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Shenyang FC-31 (v2) takes to the skies for the first time
September 21, 2019
The second FC-31 prototype. Photo credit: Weibo

Shenyang FC-31 (v2) takes to the skies for the first time

The second FC-31 prototype, developed and produced by Shenyang Aircraft Corporation (SAC), undertook its maiden test flight on Friday, 23 December 2016.

The FC-31 (v2) is a significant development of the SAC J-31, the Gyrfalcon platform’s original prototype and technology demonstrator, which first flew in 2012.

As per Wu Peixin, a Beijing-based aviation analyst (via China Daily), the FC-31 (v2) exhibits many key design changes aimed at reducing the Gyrfalcon’s radar cross-section (RCS) – i.e. radar detectability – such as, among others, heavily revised vertical stabilizers and forward fuselage with single-piece canopy.

Some analysts have noted that the FC-31 (v2) may also powered by an updated version of the Guizhou WS-13 turbofan engine, as opposed to the RD-93, which powered the SAC J-31. In the images of the FC-31 (v2) available, the engines are not exuding smoke.

According to the Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC) during the 2015 Dubai Air Show, the production-ready FC-31 will possess a total payload of nearly 8,000 kg, a service ceiling of 16,000 metres, top speed of Mach 1.8, and a combat radius of 1,200 km.

Internally, the FC-31 will be able to carry up to six medium-range air-to-air missiles or four 500 kg precision-guided bombs (or a higher number of lighter/smaller bombs). Six external hardpoints are also available.

AVIC is aiming to have the production-version FC-31 fly in 2019 and reach initial operational capability (IOC by 2022 and full operational capability (FOC) by 2024-2025.

Notes & Comments:

In 2015, AVIC began a marketing push for the FC-31 with the aim of securing an external co-funding and development partner. It was unclear if the program would come to fruition (at least before 2025) without such a partner, but it appears that Beijing may be backing the FC-31 as an investment.

First, considering the dearth of up and coming next-generation fighter platforms, especially for countries outside of NATO (and those with tenuous ties with the U.S.), the FC-31’s market potential is promising.

If AVIC succeeds in fulfilling its 2025 FOC goal, it could effectively be first to market with an accessible and affordable medium-weight 5th-generation fighter. Besides Pakistan, which analysts have slotted as a probable customer, the FC-31 could readily attract many new and existing customers to AVIC. AVIC could make a strong entry in less familiar markets such as North Africa, Central Asia, and the Middle East.

Although sole-party funding from Beijing would bring the FC-31 to fruition, there is no doubt that adoption in the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) and People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) would help provide this platform with considerable scale which, in turn, will help reduce the unit-cost of the fighter.

Coupled with China’s competitive advantages in cost-of-labour and materials, a PLAAF/PLAN-adopted FC-31 could be very competitive on the market. The FC-31, as with other emerging Chinese export offerings (such as the CH-5 unmanned aerial vehicle), will also benefit from a vertically-integrated package of sub-systems and air-to-air and air-to-surface munitions from various Chinese manufacturers. In effect, the FC-31 customer need not worry about sourcing the requisite electronics or weapon systems to arm the jet, AVIC and its Chinese partners can support the customer in every respect.