04 November 2012

Taking Off: Implications of China’s Second Stealth Fighter Test Flight

Andrew S. Erickson and Gabriel B. Collins, “Taking Off: Implications of China’s Second Stealth Fighter Test Flight,” China Real Time Report (中国实时报), Wall Street Journal, 3 November 2012.

China’s fighter aircraft development efforts appeared to take another leap forward after local media reported that Shenyang Aircraft Corporation (SAC) had successfully tested its J-31 stealth fighter prototype this week. Following the test flight of a Chengdu Aircraft Corporation (CAC) J-20 prototype less than two years ago, the test of the J-31 suggests China could eventually become only the second country behind the U.S. to develop two stealth fighter programs – an important development with serious potential implications for the tactical aircraft export market and well as the U.S. military.

Video and photos posted online Thursday show the J-31 prototype conducting an initial high speed taxi run and 10-minute flight test accompanied by a pair of SAC J-11BS fighters. The J-31’s maiden flight represents the second “unveiling” of a significant new fighter aircraft by SAC in less than a year, the other being the J-16, a two seat multi-role variant of the J-11B, similar to the US F-15E and the Russian Su-30MKK.

China’s defense industry can now sustain multiple overlapping advanced programs. SAC alone is currently working on four major fighter aircraft – the J-31 and the J-16 as well as the J-16’s single seat parent the J-11B and the carrier-based J-15, also based on the J-11B.

Like most modern fighter aircraft, the J-31 will likely be a multi-role combat aircraft capable of employing modern precision munitions in both air-to-air and air-to-surface roles. Despite apparent rapid advancement, however, it will take time for the fighter to reach full operational status. As Xu Guangyu of the China Arms Control and Disarmament Association explains, “there is still a huge gap between China and the US’ fighter jet technologies because we are still testing both the J-20 and the J-31. It might take another couple of years before we can put them on the production line.”

Mr. Xu’s observation raises an interesting question because it is not yet clear if the J-20 and J-31 are intended to complement each other or be competitors. Some Chinese analysts like former Aviation World deputy editor Bai Wei share the view of Western counterparts that they may be complementary as part of a “high-low” mix, with the larger J-20 akin to the F-22 and the smaller J-31 akin to the U.S. F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

One factor that suggests the J-20 and J-31 could complement one another is that the J-31 could be modified for use on aircraft carriers in a way the larger J-20 is unlikely to be. Sr. Capt. Li Jie of the PLA Navy (PLAN)’s strategic think tank has been quoted in Western media as stating the J-31 prototype “might become a carrier-based fighter jet” because it is smaller and slimmer than the J-20.

Regional Impacts

The prospect of the J-20 and J-31 becoming China’s mainstay tactical strike fighters during the next decade stands to influence regional defense planning and tactical aircraft export markets. Unveiling the J-31 affirms that, save for jet engines, China’s aerospace sector is now in many ways nearly as advanced as Russia’s and suggests that Russian manufacturers will soon be unable to compete with China’s own fighter manufacturers. Beijing is already the world’s sixth-largest arms exporter, and Chinese aircraft export growth would come largely at Moscow’s expense.

This means Russia will need to shift its weapons exports from China to Chinese neighbors such as Vietnam and India. However, given the defense spending cutbacks in the U.S. and Western Europe, Russian firms will have to compete with the likes of Boeing, Lockheed Martin and BAE in a way they never had to when China (which Western defense firms are largely prohibited from selling to by an embargo) was essentially a captive market for Russian weapons exporters. Chinese e increasingly Therefore, the parallel development of the J-20 and J-31 will provide further impetus for China’s aviation industry to master mass-production of modern high-performance jet engines — its last major obstacle to being able to export tactical aircraft.

The J-31 also stands to meaningfully impact decisions on U.S. defense spending, especially if it ends up being produced in conjunction with the J-20 and they end up being complementary to one another. If the J-31 and J-20 both end up in mass production, China could ultimately achieve parity or perhaps even numerical superiority in the Asia-Pacific region in terms of late-generation fighters deployed. There is a rising probability that China’s rapid advancement in indigenous tactical aircraft design will spark a renewed debate in the U.S. over restarting production of the highly advanced but also highly expensive F-22 Raptor.

Bottom Line: China’s Military Aerospace Industry Nearing Critical Mass

It is extremely significant that China may soon join the U.S. as the only other nation to develop two “low-observable” aircraft simultaneously. China’s defense aerospace sector overall may be moving toward an architectural model in which several distinct poles of expertise develop in Shenyang, Xi’an, and Chengdu and then compete with each other on key big ticket projects. Multiple aviation industry bases with significant development and production capacity, including SAC, allow for domestic competition for key aircraft programs. This can minimize the chances of single-point failures jeopardizing development targets, increase efficiency, and maximize the chances of useful breakthroughs.

It is thus not too early to consider the possibility that China’s aviation industry, despite enduring limitations, may already enjoy some key advantages over Western counterparts. As a latecomer, China can draw on knowledge gleaned from industrial espionage, reverse engineering, and study of foreign systems, standards, and specifications, allowing it to save costs by leapfrogging rather than developing every component itself. Meanwhile, it may benefit from lack of legal obstacles to subsidization and technical diffusion through civil-military integration—a lack that Western contractors arguably benefitted from during their Cold War heyday before stricter regulations emerged in the 1980s and 1990s. China’s military aerospace industry is rapidly approaching critical mass. Continuing to add investment to this growing foundation will allow China’s aviation industry to fully harness the flashes of technical prowess shown when new aircraft like the J-31 take flight.


For related analysis, see Andrew Erickson and Gabe Collins, “Double Vision: Making Sense of China’s Second ‘Stealth’ Fighter Prototype,” China Real Time Report (中国实时报), Wall Street Journal, 18 September 2012.