Warplanes: The Long View


November 29, 2009: Earlier this month, the Chinese Air Force has announced that it had a F-22 type aircraft ready to make its first flight within a year. The Chinese recently clarified this announcement by revealing that the new aircraft was based on the existing J-10 fighter. Apparently, the Chinese plan to upgrade the J-10 design to the point that it is competitive with the F-35, and maybe even the F-22. In theory. The Chinese believe this aircraft will enter service within ten years. A lot can happen in a decade, so the Chinese claim has some basis in fact. But it depends on China mastering a lot of new technology.

China only publicly announced the J-10s status in January, 2007. What was not mentioned in that press release was that only one J-10 squadron was stationed where it might encounter Taiwanese F-16s or Mirage jet fighters. That squadron is sitting at a base just out of range (560 kilometers) of the F-16s and Mirages. The Taiwanese believe that their pilots are much better trained than their Chinese counterparts. Moreover, the word out of China is that the J-10 is a maintenance nightmare, and that the Chinese are having a hard time keeping the aircraft operational in reasonable numbers.

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, and 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. Originally, the J-10 used a Russian AL-31FN engine, but China has been working for a decade to manufacture their own version of this, the WS10A. The WS10A is something of an acid test for them, as it is a powerful military engine, and a complex piece of work. Russia refused to license China to produce the AL-31FN, so the Chinese stole as much of the technology as they could and designed the WS10A. This engine has been tested, and officially approved for production, but apparently still has quality control and performance problems.

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.)

American intel analysts believe that Chinese aviation technology (both design and manufacturing) is not yet capable of producing F-22/F-35 class aircraft. Given the experience with the first two Chinese designed and manufactured jet fighters (J-10 and JF-17), there is much doubt that China is capable of making the leap to F-22 class fighters any time soon. One of the big bottlenecks is jet engine technology. But China has been making progress in developing the technologies needed for their "Super J-10." The Chinese take the long view.





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