Most recently, the first LRIP batch of J-20 appears to be handed over to FTTC to start the processing of getting inducted into PLAAF later this year or early next. While J-20 has progressed very smoothly up to this point, J-31 appears to have run into a major roadblock.
As readers may know, the first J-31 demonstrator came out a couple of years ago to great fanfare. At the time, it was thought to be a SAC funded private project that was also getting some PLAAF funding. Many people, including me, thought that was the first step to getting picked up by PLAAF and/or PLANAF. As it happened, we never saw a second version or a real prototype of J-31 despite many rumours and interesting models in air shows. There were even some rumours earlier this year that a second version of J-31 was about to come out that would be a lot further along toward a production model.
Most recently, one of the insiders on Chinese forums said that J-31 has not been picked up by PLAAF or PLANAF. At the same time, a more official source said that J-31 is for export. And we know that J-31 will again be brought to display in the 2016 Zhuhai air show. From all of this, it seems that SAC is working hard to attract foreign funding to continue this project. At least as of now, neither the air force nor the navy has interest in this project. Now, I was always under the impression that PLAAF only had interest in one 5th generation fighter jet prior to J-31 demonstrator came out. After that, I thought J-31 might serve as the low end of PLAAF’s future combat force instead of an upgraded J-10 variant. If PLAAF rejected J-31, that could either mean it has no interest in funding a 2nd type of 5th generation aircraft or that J-31 is simple not up to par. If the reason is latter, that could either mean J-31 design is technologically up to PLAAF expectations (in terms of stealth, radar or flight performance) or cost to performance below expectations or certain components simply not ready (like the next generation engine). While PLAAF questions are harder to answer, we do know for sure that PLANAF will need a next generation naval aircraft to replace J-15s. However, they rejected J-31 even though SAC has some real naval aircraft experience in developing and building J-15. So what do I make all of this?
I think PLAAF will not be ordering that many J-20 over its lifetime, because it is envisions as a high-end aircraft (ala F-22). They definitely need a cheaper and less capable fighter jet that can at least be competitive against F-35s. I don’t think the extremely unstealthy J-11 series or the light and less powerful J-10 series can be the answer to that. Sometimes in the next decade, PLAAF will have the desire for a true lower end 5th generation aircraft. In the past, PLAAF eventually did pick aircraft types that it had originally rejected like JH-7 and K-8 (possibly even L-15). In the case of latter, Hongdu managed to persuade foreign investment into the project. It was only after suitable engines became available that PLAAF decided to pick up K-8 as JL-8. I think that is the road J-31 could go. If it can attract enough foreign funding to continue, then domestic engine options should become available sometimes next decade. At that time, PLAAF could certainly choose to order it. The other question is whether or not PLAAF is willing to have Chengdu produce 2 different 5th generation types. Up until now, PLAAF has preferred to split its projects between Chengdu and Shenyang. Shenyang got the heavy fighter and Chengdu the light fighter. Chengdu won the 5th generation contest with its heavy design to the surprise of many. With J-20’s rapid progress, it hardened my view that Chengdu is far more capable of developing new fighter jet series than Shenyang. With the failure of J-31, I do question whether or not Shenyang is even capable of developing a new fighter jet that appeals to PLAAF. We know it can create new variants of flankers, but that’s far from developing a new aircraft. On the other hand, Chengdu has a lot of work with J-20 series, J-10 series and numerous UAVs. While J-20 was in serious development, the progress of J-10B/C was quite slow due to the shift in engineering resources. When J-20 does go in production in a couple of years, could Chengdu have enough resource again for a new fighter series as well as continued support and upgrades for J-20 and J-10? I certainly have doubts about that. I do think that it is still more likely Shenyang will be producing a 5th generation aircraft type for PLAAF in the future.
As for PLANAF, the fight is now between a navalized version of J-20 from CAC or something new from SAC. Shenyang won the first round, because PLAN liked the range and payload of flankers. For the next generation, SAC has to start from scratch, while CAC already has a functioning aircraft. Since J-31 has already been rejected, SAC has to come up with something better than that to win over PLAN. J-15 is likely to be in production for at least the next aircraft carrier CV-17. After that, the next generation aircraft carriers of PLAN will likely to be larger than CV-16/17. They would be CATOBAR carriers that can launch fixed wing AEW asset, fully loaded fighter jet and long-range fighter-bombers. Even though J-15 has only joined service recently, PLANAF will soon be deciding between SAC and CAC on the next generation fighter jet. At this point, it seems more likely that a naval version of J-20 or a naval fighter-bomber based on J-20 would get picked.
So all of this would indicate SAC needs to do something to impress on the decision makers. Most of their projects right now are some flanker variations. We saw the sharp sword demonstrator a while back, but CAC has shown more UAV designs. It will be interesting to see how SAC can move on from the J-11 series.
Finally, I hear the rumour that the “20” series of aircraft will be the start in Zhuhai airshow this year. I can certainly see Y-20 and Z-20 make appearances in the air show and fly around. However, I do not think J-20 will participate this year. J-31 will appear and try to attract more funding. H-20 is the other project that has attracted a lot of attention from PLA watchers. At this point, we probably won’t see much about it until after it makes a maiden flight. With the size of J-20, I think it can be used to develop a next generation fighter-bomber.