Flight
China’s high-low stealth fighter mix strategy is evolving rapidly.
The War Zone reported on the existence of a second rendition of China’s Shenyang FC-31 Gyrfalcon stealth fighter when pictures of the design under construction surfaced during the Zhuhai Air Show in early November. Now that aircraft—which features substantial upgrades in its low observable shaping and manufacturing quality—has flown for the first time, as evidenced by the photos and video below.
Not only could an operational FC-31 help fill the ranks of PLAAF medium and light fighter squadrons, but it could also be adapted for China’s emerging CATOBAR aircraft carrier program. This would give China a stealthy fighter that can project power far from the Chinese mainland.
If this redesign proves fruitful, it's all but guaranteed China will move to export the FC-31 to anyone with the cash to buy it. Many countries either can't afford, or are not allowed to buy, the Lockheed Martin F-35 from the US. These nations could turn to China and the FC-31 to provide them with a “poor man’s” Joint Strike Fighter. Pakistan, in particular, is a very ripe candidate to join the FC-31 program early on–especially as new aircraft join the Indian Air Force’s fleet, including the PAK-FA based on Russia’s stealthy T-50 fighter.
The FC-31 appeared for the first time over four years ago, and the fact that already moved from “YF” configuration to a near production configuration is telling. It shows how committed China is to developing multiple stealth fighters as part of a high-low capability mix, and to take a larger share of the fighter export market abroad.
The FC-31 is one of three light to medium-weight stealthy fighters being developed indigenously in the region—Japan and Korea are the other two countries taking on such endeavours, and both are also F-35 customers. They will likely end up with designs that will be similar to what the F-35 would have been like without the F-35B’s damning STOVL requirements that mired the jet’s design and specifically its aerodynamics.
How stealthy an airframe and how advanced China's FC-31's sensor fusion and avionics suite will be is unknown. But even an 70% solution alternative to the F-35 that costs 40% of Lockheed Martin's price is an enticing proposition, as quantity has a quality all its own.
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