July 27, 2012: Members of a Chinese J-10A fighter squadron have been bragging to the media that they did very well in recent combat flying competitions because they were allowed to use a new electronic warfare pod. This seems to indicate that the Chinese Air Force allows competing squadrons to do whatever they can to win. Makes sense, because the new competitive exercises emphasize initiative and resourcefulness. This also reminds everyone that China has been making a lot of progress in developing ECM (Electronic Counter-Measures) largely as a result of plundering American and other Western manufacturers of their secrets via Internet espionage.
It was only last year the Chinese Air Force instituted a fighter pilot competition that culminates in an annual event that determines which ten fighter pilots would be able to wear a "Golden Helmet" for the next year. This is a regular flight helmet decorated with a special blue, red, and gold pattern that marks the wearer as one of the elite and most competitive combat pilots in the Chinese Air Force.
It was interesting that a J-10A squadron did so well because this is not one of the better jet fighters in the Chinese Air Force. The J-10 is a strange, and dubious, war bird. Moreover, it was only three years ago that China publicly admitted that the J-10 existed. This despite the fact that the J-10 had entered service seven years earlier and there were plenty of J-10 photos on the Internet. There are only about 250 J-10s in service, most of them the original J-10As. they are being offered to export customers for about $42 million each. Currently, China is producing 2-3 J-10s a month.
The new and improved J-10B model carries improved electronics, including better radar warning, a laser range finder, and targeting electronics. The new nose cone looks like the one on the F-16, indicating that the J-10B is to be fitted with an AESA (phased array) radar (which is more capable and more reliable than older types but also more expensive). The cockpit also has a larger and more detailed HUD (Head Up Display). The J-10B is apparently a much more effective aircraft than the J-10A. It's possible that the victorious J-10 squadron was actually equipped with J-10Bs, which would be more likely to do well against J-11s and Su-30s.
The J-10 has a reputation as a maintenance nightmare and users are having a hard time keeping the aircraft operational in reasonable numbers. But the J-10 is the first modern jet fighter designed and built in China. The aircraft is an attempt to create a modern fighter-bomber that could compete with foreign designs. The experiment was not completely successful.
Work on the J-10 began over twenty years ago, in an attempt to develop an aircraft that could compete with the Russian MiG-29s and Su-27s, as well as the American F-16. But the first prototype did not fly until 1998. There were problems and it wasn't until 2000, that the basic design flaws were fixed. By 2002, nine prototypes had been built, and flight testing was going forward to find, and fix, hundreds of smaller problems. It was a great learning experience for Chinese engineers but it was becoming apparent that the J-10 was not going to be competitive with the Su-27s/30s China was buying from Russia.
The J-10 looks something like the American F-16 and weighs about the same (19 tons). Like the F-16, and unlike the Su-27, the J-10 has only one engine. It's no accident that the J-10 resembles the F-16 because Israel apparently sold them technology for the Israeli Lavi jet fighter. Israel abandoned the Lavi project because of the high cost and availability of cheaper alternatives (buying F-16s and F-15s from the United States). But the Lavi was meant to be a super F-16 and incorporated a lot of design ideas from the F-16 (which the Israelis were very familiar with, as they used them and had developed new components for them).