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FC-31 / J-31 (Jianjiji-31 Fighter aircraft 31)

The J-31 fighter jet is one of China’s most ambitious export fighter, a "relatively" low cost multi-role platform with an emphasis on strike capabilities and incorporating some degree of stealth. The J-31, also designated the FC-31 (Fighter China 31), might achieve an initial operational capability in the 2025 timeframe. China [as well as most potential export customers] lack the extensive electronic support [eg, RIVET JOINT, AWACS, etc] and aerial refueling capabilities that American stealth aicraft can rely upon.

The Chinese military leaked the first photos of long-rumored new stealth fighter, the second model revealed in China. The J-31 attracted wide public attention in June when some online pictures showed the cutting-edge fighter fully wrapped but with its futuristic shape still discernible. The J-31 fighter, named Falcon Eagle in Chinese, took its first flight at 10:32 am Beijing local time, Wednesday 31 October 2012, along with two J-11BS fighter jets from the runway of Shenyang Aircraft Corp, the producer and researcher of the fighter in Liaoning Province.

Shenyang Aircraft Industry Group (SAC), one of the leading aircraft design and manufacturing corporations of China’s aviation industry, revealed the prototype of what might eventually become Chinese analog to the American F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. The new aircraft, said to be designated the J-31 or to have the codename F-60, has external characteristics that suggest to some that it could be used on future Chinese aircraft carriers. The J-31 prototype jet has the side number 31001, which is the origin of the J-31 nomenclature, since the first two J-20 prototypes had “2001” and “2002” side numbers, respectively.

Photos of a model labeled F-60 were posted online as early as September 2011. These images show only scaled-down models, not the real thing, with one notable difference being the single wheel in the model versus the paired nose-wheels in the real deal. This radio-controlled F-60 model had been built with the Shenyang University of Aeronautics and Astronautics [SUAA]. In June 2012 a photograph of a full scale airframe being transported on a truck trailer, obscured by netting, appeared online.

Though no characteristics of the prototype have been unveiled, one major difference is obvious: unlike its American relative, China’s J-31 has two engines, as does the previously revealed J-20. The pictures of the Chinese technology demonstrator suggest that the engines the aircraft is currently equipped with do not have thrust vectoring nozzles. Possibly the prototype is at an early a stage of testing, and might be fitted with a more sophisticated and powerful propulsion package at a later date. The twin vertical tail and wide-spaced ram air inlets are reminiscent of these features on the Lockheed Martin’s F-22 Raptor.

The J-31 inlet design features diverterless supersonic inlet [DSI] similar in concept to that used on the American F-35. The F-35's diverterless inlet lightens the overall weight of the aircraft. Traditional aircraft inlets were comprised of many moving parts and are much heavier than newer diverterless inlets. The diverterless inlet also eliminates all moving parts. DSI moved from concept to reality when it was flown on a Block 30 F-16 in a highly successful demonstration program consisting of twelve flights flown in nine days in December 1996.

Unlike the Russians and Indians, whose joint project to develop a fifth generation aircraft produced a single design, the Chinese military followed the American example and placed its bets on two horses: Chengdu Aircraft Corporation, which is already testing the J-20 fifth generation heavy combat aircraft, and Shenyang Aircraft Industry Group with its F-31/F-60 aircraft. It is unclear which America practice the Chinese have emulated. Possibly this is like the Advanced Tactical Fighter and Joint Strike Fighter programs, in which competing designs were flight tested before one was selected for production. Or possibly the J-31 and J-20 are not to be regarded as competitors, but as complementary pair such as the F-22 and F-35, because to some it appeared the aircraft may have different specializations.

The problem with the competitive fly-off explanation is that the first flight of the J-20 came in January 2010, nearly two years before the first flight of the J-31. This belies a competitive fly-off, absent a rather spectacular schedule delay in the J-31, or an extremely sedate development schedule in which such a two year discrepancy is insignficant in the long view. The complementary role explanation fails due to the apparent similarity in size. Unlike the large twin-engine air-superiority F-22 and smaller single engine air-to-ground F-35, both the graceful J-20 and the slightly shorter but visibly chunkier J-31 are twin-engined, presumably with the same WS10 Taihang engines. If the total weight of the shorter J-31 was signficiantly less than that of the J-20 [a fact not in evidence], either the J-31 would seem rather over-powered, or the J-20 somewhat under-powered.

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