Overshadowed by the Chengdu J-20 stealth fighter, the Shenyang FC-31 may be the China’s dark horse. The J-20 has already entered service with the Chinese Air Force (PLAAF) and is, broadly, their equivalent of the F-22 Raptor. The FC-31 meanwhile is seen as a cheaper and less capable alternative. And significantly it was a private project by Shenyang Aircraft Corporation so does not get the same level of government support.
Yet while the early focus was on potential exports, it now seems that the FC-31 could be a step-change for the Chinese Navy (PLAN). There are strong indications that the FC-31, not the J-20, will be the next carrier-based fighter.
The FC-31 is a medium-sized fighter, generally in the same class as the FA-18E Super Hornet and F-35 Lightning-II. And the French Dassault Rafale, or the MiG-29K Fulcrum carried aboard Indian carriers. In generational terms it is closest to the F-35 and is often compared to it. Its layout resembles a mix of F-35 and F-22 Raptor features.
The airframe complies with the new norms of stealthy aircraft design. Carefully aligned angles, a mix of sharp chines and blended surfaces, and sawtooth edges to panels. Over the course of its development, since its first flight in 2013. Three prototypes have flown with the latest, in 2020, being considered closer to a production aircraft.
A internal weapons bay spans the lower fuselage a lot like the F-22. This can carry the PL-15 medium range air-air missile. Like the F-35, additional weapons can be carried in underwing hardpoints. These will increase the aircraft’s radar cross-section so they are not normally seen.
The reason that we are now talking more confidently about the prospect of an FC-31 carrier fighter is because of a concrete aircraft carrier. The fake carrier is seen as a leading indicator of future equipment. A full-size model of a stealth plane has appeared on the concrete carrier in recent weeks. Based on the available photo, Naval News believes that this represents an FC-31 variant.
The concrete carrier, a full-sized mock-up of a real Chinese Navy aircraft carrier, was built at Wuhan over 10 years ago. It is a serious development and evaluation site, used to test the most basic design features. Building aircraft carriers, even in China, is incredibly expensive. Such a monumental national investment needs to be de-risked. One of the most embarrassing mistakes, which could easily be made in any country, would be to build something which looks great on paper but is impractical in reality. Small things like the visibility from the island, the parking areas on deck or the way aircraft are moved.
Most visibly these test features are the carrier’s island, and the aircraft. Full-size models of carrier aircraft are lifted aboard and moved around as they would be in reality. This type of testing will give the Chinese Navy a much higher level of confidence in the design than computer simulation alone.
Significantly, the models seen on deck have in the past been reliable indicators of future aircraft. This includes the KJ-600 airborne early warning & Control (AEW&C) plane. This is the Chinese analogue to the U.S. Navy’s E-2D Advanced Hawkeye, and it looks remarkably similar. The mock-up appeared on the deck of the concrete carrier in 2017. The prototype first flew in September 2020. While the real thing is not identical to the mock-up, it is very close.
Also, starting in 2013 a mock-up of a new cruiser design was built next to the concrete carrier. This turned out to be the Type-055 Renhai Class, which entered service in 2020. Radar masts are also set up nearby. Again their represent future designs.
So the appearance of the FC-31 based carrier fighter on the concrete carrier is a strong indication of what is to come.
The choice of the FC-31, instead of the J-20, to replace the PLAN’s current J-15 Flanker carrier fighters makes sense. The J-20 is a much larger, and heavier, aircraft, In the same way that the famous F-14 Tomcat was replaced by the smaller FA-18E/F Super Hornet in U.S. Navy service.
Whether the FC-31 lives up to its potential has yet to be seen however. Converting it for carrier operations will likely add weight and complexity. This is a common challenge for carrier fighters. Either way however, the FC-31 will bring the Chinese Navy’s growing carrier capabilities into the stealth era.