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China’s stealth carrier fighter makes maiden flight
Just a few days after imagery emerged of a twin-seat J-20 fighter performing a high-speed taxi, military aircraft aficionados were sent into raptures of delight when a photo emerged of a Chinese carrier-borne stealth fighter performing its maiden flight in Shenyang.
The photo appeared on 29 October, the new twin-engine fighter in turquoise-green primer paint based on a modified Shenyang Aircraft Corporation (SAC) FC-31 design that achieved its maiden flight in October 2012.
Remarkably, this is only the second stealthy carrier-borne fighter in the world, the first being the F-35C flown by the USN. Furthermore, it is noteworthy that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has two stealth fighters simultaneously either in service or in advanced development.
The nomenclature of the new fighter has not been ascertained, and it is variously being called the J-31 or J-35.
Key characteristics observable in the circulating photo include a launch bar attached to the dual front wheels for catapult launches; a wing-folding mechanism to minimise the aircraft’s footprint on carrier flight decks or hangar decks; and a chin-mounted EO infrared search and track sensor.
This prototype of the PLA Navy’s (PLAN) new fighter has twin canted tailfins, wider wings and, compared to the original FC-31 and subsequent variant that flew in December 2016, the cockpit section has been redesigned and the fuselage is bulkier. It has two internal weapons bays able to accommodate air-to-air missiles like the PL-15 and PL-10.
A mock-up of this fighter was seen on a dummy flight deck at the Wuhan test facility in June, so the actual prototype’s appearance was expected. It will presumably receive an AESA radar.
The new J-31/J-35 will supplement the in-service J-15, a Chinese copy of the Russian Su-33. Nonetheless, manufacture of the heavier J-15 continues, with a fourth production batch having been identified. Probably around 50 J-15s have been produced to date.
The FC-31 was unveiled at the Zhuhai Air Show in 2014, and it has since been modified into a carrier-borne fighter for the PLAN. (Gordon Arthur)
China is also developing a catapult-launched version of the J-15, the so-called J-15T, indicating that the PLAN will operate a mixed fleet of J-15s and J-31/J-35s from its aircraft carriers. The resulting catapult-launched J-15B could appear as early as next year. Additionally, a J-15D electronic attack aircraft, sharing technology from the recently unveiled J-16D, could eventually appear.
The PLAN’s first two short take-off but arrested recovery (STOBAR) carriers feature a bow ski ramp, but the third carrier onwards will utilise a catapult to launch aircraft. In fact, the Type 003 carrier now under construction in Shanghai will use an electromagnetic aircraft launch system (EMALS). It is this carrier and follow-on ones that the new J-31/J-35 is designed to operate from.
The J-31/J-35 is assumed to use WS13E engines, but it could migrate to the WS19 later this decade.
It is unclear how long it will take until the J-31/J-35 enters service, but given the early stage of the flight programme, it will be perhaps something like five years.
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