Flashpoints

China’s J-31 Stealth Aircraft Takes Flight

With the first flight of the J-31 or F-60, many questions are being asked. Will it operate on a carrier? Is it for export?

J. Michael Cole

Well, the Chinese aviation industry sure isn’t wasting any time: From the first glimpse of the tarp-covered fuselage being hauled in the first official pictures released by Shenyang Aircraft Corp (SAC) in September, China’s second fifth-generation stealth aircraft, the J-31, has now taken its maiden flight.

While defense analysts have been busy fretting over Chengdu Aircraft Industry Corp’s (CAC) J-20, first unveiled in January 2011, it looks like SAC was not dwindling its thumbs but instead was hard at work developing a second low-signature aircraft. Since the unveiling in September, defense watchers had been holding their breath in anticipation of what would come next.

SAC didn’t make them wait for long, with in-flight images of the J-31, which previously had been designated J-21, popping up on defense Internet sites on October 31. Bearing the tail designation “31001,” the aircraft, accompanied by two Shenyang J-11Bs, reportedly conducted a high-speed taxi run, followed by a 10-minute flight with its landing gear in the lowered position.

There is still speculation as to whether the J-31 is intended to be a competitor to the J-20, or a complement to its larger cousin. The one prototype seen so far is a conventional takeoff and landing (CTOL) aircraft like the J-20 and the Lockheed F-35A. However, computer-generated renditions of the aircraft have emerged in defense circles hinting at the possibility of a carrier-based variant, pointing to a role for the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). Analysts have also advanced the possibility that the J-31, under the designation F-60, could be intended as an export fighter to compete against the F-35.

As with the J-20 and other domestic aircraft programs, the main question remains which type of engine — the main technical bottleneck for Chinese engineers — will be used on the J-31. One option, according to some analysts cited at China Defense, could be the Progress-Ivchenko Al-222-95F, a 9.5-tonne turbofan thrust engine, which Ukraine has reportedly offered to co-produce with China.

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The Chinese Air Force and Navy are probably half a decade away from seeing fight-generation commence operations in their respective services. But one thing is sure: Defense analysts have underestimated China’s ability to overcome technological hurdles before. While the sky isn’t falling in East Asia, the skies over China are well worth paying close attention to.