The hazy future of the Shenyang FC-31 fighter

One of the first photographs of the experienced FC-31. Photo

At the beginning of the last decade, it became known that the Chinese aircraft manufacturers Shenyang Aircraft Corporation are developing a promising project of the fifth generation fighter FC-31. A lot of time has passed since then, and the project has progressed far enough, but its real prospects remain in question. The new fighter has not yet found its customer and has not reached the series.

Project stages

For the first time, the existence of a new project from “Shenyang” became known in 2011. Then photos of an aircraft model with the designation F-60 got into free access. In the fall of 2012, a similar plane was spotted at one of the Chinese airfields. In the last days of October, he made the first flight. There were no official comments at that time.

Just a couple of weeks later, during the Airshow China 2012 exhibition, SAC Corporation showed a mock-up of the aircraft, similar to the previously seen prototype. The details were again not provided. For the first time, the new project was told only at the 2014 airshow. The aircraft was officially presented as the FC-31 and called it an initiative development “Shenyang”.

The hazy future of the Shenyang FC-31 fighter
The prototype is unpainted in flight. Photo

The following year, the development organization presented materials on the FC-31 at the IDEX overseas exhibition. At that time, she was looking for potential customers, both within China and among foreign armies. The main characteristics and capabilities of the machine were announced. In addition, plans for the future were revealed. Serial production of new equipment in the interests of customers was supposed to start already in 2019.

According to foreign press reports, at the end of 2016, flight tests of a prototype aircraft in an improved configuration began. The prototype received several new devices for various purposes, which should have a positive effect on its combat capabilities.

At the end of 2018, foreign media reported that the FC-31 project, after several years of waiting, received support from the PLA. The air and naval forces are interested in this fighter, which promises him a great future. By this time, the interest on the part of foreign armies was repeatedly reported, but it has not yet been confirmed by real agreements.

Model of the aircraft at one of the foreign exhibitions, 2015. Photo by Popular Mechanics

Since the middle of last year, news has been circulating in specialized publications about the creation of another version of the FC-31 fighter. This time, not only the instrumentation was refined, but also the airframe, power plant and general aircraft systems. While retaining some external and constructive similarities with the previous versions, the new one has noticeable differences. According to some estimates, this is not about revising an old project, but about creating a completely new aircraft.

Recently, information appeared in Chinese and foreign sources about the possible creation of a deck version of the FC-31. In addition, images of an aircraft carrier with similar aircraft on the deck appeared – so far only in the artist’s view. The details of such a project remain unknown, but it is already clear how the technical appearance of the base fighter will have to be changed.

Current successes

From 2012 to the present, SAC has built at least two to three FC-31 prototype aircraft and is continuing their comprehensive testing. With their help, the development of structures, various technologies and configurations of on-board equipment is carried out. The most interesting in this respect is the last aircraft, built according to a significantly modified design.

First public flights at Airshow China 2014. Photo Wikimedia Commons

As reported several years ago, the FC-31 project interested the Chinese command and received some support. This means that in the foreseeable future, such equipment may enter service. Moreover, potential customers are two types of troops at once, in theory interested in obtaining a single aircraft.

The export prospects of the project are still in question. Prototypes, mock-ups and various materials on the project attracted the attention of foreign military personnel, but real contracts have not yet appeared – despite the presence of several variants of the aircraft for different requirements.

Thus, despite its considerable age, the FC-31 project still cannot advance beyond testing and an advertising campaign. Serial production was planned to start in 2019, but this did not happen. Attempts are being made to improve this aircraft, the real prospects of which are still unclear. In such circumstances, the Shenyang Corporation will have to continue working and hope to receive orders.

Competitive advantages

The FC-31 project receives support from the PLA, which allows its creators to hope to receive orders of a certain volume for the supply of equipment to its own Air Force or Navy. However, such support cannot affect the international market. When looking for foreign customers, aircraft manufacturers will have to rely only on the strengths of their aircraft.

One of the prototypes in flight. Photo

The new Shenyang FC-31 is positioned as a 5th generation light multirole fighter with all the necessary qualities. It is distinguished by stealth and high flight performance, capable of carrying a wide range of weapons, etc. A developed complex of onboard radio-electronic equipment of open architecture is proposed.

The project initially included stealth technology, which made it possible to reduce the visibility in all ranges. According to some reports, in early versions of the project, this was achieved due to the special shapes of the airframe and composite skin with minimal radio signal reflection. Following a recent update, these panels are complemented by a radar absorbing coating.

In all versions, the FC-31 is equipped with an AFAR radar. There is an optical location station. An airborne defense complex with optical means of detecting threats is envisaged. The fighter is adapted to work in network-centric control systems, which makes it possible to obtain maximum combat characteristics.

The composition of the electronics can be determined in accordance with the wishes of the customer. The use of Chinese and foreign components is possible. The standard equipment of the aircraft can be supplemented with suspended containers for various purposes.

Approach. Photo

As befits a 5th generation fighter, the FC-31 has internal weapons bays. The total combat load reaches 8 tons, of which up to 2 tons inside the fuselage. The possibility of carrying and using a wide range of Chinese-designed aircraft weapons has been declared. It is likely that there is a possibility of integrating foreign samples.

After a recent modernization, the aircraft has grown heavier: the maximum take-off weight has grown from 25 to 28 tons. At the same time, it is equipped with two new WS-19 engines with a thrust of 12 thousand kgf, while earlier WS-13 products of 9 thousand kgf were used. Due to this, the increase in mass is compensated, as well as a flight speed of up to 1.8 M and a practical range of more than 1200 km are provided.

Thus, according to the “tabular” characteristics, the newest aircraft from SAC fully meets the requirements for the latest generation fighters. According to its characteristics, it is not inferior to a number of foreign samples. The advantage may be lower cost and the ability to change the configuration, taking into account the wishes of the customer.

Deck version FC-31. Graphics

Business results can also be influenced by politics. At the moment, the United States is the market leader for the latest generation of fighters, but they intend to sell their F-35s only to “trustworthy countries.” This position pushes other states wishing to upgrade their combat aircraft to purchase Chinese equipment.

Foggy future

The Shenyang FC-31 project was created on an initiative basis – and faced problems typical for such developments. The lack of orders and support from the army led to the delay in work in the early stages. In the future, support appeared and provided an opportunity for more active development of the project, but its future still remains vague.

It can be assumed that the latest modernization of the FC-31 was carried out at the request of the PLA, and according to its results, the aircraft will be put into service. Joining the Chinese Air Force would be a good recommendation, and foreign orders would follow.

However, such success is not yet guaranteed, and the market situation will change. Over the next few years, new fighters of the latest generation from different countries may appear on the international market. This will increase competition and present new requirements for the Chinese FC-31. Whether he will be able to cope with the current and expected difficulties is a big question. At the moment, there are no reasons for expressed optimism.

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