China's first stealth fighter for aircraft carriers is emerging, but a big problem still weighs it down

An FC-31 fighter aircraft. Reuters
China's FC-31 stealth fighter was recently spotted on a replica aircraft carrier.
Little is known about the FC-31, but this look is a sign that China's Navy might take it over.
Like China's other advanced jets, the FC-31 has flaws that prevent it from competing with its US counterparts.
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China's fifth generation stealth fighter J-20 is the most touted aircraft in the Air Force of the People's Liberation Army (PLAAF).
His missions near Taiwan and the Indian border last year were a clear sign of strength, as was the appearance of 15 J-20s - 10% of the fleet, the largest public exhibition to date - at the 100th anniversary celebrations Chinese Communist Party in Beijing month.
The J-20 is China's only stealth fighter in service, but not the only one that China has built.
The FC-31, the J-20's lesser-known cousin, is not in service with the PLAAF, but a model was recently spotted on a replica aircraft carrier, suggesting that China's Navy could take over the fighter - most likely for use in the future wings of its new airlines.
A stealthy jet with little interest
A J-31 stealth fighter at the China Airshow-2014 in Zhuhai, November 11, 2014. Images Group via Getty Images
Definitely little is known about the FC-31, sometimes referred to as the J-31 or J-35, but it has an interesting history.
Unlike the Chengdu Aircraft Industry Group, which builds the J-20, Shenyang Aircraft Corporation developed the FC-31 privately and therefore did not receive the same level of government support. (Though the development of the FC-31 was likely aided by China's theft of American technology.)
In fact, the FC-31 was not originally intended for the PLAAF, but for the international export market.
The jet first flew in 2012 but wasn't officially unveiled to the public until the 2014 China International Aviation & Aerospace Exhibition.
Only three prototypes were built, the last of which differed significantly from its predecessors. It is said to have carried out a flight test in September 2020.
A J-31 at the Airshow China 2014. JOHANNES EISELE / AFP via Getty Images
Despite appearances at trade fairs, there were no foreign purchases of the FC-31. As a result, Shenyang Aircraft Corporation shifted its focus from the international market to trying to make the FC-31 the PLAAF's newest stealth fighter.
The PLAAF has shown no interest in the FC-31, but there have been reports that China's Navy (PLAN) is viewing the FC-31 as a complement to its carrier-supported wings.
The likelihood of a PLAN takeover appeared to have increased last month when a model aircraft that looked like an FC-31 appeared aboard a land-based aircraft carrier near the city of Wuhan.
The mock carrier, built 10 years ago, was used to test how other aircraft could function on a flat top.
The model airplane was easily recognized by its stealthy cell. It was also in the vicinity of two J-15 fighter jets and a model of a Z-18 transport helicopter, both of which are in service with the PLAN.
Heavy jets
Security guards in front of a J-31 poster at China Airshow 2014. Dickson Lee / South China Morning Post via Getty Images
The FC-31 is designed in many ways to compete with the US-made F-35, but with a few differences. It's a bit bigger and has two jet engines next to that of the F-35.
The main fighters in the US Navy, the F-35C and F / A-18E, both have a top speed of Mach 1.6, while the FC-31 can reportedly reach Mach 1.8. (The F-35C is currently limited to service on only one U.S. airline.)
Crucial to the PLAN is that the FC-31 is up to 22,000 pounds lighter than China's current J-15 carrier-based fighter, which is the heaviest carrier-based fighter in the world.
The weight of the J-15, combined with the disadvantages of the ski jumping carrier design, severely limits the capabilities of the PLAN's carrier air wings.
But the FC-31 has its own weight problems. Its curb weight is said to be up to 38,000 pounds. This affects its maximum takeoff weight, which is estimated at 56,000 pounds.
Higher take-off weights require larger engines and more fuel, which reduces the armament an aircraft can carry.
A J-31 taxis after a flight at the Airshow China 2014. JOHANNES EISELE / AFP via Getty Images
For comparison, the F-35C has a curb weight of 34,800 pounds and a maximum takeoff weight of 70,000 pounds.
The F-35B, the short take-off and landing version that also operates from US Navy ships, has a curb weight of 32,300 pounds and a takeoff weight of 60,000 pounds.
The F / A-18E has a curb weight of 32,000 pounds and a maximum takeoff weight of 66,000 pounds.
China's struggle to produce a high-end, efficient engine also affects the weight of its jets. The first FC-31 model, like the J-20, was equipped with Russian engines. Better engines would allow China's fighter jets to carry heavier loads and operate longer.
To convert the FC-31 into a carrier-based aircraft, other changes would be required, e.g. B. the enlargement of the wings, which would also make them heavier.
New plane, new carrier
China has two airlines, Liaoning and Shandong seen here, but a third is on the way. STR / AFP via Getty Images
The effectiveness and final design of the FC-31 also depend on the sponsors of the PLAN themselves.
The current PLAN carriers, Liaoning and Shandong, both have ski jumps, which puts the FC-31 at a disadvantage, as it cannot take off fully loaded.
China's new Type 003-class aircraft carrier, currently under construction, will have a flat deck and advanced aircraft electromagnetic launch system, just like the US Navy's new Gerald R. Ford-class aircraft carriers.
EMALS would allow the FC-31 and J-15 to take off fully loaded. Full loads of fuel and ammunition increase the range and combat capability of the jets.
Like the US, China has difficulties with EMALS. China's fighting is likely due to its lack of experience with carrier-based catapult systems. The US Navy has been using steam catapults for decades and says it is fixing its EMALS issues.
A J-31 at the Airshow China 2014. JOHANNES EISELE / AFP via Getty Images
When adopted by the PLAN, the FC-31 will complement and possibly replace the J-15. (The FC-31 could also depart from China's planned Type 076 amphibious assault ship.)
On paper, the FC-31 has advantages over the J-15, which has crashed multiple times, at least one of which was fatal.
The stealth capabilities of the FC-31 are also extremely attractive to the PLAN. Global Times, a Chinese Communist Party's tabloid, claims radars can only track the jet from a distance of 50 kilometers.
The appearance of the FC-31 on the replica aircraft carrier means that "once it is upgraded to meet the needs of the carrier operations, [it] could be a top option for China's next-generation carrier-based fighter," Global Times quoted an expert as saying this month say.
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