Monday, March 04, 2013

China’s Falcon Eagle (J-31) Sends Couple Messages about Chinese Military Industry

A successful 10-minute test flight of China’s Falcon Eagle was a surprise to many observers of Chinese military industry. The new project was first unveiled just a few months ago, in November 2012 and demonstrated significant advancement in the Chinese production capabilities. This advanced multi-functional fighter jet is also referred to as F-60 or J-31 and is described as the smaller version of more famous J-20. J-31 is compared to both American F-35 and Russian Yak-141. Its external appearance and design is similar to F-35, but it’s powered by Russian produced Klimov RD-93 turbofans, as is J-20 and most other Chinese planes.    
Despite the successful test flight and the fact that Beijing is publicizing this project much more than any other military projects underway, J-31 is still rather mysterious. Details of the aircraft performance such as effectiveness of its sensors, radar-absorbing coating, production plan and many others are still unknown. All we know is that it’s a fifth generation stealth fighter jet with vertical takeoff and landing capabilities. This leaves lots of room for speculations about its function and capacities. The following are some of the major assumptions:
J-31/F-60 fifth generation stealth fighter jet  
  •         Whereas J-20 is larger and intended for ground attack missions, J-31 will have both air-to-air and air-to-surface attack capacities and will most likely serve as the cover for J-20. Thus, these two fighters will be complementing each other.
  •         J-31’s enhanced double-wheeled nose and two big tail wings indicate its vertical takeoff and landing capability, which leads to the assumption that J-31 is intended for aircraft carriers, specifically for the newly built Liaoning. This theory was backed up by the reports of the Military-Industrial Courier (Russian language Defense newspaper) saying that J-31 project was funded by the PLA Navy directly.
  •         Military-Industrial Courier also noted that during the November 2012 Zhuhai Airshow, PLA was much willing to present and advertise J-31 than J-20, which makes analysts think that Falcon Eagle is intended for international markets, while J-20 is for Chinese military and remains secretive. It is expected that J-31 will be much cheaper and cost-effective than its American counterpart. 
Falcon Eagle reminds us of several important things about Chinese military production capabilities. First of all, growth of Chinese military industry has undeniably accelerated in the last decade or so. It is already capable of sustaining multiple overlapping advanced programs – in addition to J-31 Shenyang Aircraft Corporation (SAC) is working on several other projects such as J-11B and carrier-based J-15. Further, competition between two major Chinese military producers is becoming more vivid. SAC’s main challenger, Chengdu Aircraft Industry Group is producing the J-20 fighter jet. This competition undoubtedly encourages development of the industry. That said, it will still take at least two more years until J-20 and J-31 projects are ready to enter the production.

Engines remain the Achilles heel of Chinese military industry. Most of Chinese planes are still powered by Russian engines, which account more than 90 percent of all Russian aerospace exports to China. Moscow and Beijing are further deepening cooperation in the transfer of Russian knowledge and expertise in combat aviation and its after-sales in the format of Sino-Russian interstate committee for military-technical cooperation. Sides expect that agreements reached in this format will ease and legitimize the process of intellectual property transfer. China hopes to develop her own engines sooner rather than later and reduce her dependence on Russian aerospace industry. 

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