State-owned aircraft research and development firm Shenyang Aviation Company (SAC) showcased its FC-31 twin-engined, medium multirole stealth fighter design at Airshow China 2014 in Zhuhai.
SAC, a subsidiary of Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC), calls the FC-31 a "4th-Generation Multipurpose Medium Fighter". The new concept is based predominantly - if not entirely - on its ongoing J-31 Falcon Eagle development programme.
However, the 1:2 scale representation displayed at AVIC's pavilion features a number of visible changes to the J-31 prototype (aircraft number 31001) seen flying in the past two years, which is also performing flight demonstrations at this year's show.
An electro-optical and sensor system (EOSS) turret on the underside of the nosecone makes an appearance for the first time in the Falcon Eagle's development history, indicating that the production aircraft could feature enhanced air-to-ground strike capabilities. IHS Jane's All The World's Aircraft lists its large twin internal payload bay as spanning a third of the overall length of the aircraft and capable of carrying an estimated payload of 2,268 kg (5,000 lb). It is also not known if the FC-31 is equipped with external stores carrying capability.
The airframe and control surfaces of the two aircraft are similar, comprising the low aspect ratio design and chined fuselage, with forward-swept engine intakes, 35° sweptback trapezoidal planform wings, and similarly-shaped tailplanes. However, the outward-canted twin vertical fins and rudders have now been updated, terminating in tips that are diametrically angled compared with the current design's flushed tips.
AVIC officials at Airshow China 2014 would not comment on the J-31 and FC-31's development, nor detail the aircrafts' respective performance specifications, except to reiterate that the FC-31 is intended for the international export market, with "a number of countries expressing an interest in the aircraft".
Additionally, the company showcased a full-scale cockpit demonstrator of an unknown aircraft type directly next to the FC-31 display. AVIC officials would not discuss if this demonstrator is an accurate representation of the actual cockpit design, although they did reveal that the system is capable of simultaneously displaying the full range of mission-critical data, including aircraft telemetry, attitude director indicator (ADI), friend-or-foe (FOF) target indication, and weapons systems readiness states to the pilot on a large, touch-capable multifunction monitor measuring at least 20 x 8 inches.
Interestingly, the cockpit demonstrator also included a nose-mounted electro-optical infrared (EO/IR) sensor pod just slightly forward of the canopy bubble on the starboard section of the nose - a feature absent on the FC-31 scale model - which was directly interfaced to the main monitor.
AVIC officials also claimed that the pilot will be equipped with an advanced flight helmet that IHS Jane's understands will perform on a level comparable to western Helmet Mounted Cueing Systems (HMCS). The helmet, which is still under development, will be capable of displaying "multiple streams of data" for enhanced situational awareness and as well as functioning as an off-boresight missile cueing system with "improved accuracy" over existing systems in service with the People's Liberation Army Air Force's (PLAAF's) latest multirole fighters.
SAC's FC-31 multirole fighter concept is China's most ambitious export fighter programme yet, under which it is seeking to develop a relatively low cost multirole platform with an emphasis on strike capabilities and incorporating some degree of stealth - although the latter's actual radar evading effectiveness is unknown.
The design evidently stands a reasonable chance of entering production (provided that a customer is found) given that a prototype, the J-31, has already been successfully flown for a number of years and has now been demonstrated to the international public.
However, like with other advanced aircraft developments in China, the J-31/FC-31 programme is hamstrung by the need to import most of its high-performance jet engines from Russian suppliers. The country has expressed interest in a number of systems from Russia, including the Saturn/Lyulka 117S engine that powers the latest Sukhoi Su-35 as well as the PAK-FA/T-50 next-generation aircraft programme. Russian officials remain suspicious over any engine deals with China as a potential competitor in the international combat aircraft market, fearing reverse-engineering of its systems after co-produced Su-27SKs (also known as the Shenyang J-11 in China) were manufactured by SAC without licence.
Likewise, the J-31 prototype is currently powered by two Klimov RD-93 engines - each rated at 8.5 tonnes of thrust - that also power the Chengdu Aircraft Industries Group's (CAC's) FC-1 Thunder Dragon, which was exported to Pakistan as the JF-17 Thunder. However, the current state of advanced Chinese aircraft engines remains shrouded in uncertainty. Local media carry often-repeated, but unsubstantiated, reports that Chinese aerospace industries have "made great strides" with aero-engine research and that indigenously developed high performance systems will be entering the market "in the near future".
China's track record in exporting combat aircraft is at best modest, with only the Chengdu J-7 (a licence-built MiG-21), HAIC K-8 Karakoram trainer/light attack fighter, and the FC-1/JF-17. As a result, it remains to be seen whether the low cost stealth premise of the J-31/FC-31 platform can attract any international interest, although it may draw the attention of countries unable to afford, or access, western fourth and fifth generation aircraft.
At the very least, it is the definitive crowd pleaser at Airshow China 2014.