China’s J-31 stealth fighter gets an improved prototype—and a potential future on a carrier


J-31 V2
The J-31 fighter second prototype has been increasing test flights in April 2017, with rumors of more government funding and a third prototype on the way. Photo: A.Man at Sinodefence Forum

The improved J-31 stealth fighter prototype has been ramping up its test flights in April 2017, adding fuel to speculation that it will become the stealth fighter for Chinese aircraft carriers.

A New Bird
The new J-31 prototype (the one in lighter gray paint) is expected to be larger, have a nose-mounted infrared search and tracking sensor, and stealthy features like clipped horizontal and vertical stabilizers. Photo: Lovely Swift at mil.qq.com

Back in October 2012, China became the second country in the world (after the United States) to have multiple fifth-generation stealth programs, as the first FC-31/J-31 stealth fighter (FC-31 is the export designation) made its maiden flight. Built by the Shenyang Aircraft Corporation (SAC), the twin-engine J-31 is roughly the same size as the American F-35, with a range of 775 miles, a maximum takeoff weight of 28 tons, and a Mach 1.8 top speed. If it enters Chinese service, it would replace single-engine J-10s as a medium fighter, and possibly become a stealth fighter on China’s aircraft carriers.

Long Wait
The first prototype/tech demonstrator first flew in 2012. The second prototype’s upgrades—stealthier wings, IRST sensor and a single piece canopy—first shown at the Zhuhai 2014 Airshow, but the aircraft had to wait until December 2016 to fly. Photo: Blitzo at Sinodefence.com

Initially, there have been substantial doubts about the viability of the J-31 program. The first prototype did not fly with advanced avionics like an infrared search and track (IRST) sensor and stealth features like swept vertical stabilizers, suggesting its role to be a proof of concept for testing SAC’s stealth technology, and hopefully attract buyers. More tellingly, while SAC pitched the J-31 as an export fifth generation fighter at domestic and international air shows, neither the PLAAF nor foreign buyers showed firm interest in the project, leaving its viability uncertain.

No Smoke
Unlike the first J031, “31001”, which flew with smoky RD-93/WS-13 engines, the second prototype is flying with cleaner burning, likely more fuel-efficient engines. Photo: A.Man at Sinodefence Forum

This uncertainty held until the second, improved prototype first flew on December 26, 2016. The new J-31 prototype is three tons heavier and about 20 inches longer than the original technology demonstrator; it also had key improvements like an IRST sensor, stealthier wings, cleaner burning engines, and an improved radar. In addition to avionics and datalinks that enable sensor fusion, SAC officials state that the production J-31s (which could appear soon as 2019) could have supercruise capability, giving them a leg up over current F-35 fighters. Its WS-13 engines would be replaced by domestic WS-13E or WS-17 turbofan engines to give it that advantage in speed. The combination of the J-31’s high speed performance, and suggested payload of 6 PL-12 or 4 PL-21 long range air to air missiles suggests that the J-31 has been optimized as an air superiority fighter, though it can be fitted with a wide array of Chinese precision guided munitions like the LS smart bombs.

Gyrfalcon
The Shenyang “Gyrfalcon” J-31 stealth fighter, China’s second stealth fighter program, is speculated to have a possible carrier-capable configuration, with folding wings and reinforced landing gear. Photo: O+Nil

There’s been talk on Chinese Internet messaging boards suggesting that SAC has recently won government funding for a J-31 carrier version, which could be larger than the initial prototypes (the carrier capable F-35C is also larger than the basic F-35A variant), in order to increase range, payload, and structural strength for the stress of carrier flight operations. SAC also plans to unveil a model of the third prototype of the J-31 at the 2017 Paris Air Show, possibly aimed at Middle Eastern buyers unable to purchase the politically sensitive F-35.

Source: Popular Science “China’s J-31 stealth fighter gets an improved prototype—and a potential future on a carrier”

Note: This is Popular Science’s article I post here for readers’ information. It does not mean that I agree or disagree with the article’s views.

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3 Comments on “China’s J-31 stealth fighter gets an improved prototype—and a potential future on a carrier”

  1. Yungji says:

    A comparison oft he capabilities of the J-10s & J-11s with the J-31 would be telling.
    but I venture to think there’s a place for the J-31 also. Each has its own strengths. They may all complement each other. The question is how does the J-31 fare in a dogfight and does stealth trumps over non stealth. Against the American F-35 and F-22, would the J-10s and J-11s be “mincemeat’?

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    • Joseph says:

      ‘Mincemeat’? J-10s and J-11s have been in patrol of East China Sea for some time now. They encounter American top notch fighter jets along the way, including the F-22 before it was grounded. There is no official report about the encounters. The F-22s were supposed to be ‘undetectable’, but the J-11D upgraded radars can track it, even photograped it midair. If it can be tracked, it can be shot down. Meanwhile, the J-11D can only be photographed by the American only when it showed itself up with its missiles underbelly. If the F-22 and F-35 are so good, the American would have shown it in some ‘training exercise’ or combat actions. Instead they have an army of ‘analysts’ writing nonsense about how good these junks are and how ‘disadvantaged’ the Chinese is. In 1993 Gulf War and 1998 Kosovo War, the F-117s were deployed in combat with confidence. They were given full coverage and fanfare, until the Serbian embarrassed the American by shooting one down, essential destroying F-117’s potential market. The F-22s were deployed in limited combat against ISIS, until the ISIS was reported to have seized Iraqi army’s air defense system. The American then ask the more expendable Australian and Jordanian to do air strikes. As the American knows how bad their planes are, it is very unlikely that J-22 and J-35 would be deployed in dog fight against China. After all China once embarrassed America when Chinese inexperienced farm boy pilots gave bloody nose to American WW2 ace pilots in what became the famous, but ‘forgotten’, Korean War dog fights. Today, China’s pilots are more trained than those farm boys. The F-35 is far more ridiculous. Latest report shows that without its specially-designed engine, it has the radar signature as big as a jumbo jet. Even if it wants to disguise itself as a squadron jumbo jets flying in formation, it will be a very tempting target to shoot down. Moreover the F-35 has serious fuel consumption issue that limit its range severely.

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    • Simon says:

      The F-35 is not known for its dog fight capability therefore cannot compete against the J-10 and J-11. It is source of income for Lockhead forcing America’s allies to pay for planes that are completely useless.

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