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China’s J-10 Jet Fighter: How Much Do We Know?

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by Richard Fisher, Jr.
Published on January 16th, 2007
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Since late December 2006 China has been rolling out its Chengdu Aircraft Corporation (CAC) Jian-10 (Fighter-10, or J-10) multi-role fighter, with some publicity. We have seen unprecedented video[1] and print press coverage[2] of the fighter and interviews with prominent members of the CAC design team.[3] The purposes seem to be, first, to demonstrate to Chinese and foreigners alike that China can build her own "indigenous" aircraft itself, without relying on foreign help, and second, that as a responsible "rising power," China has nothing to hide from the world (the theme of the National Defense White Paper of December 29, 2006).

But the whole exercise has also been conspicuous for what it lacks. First, no official data have been provided regarding the actual capabilities and performance of the J-10. And second, we have heard little or nothing from the many Israeli and Russian engineers who helped make this aircraft possible.

 
 
 
 
After 20 Years, A J-10 Party: Some of the current issues of Chinese military magazines that feature cover stories on the J-10; for most Chinese military journalists, a very long wait to cover a well known story. Credit: Chinese Internet

From the early 1990s to the present period the J-10 has been viewed by government and non-government analysts as a key indicator of Chinese military potential, and as such, has been an object of intense scrutiny and speculation. In 1997 the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence produced speculative artist imagery of the J-10 (an honor previously reserved for mysterious new Soviet combat aircraft) estimating that an eventual twin-engine version would fly off a future Chinese aircraft carrier. But at about the same time, many U.S. government and non-government analysts regarded the J-10 (and the idea of Chinese aircraft carriers) as far-fetched.

 
 
American Estimates: In 1997 the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence produced speculative imagery of a twin-engine J-10 flying form a future Chinese aircraft carrier, which at that time, was an estimate viewed by some U.S. analysts as “humorous.” Credit: Office of Naval Intelligence

The J-10 program started in the 1960s with the J-9, a canard (horizontal stabilizer in front of the wing) fighter (like the J-10) which resembled the Swedish JA-37 Viggen. The J-9 was conceived of then, in the years of the Sino-Soviet confrontation, as short take-off and fast climbing interceptor to ward of invading Soviet aircraft. Work started at the Shenyang Aircraft Company, but was switched to CAC. As time passed, however, with no plane, the concept of the J-10 evolved into that of a full multi-role fighter. The Chinese would like the world to believe that the J-10 is "designed and made entirely in China."[4] However, over the course of its development the J-10 required substantial technical and consulting inputs from Israel and then Russia. The J-10’s basic configuration has clear influences from the Israeli Aircraft Industries Lavi,-- an aircraft program, never completed, that was largely paid for by the United States.[5] These include its underslug air intake and slightly anhedral delta wings. What appears to be a likely early concept for the J-10 even copies the Lavi’s vertical stabilizer.

 
 
 
Possible Early Configuration: In the mid-1990s this model of an early configuration of the J-10 was given legitimacy by the presence of former Politburo member Li Peng in the picture. The Israeli Lavi-style vertical stabilizer is apparent. Credit: Chinese Internet

The J-10 is furthermore completely "fly by wire," or computer driven, an achievement probably to be credited to Israeli consultants, who in turn may in turn have relied on their exposure to U.S. technology associated with the pioneering fly-by-wire Lockheed-Martin F-16. Chengdu did develop its own system, however, which it tested on a modified JJ-6 training aircraft.

Finally, the J-10 was developed in considerable secrecy. Planned debuts in previous years were evidently canceled. The aircraft has been unveiled just now not as a prototype but as an aircraft already in production and serving with the PLA air force. What do we know about it?

 
 
Debut Canceled: A week before the November 2006 Zhuhai Airshow, CAC flew a special J-10 painted in AVIC-1 markings before assembled journalists, only to have its triumphal Zhuhai debut cancelled at the last minute. Despite a press embargo, some images from that demonstration flight were leaked to the Internet. Source: Chinese Internet

We Know #1: The CAC J-10 is now in production and is serving in PLA Air Force units.

Internet source imagery confirms that the J-10 is flying in at least two active PLAAF regiments, the first becoming operational in 2005, plus a testing regiment. Other reporting indicates that another two more regiments may be transitioning to the J-10. At least one regiment contains two-seat J-10S versions, which reportedly first flew in December 2003. The J-10S is designed for training, but could in the future be upgraded to dedicated attack variant. It should be expected that the PLA Navy will purchase some to replace obsolete J-7 fighters. And furthermore, Pakistan may be first in line to purchase the J-10, perhaps toward the end of this decade, or soon into the next.

 
 
One of the First J-10 Units: So far, it appears that the J-10 only serves in two PLAAF regiments, with reports of two others working up. Source: Chinese Internet

We Know #2: China now has a 4th generation multi-role fighter having performance that will soon approach that of the Lockheed-Martin F-16 Block 40.

The J-10 exhibits the major characteristics of 4th generation fighters such as the F-16 and F/A-18, such as computer driven or "fly-by-wire" control systems that ensure far greater flying precision; use of high-thrust turbofan engines to ensure a near 1 to 1 thrust-to-weight ratio for high performance 8-9G combat maneuvering; and the ability to employ advanced radar and weapons.

With its canard configuration and slightly larger wing, the J-10 can probably be credited with slightly better maneuverability than the F-16.

The fighter employs a Chinese developed radar, which, although it may rely on technology obtained from Russian or other sources, is nevertheless a Chinese product it can now sell. This radar, the maker, name or performance of which has not been officially disclosed, is usually assumed to employ a mechanically slewed planar array comparable to early 1990s era Western fighter radar, but with the performance enhancements gained from integrating more modern computer components.

Multiple images also confirm the J-10 uses modern Chinese-made cockpit systems to include hands-on-throttle-and-stick (HOTAS) controls that enable use of the range of combat systems while hands remain on these critical aircraft controls, and glass multi-function displays which allow a pilot to view flight system data or target imagery by pressing a button.

We Know #3: The J-10 is armed with modern weapons systems and can be refueled in flight.

The J-10 employs now (or will soon be able to employ) modern anti-air and ground attack weapons. In early 2005 Chinese sources disclosed to the author that CAC had completed integration of the PL-12/SD-10 self-guiding medium range air-to-air missile,[6] two to four of which can be carried by the J-10. While the PL-12 relies on a Russian/Ukrainian developed missile radar, its Chinese designed missile engine is credited with giving it a slightly greater range than the comparable Russian Vympel R-77, which makes it very competitive with relatively recent versions of the U.S. Raytheon AIM-120 AMRAAM.

As for ground attack, an early January AVIC-1 press conference displayed a J-10 model equipped with two low-light/laser targeting pods attached to the engine intake. While this modification has yet to be seen on J-10s "in the field," this modification is how the F-16 employs the twin-pod LANTRIN targeting and low-light navigation system, or the new singke-pod systems. The F-16 did not integrate LANTRIN until its Block 40 version, which began delivery in 1989, a decade after the initial F-16As entered service. This Chinese targeting pod was developed, according to Russian sources, with the help of the Russian UOMZ optical targeting system company, but again, it will be marketed as a Chinese system. Imaging made available over the last 18 months and more recent videos show the J-10 can carry bombs on wing and fuselage, for a total of 11 weapon attachments. The use of targeting pods indicates the J-10’s potential to employ the laser and navigation satellite guided bombs revealed by the Louyang Company and CASIC consortium during the 2006 Zhuhai show.

 
 
Press Con Model: At a January 5 press conference AVIC-1 revealed a J-10 model equipped with two targeting pods of a type that received Russian technical assistance. In service it is likely the J-10 will use only one such pod, to target new Chinese-made laser and satellite-guided munitions. Credit: CCTV

A video released late December also included the first ever images of a J-10 equipped with a fixed probe for aerial refueling, taking fuel from a Chinese-built Xian H-6U tanking aircraft. Images of initial J-10 units do not indicate this is a current standard feature for the J-10, but it could for future versions. Such tanking ability would significantly increase the J-10’s operational flexibility to sustain longer combat air patrols or to undertake longer range attack missions.

 
 
 
This is new: One of the actual real revelations of late December 2006 was that at least one J-10 has been successfully modified for aerial refueling. Credit: AVIC-1; CCTV

We Know #4: The Chinese are about to master complex propulsion technology, and with the imminent production of the Shenyang WS-10A "Taihang" turbofan engine, the J-10 can soon be marketed as a fully indigenous Chinese 4th generation fighter.

Turbofan and jet engine technology has been one area in which the Chinese have encountered great difficulty in developing indigenous systems. The metallurgy of long-lasting fan blades is extremely complicated, as is the engineering, which is often viewed as much art as science.

Today the J-10 is powered by a Russian AL-31FN engine. China has purchased 150 AL-31FNs and in the recent past Russian sources have spoken of their expectation that China would purchase another 200 or so. The final number purchased will depend on how quickly China’s WS-10A Taihang turbofan engine can complete final testing and reach sufficient production to contribute to the J-10 program.

China’s quest for a modern high performance turbofan combat aircraft engine has lasted as long as the J-10’s story. While WS-10A is given a lower profile in reporting about the PLA, is perhaps a more important accomplishment than the J-10, inasmuch as this new engine enables multiple combat aircraft, enables the development of modern turbofans for airliner and cargo transports and its establishes a critical knowledge base for developing 5th generation fighters engines.

 
 
Taihang: The first “official” picture of China’s WS-10A turbofan appeared on a wall at the 2006 Zhuhai Airshow. While the chief designer has been feted in the Chinese press, as of yet there are no officially released performance statistics on this engine. Source: Chinese Internet

Official performance statistics for the Taihang have yet to be revealed. Numerous Chinese sources credit this engine with a 13,200kg maximum thrust, which could compare very favorably to the 12,500kg rating for the AL-31FN now used by the J-10.

China is also developing thrust vectoring for this engine, which serves to greatly enhance maneuverability and is also useful under certain conditions, for lowering landing speeds.

However, it appears that Shenyang and its J-11B, a greatly indigenized version of the Sukhoi Su-27 being co-produced by Shenyang, will have first claim on Taihang engine production. This J-11 may prove to be a more important combat aircraft than the J-10 in terms of performance. But perhaps because it is largely based on a foreign Russian design, it will not be given the same "debut" party as the J-10.

The J-10’s future, especially its export prospects, are tied to the Taihang engine. For example, Chengdu’s smaller FC-1 Fierce Dragon fighter, which is part of a major co-development and co-production agreement with Pakistan, has been bedeviled by Indian pressure on Russia not to sell its rival the Russian-made Klimov RD-93 engines which now power the FC-1. Pakistan is also planning to purchase an initial batch of 36 J-10s, and the Taihang would allow CAC to avoid foreign engine entanglements.

We Don’t Know:

Even by her own standards, China has been rather secretive with respect to the development of the J-10. Evidently the desire was to garner the full publicity value of the unexpected revelation of existing production and in place operational capabilities about which foreigners had hitherto only speculated. Some attempt was probably made as well to divert foreign attention away to major technology indigenization. Now after the debut, there is still much we do not know.

The Chengdu Aircraft Corporation has yet to release its own dimension, weight and performance statistics for the J-10 and twin-seat J-10S. Barring such a release it is not possible to know from open sources or from what may appear to be reasonably sound estimates, what is the real performance of the J-10. Such information remains a state secret.

We do not know how many J-10s the PLA Air Force will purchase. Some analysts estimate the PLAAF may only purchase 300 to 400 J-10s. At the 2003 Moscow Airshow a Russian source gave the author his estimate that total lifetime production for the J-10 could reach 1,200. This number has since been reported in the Department of Defense annual reports to the U.S. Congress on Chinese military modernization.

Nor do we know how quickly will modified versions emerge, or will the J-10 soon be eclipsed by a new 5th generation fighter.

In early 2005 Chinese sources told the author that "advanced" versions of the J-10 were in development, but would not elaborate.[7] In late 2005 and early 2006 reporting emerged that China was potentially basing new versions of the J-10 on a combination of up-rated and possibly thrust-vectored AL-31FN engines and new active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar.[7] Such an upgrade path is quite plausible and follows the example set by other 4th generation fighters now in production. Nevertheless there is no definitive information from CAC on new versions of the J-10.

At the 2005 Moscow Airshow one Russian source believed that China’s interest in a thrust-vectored version of the AL-31FN engine was driven primarily by its intention to develop a carrier-capable version of the single-engine J-10. The combination of canard configuration, precise computer controls, and thrust vectoring might indeed allow the J-10 to achieve rather slow landing speeds, a critical factor in carrier operations safety. However, a carrier capable J-10 would require extensive airframe and undercarriage strengthening and modification. In addition this fighter would have to prove significant cost and safety advantages over the carrier-proven twin-engine Russian Sukhoi Su-33, which so far appears to be favored by the PLA for the first Chinese aircraft carrier.

 
 
 
Carrier bound?: Russian sources believe CAC’s interest in a thrust-vectored version of the AL-31FN is for a new aircraft carrier version of the J-10. The former Russian-Ukrainian carrier Varyag continues to undergo refurbishment in Dalian harbor for an undisclosed military purpose: Credit: RD Fisher, Chinese Internet

There is also the possibility that in the next decade that the J-10 may become eclipsed by a new 5th generation (4th generation in China) combat aircraft. J-10 program director Liu Gaozhou recently stated that, "…we are researching and developing a fourth generation to meet the requirements of defending the motherland."[8]

A Chinese source disclosed in early 2005 that CAC was considering a program to build a "F-35" class fighter. This would likely mean that CAC is considering stealthy, AESA-radar equipped, internal weapon carrying high performance combat aircraft. It is logical that CAC would consider such a "lightweight" fighter project, inasmuch as Shenyang seems to be building "heavy" fighters. Nevertheless, brochures from the 601 Design Institute, usually associated with CAC, appear to indicate they are considering a "heavy" twin-engine 5th generation design that may be in competition with Shenyang’s longstanding 5th generation fighter program. However, Shenyang’s revelation of an advanced forward-swept wing but single-engine 5th generation fighter concept at the recent 2006 Zhuhai Airshow, may mean it also is aiming for an “affordable” next-generation design.

 
 
 
5th generation concepts?: The yellow image from a 601 Institute brochure may indicate CAC’s interest in developing a heavy twin-engine 5th generation fighter.  The Shenyang concept was revealed in November 2006.  Source: Chinese Internet

Conclusion

All indications are that China has successfully completed the development and commenced deployment of a competitive 4th generation combat aircraft, that when modified with better engines and AESA radar, perhaps in the near-term, will provide the PLAAF and its clients with a multi-role combat aircraft competitive with advanced versions of the F-16C/D Block 50+ and the Boeing F/A-18E/F. Even with advanced features, the J-10 will be sure to beat the U.S. fighters in terms of price, which offers the chance of real success in the market. There are indications it could sell for between $25 and $40 million, much better than the $60 million Chile recently paid for F-16s.

Furthermore, as Liu Gaozhou and other Chinese press reports have elaborated, the J-10 and J-11 “indigenization” programs have allowed China to give a relatively young cadre of aircraft, engine, component and weapons engineers their first taste of success.  Having mastered the initial version of the J-10 and its many subsystems, it should not take long for upgraded models to follow, and this broad experience can be expected to accelerate progress on 5th generation combat aircraft programs.

This is not good news for any of China’s neighbors: not for Japan, or Korea, or for Taiwan, which was just had its request for a small number of new F-16 Block 50s rebuffed by Washington. Nor is it good news for India, once the J-10 lands in Pakistan. Middle Eastern and Latin American countries may prove interested as well. This news will disappoint Russians who had looked to a steady stream of Chinese purchases to fund their own advanced aircraft development. Finally, this not good news for the United States, which will now require far more than the U.S. Air Force’s currently planned 182 Lockheed-Martin F-22, the only 5th generation fighter available to the U.S. which offers decisive superiority over the J-10 and J-11. Nor can the U.S. cannot rest on its laurels. China should not be expected to take another 20 years to unveil its 5th generation fighter designs.


[1] A Chinese television story based on AVIC-1 video footage has been recorded on Google Video: http://video.google.nl/videoplay?docid=7674592930707673426&q=j-10

[2] The J-10 is the cover story for at least four Chinese popular military issue magazines for this month; also see "Chinese Fighter Makes Debut," Xinhua, January 5, 2007.

[3] For Chinese language coverage of the J-10 to include interviews with members of the design team, see the special J-10 web page at Sina.com http://jczs.news.sina.com.cn/nz/j10/index.shtml; also see, Wang Jianjun, "F-10 Displays Its Military Might," Liaowang, January 8, 2007, p. 12-13.

[4] Video coverage from CCTV.com in English: http://www.cctv.com/video/NewsHour/2007/01/NewsHour_128_20070106_2.shtml; also see, "China Indigensous 3rd Generation Jian-10 (J-10) Makes Debut," CCTV.com, http://www.cctv.com/english/20070106/100536.shtml

[5] The best examination of the Lavi as a crisis in Israeli-U.S. relations remains, Dov S. Zakheim, Flight of the Lavi, Washington: Brassey’s, 1996.

[6] Interview, London, May 2005; also reported by author in “Chengdu News,” Air Forces Monthly, October 2005, p. 22..

[7] Ibid.

[8] Henry Ivanov, "China working on ‘Super-10’ advanced fighter," Jane’s Defence Weekly, January 11, 2006.

[9] Wang, op-cit.

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