The Chengdu Aircraft Industry Group (CAIG) J-10 is the People Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF)’s main medium-weight multi-role fighter. Beijing tasked the Chengdu Aircraft Design Institute to design the J-10 in 1988 with the intent of developing a modern and – more importantly – long-term solution for replacing the PLAAF’s legacy J-7 and J-6 interceptors and Q-5 attackers, all of which are derived from Soviet designs from the 1950s. The first J-10 prototype conducted its maiden test flight in 1998, and the J-10A and J-10S were inducted into PLAAF service in 2005. A much-improved variant, the J-10B, took to the skies in 2009.
From the onset, the J-10 was envisaged as anything but a conventional and ‘simple’ design (in as far as the Chinese defence industry at the time was concerned). This is clearly evident in the J-10’s relaxed stability design profile, which necessitated a quadruplex digital fly-by-wire flight control system. These complex elements, which have been essential elements of Western combat aircraft designs since the late 1970s, were new areas to the Chinese research and development (R&D) base in the 1980s and 1990s. The 17-year cycle – from the start of development to induction in the PLAAF – is indicative of the complexities the Chinese R&D had to overcome through the 1990s in order to bring the J-10 to fruition. Today, the J-10A is being marketed for export under the designation of FC-20.
The J-10’s airframe incorporates composite materials and is capable of a payload of 7,000 kg across 11 hardpoints. It is powered by the Saturn AL-31FN (and AL-31FN3) turbofan engine, which is being imported from Russia. The AL-31FN provides the J-10 with a thrust rating of 127 kN (and 137 kN in the case of AL-31FN3), enabling the fighter to reach a maximum speed of Mach 2.2. China has developed an indigenous turbofan solution in the form of the WS-10 series, which has reportedly made its way onto various PLAAF J-10 and J-11 units in recent years. It is not clear if the WS-10 is the default offer for the export FC-20, but the turbofan platform is the PLA’s long-term bet for its domestic platforms. The establishment of the Aero Engine Corp. of China (AECC) will consolidate China’s various aviation powerplant application programs, and in turn, aim to bring programs such as the WS-10 to full fruition.
In 2009, the first images of the J-10’s first major iterative update – the J-10B – emerged. One of the main design changes made in the J-10B includes the incorporation of a diverterless supersonic inlet (DSI), which helps reduce airframe weight and decrease the aircraft’s radar cross-section (RCS) – i.e. the aircraft’s detectability on radar. Chengdu also altered the nose cone, ostensibly to lay the groundwork for passive and – in time – active electronically-scanned array (AESA) radars. The J-10B prototype also incorporated an integrated infrared search and track (IRST) system. An iterative update to the J-10B – i.e. J-10C – was also observed in recent months.
Although Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC) has been offering the next-generation FC-31 for export, it appears as though the PLAAF is dedicating itself to the continued advancement of the J-10. In fact, one could argue that the PLAAF is of the opinion that for general operational purposes, such as air defence, a fighter’s subsystems – e.g. radar and electronic warfare (EW) and countermeasures ECM) – and munitions matter more than complete commitment to a low-RCS design (such as the J-31). In this respect, one can manage costs, further distribute prior R&D overheads, and build quantitatively sizable fleets. Although the J-10B or J-10C have not yet been cleared for export, it wold not be an untenable idea to see this product enter AVIC’s product portfolio. It would be interesting if China directs the subsystems intended for the FC-31 for use on export-grade J-10B/Cs instead, imbuing the latter (which can be made available in the short-term) with credible capabilities (e.g. an AESA radar).
For AVIC, the J-10B/C could be a very competitive product. The PLAAF’s procurement depth provides the fighter with scale, which helps by distributing the R&D overhead across a very large number of units. In turn, prospective customers could be set with a relatively low cost (in the context of the capabilities on offer). Countries with fiscal difficulties and supplier access issues, such as Pakistan, would find these to be key benefits.