China’s first locally-developed aircraft carrier remains on target for going into service as early as October, and the next generation of carrier is already under construction. Yet still the development of the People’s Liberation Army’s carrier-borne fighter squadron appears stuck in the slow lane.

It has been an open secret that putting the ponderous J-15 aboard the Liaoning carrier has been anything but smooth sailing, as limited fuel capacity and takeoff speed have clipped the wings of the J-15 above the high seas. Losses of planes during training had also been reported.

Now the PLA aims to deploy the lighter, more agile FC-31, also known as the J-31, aboard carriers as a stopgap measure to make up for the J-15’s many shortfalls.

A Chinese J-15 fighter jet lands on the deck of the Liaoning aircraft carrier during military drills. Photo: AFP
A Chinese J-15 fighter jet lands on the deck of the Liaoning aircraft carrier during a drill. Photo: AFP

The FC-31 is a twin-engine, mid-sized stealth fighter developed by the state-owned Aviation Industry Corp of China. It was originally intended for export.

Chinese media has reported that the PLA is procuring stealth parts, including stealth capable photoelectric target acquisition units, for AVIC in order to assemble more FC-31s. Behind the new drive is the October launch of the Type 001A, the PLA’s first homemade carrier that features a bigger hanger to accommodate more fighters.

Also, in one interview with China’s state media as early as in 2015, the FC-31’s chief designer Sun Cong expressed his hope that the aircraft would follow his J-15 onto Chinese carriers.

An improved FC-31 prototype, with modifications to its vertical stabilizers, wings and electro-optical targeting system, made its maiden flight in December 2016.

The FC-31 can carry 8,000 kilograms of payload, has a maximum take-off weight of 25,000 kg, and primary armaments include the PL-10 short-range missile and SD-10A medium-range air-to-air missile. It has a combat radius of 1,200 kilometers.

The FC-31 is thought to use stealth coatings instead of “baked in” fiber-mat stealth. It is said to be able to avoid detection by L-band and Ku-band radar networks and be difficult to detect using a number of multi-spectrum sensors.

FC-31_a05
The FC-31 was originally intended for export. Photo: Twitter

Further changes and upgrades are being made to the FC-31 to prepare it for use on the Liaoning and her sister ships, the Beijing-based Global Times cited a source as saying. It is also said that the fighter can be capable of vertical landing or short take-off and is compatible with the electromagnetic catapults rumored to be installed on the third carrier, which may sport a flattop design.

Observers believe that once the FC-31 enters service with a future Chinese carrier strike group, it will be a match for existing fourth-generation fighters like the F-15, F-16 and F/A-18E/F, while the capability of the FC-31 against the newest fighters such as the F-35 would depend on factors such as the number of platforms, quality of pilots as well as radar systems and other sensors.

The US-made fourth generation fighter F-35B and F-35C are capable of operating from carriers, and Japan aims to upgrade its Izumo-class helicopter destroyers into genuine carriers, equipping them with imported F-35Bs.

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