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Pakistan Air Force Announces Plans to Procure J-31 Stealth Fighters

On 03 January 2024, the Pakistan Air Force’s (PAF) Chief of Air Staff (CAS), Air Chief Marshal Zaheer Ahmed Baber Sidhu, announced that the PAF will be acquiring the J-31/FC-31 stealth fighter.

In an official press release, the PAF stated, “The foundation for acquiring the J-31 stealth fighter aircraft has already been laid, which is all set to become part of the PAF’s fleet in the near future.”

The CAS announced the PAF’s plans to procure the Chinese next-generation fighter aircraft (NGFA) during a recent ceremony celebrating the inducting of several systems in the PAF fleet, such as the J-10CE Dragon multirole fighter, ex-Belgian C-130H Hercules airlifters, and other auxiliary aircraft.

Currently, the PAF has not revealed its timeline or other specific procurement details. However, the PAF’s announcement marks its first official direction for an NGFA since Project AZM, an in-house program aimed at developing an original NGFA for the PAF.

Project AZM’s in-house NGFA program has likely been shelved, thus prompting the PAF leadership to look towards preexisting overseas programs for solutions. In August 2023, the Turkish government indicated that Pakistan was engaging it to join the TF-X KAAN program. It is unclear how the PAF’s announcement to induct the J-31 will impact its apparent interest in the Turkish KAAN.

Background: Shenyang J-31

Developed by Shenyang Aircraft Corporation (SAC), the J-31 is a twin-engine stealth fighter originally built and promoted for export. Following the demonstrator’s maiden test flight in 2012, the J-31 underwent numerous design changes, resulting in a new prototype flying in 2016. This new version was also equipped with indigenous WS-13 turbofans, replacing the Klimov RD-93s in the first prototype.

AVIC marketed the J-31 as a multirole combat aircraft. Its use of angular shapes in the airframe, internal weapons bay, and certain materials showed a focus on stealth/low observability (LO) on radar. It offered an internal and external payload capacity of 2,000 kg and 6,000 kg, respectively, a top speed of Mach 1.8, and a combat radius of 1,200 km. It has a reported maximum take-off weight (MTOW) of 25,000 kg.

In terms of subsystems, the J-31 would hose an active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar, helmet-mounted display and sight (HMD/S) system, in-flight refueling (IFR) probe, integrated electronic counter-measures (ECM) suite, infrared search and track (IRST), and electro-optical targeting system (EOTS).

The J-31’s munitions suite will comprise of long-range air-to-air missiles (LRAAM) like the PL-15E and SD-10, the PL-10E high off-boresight (HOBS) AAM, FT-series precision-guided bombs (PGB), and, eventually, compact air-launched cruise missiles (ALCM) and loitering munitions.

AVIC marketed the J-31 as a versatile solution, one with credible stealth characteristics paired with useful weapons carrying capacity and reach. The stealth element aside, the size and capability of the J-31 still made it a viable solution for countries that could not access a Rafale, Eurofighter Typhoon, or F/A-18E/F-type medium-to-heavyweight fighter solution.

However, the J-31 program had an unclear future, especially since AVIC promoted it as a solely export solution. However, in 2018, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) adopted the platform the basis of its next-generation carrier fighter, designated J-35. The first prototype of the J-35 broke cover in 2021 and exhibited additional design changes, especially in its front fuselage and canopy. The final production version of the J-35 is also expected to house new turbofan engines.

The PAF’s announcement confirms that China is still making the J-31 readily available for export, despite it being adopted by the PLAN as the J-35. However, while related, the J-35 and J-31 are different projects – the former is undergoing development, while the latter’s development is mostly complete. It is unclear to what extent, if at all, work from the J-35 will transfer over to the J-31, especially when the bulk of the J-35’s work is being done to meet the PLAN’s requirements.

Currently, Quwa believes that the ‘J-31’ is the same fighter AVIC revealed in 2016, not the revised J-35 SAC is now developing for the PLAN. In 2015, AVIC said that if it received an order, SAC could fly the production-ready model in 2019, reach initial operating capability by 2022, and meet full operating capability (FOC) by 2025. Thus, with a backer, AVIC projected a 10-year runway for bringing the J-31 from demonstrator to a production-ready, serviceable fighter. If one assumes that PLAN is the primary backer of the project (i.e., both J-31 and J-35) since 2018, then the J-31 and J-35 should both be at FOC status by 2028. And, if the PAF is becoming a co-backer of the program, then the FOC date of 2028 should be more assured.

Why is Pakistan Procuring the J-31?

On the surface, one could presume that the PAF found a feasible solution in the J-31 for its NGFA needs. It would not have access to a better fighter in terms of cost, availability, and capability in one package. Likewise, the J-31 is also free of regulatory pressure from the United States or Europe. Finally, thanks to the J-10CE and JF-17C programs, the PAF will already have an existing pool of compatible munitions.

However, there is more to the J-31 than its NGFA label and its stealth capabilities. For example, the J-31 would offer a greater payload and range than any of the PAF’s current fighters, therefore improving the PAF’s reach and strike capabilities. The latter would also draw on a built-in electro-optical system via the EOTS, giving the J-31 greater versatility in the ground attack mission than any PAF asset today.

The first question about the PAF’s intentions is the timing. While the PAF CAS stated that the J-31 will join the PAF fleet in the “near future,” the aircraft is still under development. Based on AVIC’s estimates about the time it would take to move the J-31 from demonstrator to production-ready fighter, Pakistan could receive its first batch of J-31s from 2028 to 2030.

This would be a convenient timeframe for the PAF as its older F-16A/B Block-15s – acquired under Peace Gate I and II in the 1980s – would start reaching the end of their OEM-defined airframe lives of 8,000 flying hours. The only service life extension program (SLEP) available for the F-16A/B was the Falcon UP program, which the PAF already implemented, thus ensuring its F-16s reach 8,000 hours.

As there is no additional SLEP available for the F-16A/B to lengthen its airframe life beyond 8,000 hours, the PAF would need a new fighter to start replacing the F-16A/Bs from the early 2030s. The remaining F-16A/Bs – i.e., the Peace Gate III/IV and ex-Jordanian units – would likely be phased out by the 2040s.

Perceptually, replacing the F-16A/Bs with the J-31 would represent a genuine generational upgrade, moving from a cutting-edge fourth-generation fighter in the 1980s to a next-generation stealth fighter in the 2030s. But beyond that, the J-31 could assume a leading role in the future of the PAF’s maritime and offensive operations, two areas that it has sought to improve for decades.

In 2019, the PAF’s primary offensive platforms were the F-16 and the upgraded Mirage III/5 ROSE (Retrofit of Strike Element). During Swift Retort, the PAF used its Mirage ROSE units – alongside JF-17s – to deploy stand-off range weapons (SOW), while the F-16s provided top cover through their beyond visual range air-to-air missiles (BVRAAM). Functionally, the J-31 could supplant both fighters in both the SOW deployment and top cover roles, and to a superior degree in each role.

For example, in terms of the strike role, the J-31 would offer greater range and a higher payload than the Mirage or the F-16. The PAF also has a greater chance of integrating its own choice of munitions to the J-31 than the F-16, so the J-31 could carry the Ra’ad/Taimur-series of ALCMs, the Takbir and AZB PGBs, and, in time, loitering munitions like the KaGeM V3, among others. However, the stealthy and next-generation aspects of the J-31 could unlock other dimensions for the PAF’s offensive planning.

For starters, the internal weapons bay creates a stealthy or LO delivery platform; the J-31 could deploy its munitions load much closer to the border, if not a little bit past it, thus giving it a deeper reach. Moreover, the EOTS could offer the PAF a new real-time target acquisition capability. J-31 pilots can monitor an area using the EOTS and, in response to a changing situation, adjust SOWs. For example, during Swift Retort, a PAF Mirage pilot manually operating the H-4 SOW at terminal stage using the H-4’s visual feed; with the J-31, the EOTS would provide the visual feed, which the pilot can use to adjust the targeting parameters of any SOW, be it a glide bomb, ALCM, PGB, or loitering munition.

In terms of air-to-air coverage, the J-31 would likely carry a high-powered AESA radar, one providing more detection ranges and multi-targeting capabilities than any of the PAF’s fighters. Thus, its ability to acquire a “first look, first shoot” advantage is higher than the J-10CE, JF-17C (Block-III), and F-16. At the other end of the spectrum, the J-31 also has LO design attributes, which could generate a lower radar cross-section (RCS), giving it more time before an enemy fighter could pick it up on radar.

Combined, these air-to-air, air-to-surface, sensor, and LO qualities would make the J-31 the most well-equipped maritime fighter the PAF would have ever had in its service. The J-31 has a greater reach than the JF-17 and Mirage 5PA/PA2 in this role and, in turn, superior anti-ship warfare (AShW) capabilities via a greater endurance/station time and, potentially, greater payload.

It would also pose a credible deterrent to the Indian Navy’s (IN) and Indian Air Force’s (IAF) fighters, including their respective Dassault Rafales. Finally, the J-31’s air-to-air coverage could also pose a threat to IN special mission aircraft, like the Boeing P-8I, dissuading the PN from sending those aircraft close to Pakistan’s maritime zones.

Overall, the J-31 would not be a vanity project for the PAF. There is more to the aircraft’s value than solely its stealth characteristics; rather, it offers much improved range, payload, and sensor capabilities. The real question is how the PAF is planning to manage the J-10CE considering the J-31.

In general, the PAF does not induct a new fighter type unless it plans to procure at least 80-90 units. From the F-6 to the Mirage III/5 to the F-16 to the JF-17, this rule was a constant. The J-10CE is not an exception to this rule. Thus far, the PAF bought 20 J-10CEs for around $1.5 billion USD (inclusive of munitions, ground support equipment, and other logistics/maintenance support). Given that the acquisition timeline of the J-31 would, at its earliest, start around 2030, the PAF could lean on the J-10CE for its procurement needs through the rest of the 2020s and, if still in production, the 2030s.

Indeed, with the emergence of the JF-17C (Block-III) as a viable SOW deployment asset, the PAF might be proceeding towards phasing out its Mirage ROSE units. The latter were crucial for deploying glide bombs and ALCMs, but the JF-17 can now assume those roles. If more of the JF-17Bs and JF-17Cs are reserved for the strike role, the PAF could acquire J-10CEs to shore up its air-to-air coverages, especially top cover when engaging in offensive operations (leaving JF-17B/Cs to deploy the SOWs).

Thus, through the 2020s, the PAF’s offensive element could center on the JF-17B/C for strike and F-16 and J-10CE in the air-to-air roles. However, from 2030, the PAFs offensive units could start shifting to the J-31 in both the air-to-surface and air-to-air roles. So, from a long-term standpoint, the J-31 would begin consolidating the PAF’s offensively geared wings from multiple planes (i.e., Mirage, F-16, JF-17, and J-10) to one platform. The PAF will likely retire the Mirage ROSE and F-16A/Bs by 2030 and 2040, respectively. By 2040, the PAF’s offensive units would comprise of J-31s and, potentially, unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAV). Turkiye’s Baykar Group’s investment in Pakistan may lead to a UCAV, potentially based on the Bayraktar Kızılelma or, alternatively, an original design.

Once the PAF’s offensive wings (owning the deep-strike, interdiction, and offensive counter-air roles) transition to the J-31, the J-10CE and JF-17B/C would become the PAF’s tactical fighters for area denial, air defence, and point-defence roles. Between the JF-17B/C and a fulfilled J-10CE program (of 90 units), the PAF’s tactical fighter wings would have a total of 140-150 aircraft, not including any remaining JF-17 Block-I/Block-II, F-16C/D or newer F-16A/B, and, potentially, L-15B dual trainer-lightweight fighters.

The PAF did not yet disclose details about co-production or transfer-of-technology. Though the goal of designing an original NGFA was likely shelved, the interest in producing one is likely still in place. In fact, the PAF had reportedly proposed raising special economic zone (SEZ) as part of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) program for producing a NGFA. This idea could materialize into a J-31 co-production program where the PAF locally sources the electronics, munitions, and aerostructures.

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