China’s Shenyang Aircraft Corporation is redoubling its effort to produce a new stealth fighter for the People’s Liberation Army, saying recently it would boost research and testing on the aircraft and its related technologies this year.
According to Global Times, Shenyang’s WeChat post about its efforts didn’t name the aircraft, but pictures accompanying the announcement featured the company’s FC-31 Gyrfalcon test aircraft.
Wang Ya'nan, chief editor of Aerospace Knowledge magazine, told the outlet on Monday that an improved version of the FC-31 makes sense, since the two existing aircraft are only intended to be prototypes.
A useful comparison might be between the US’ F-22 Raptor stealth fighter and its prototype, the YF-22 that Lockheed Martin built for testing and demonstration purposes. The two jets were broadly similar, but still featured significant changes in terms of internal layout and the position and design of its cockpit.
A part of Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC), Shenyang has also produced China’s only carrier-based fighter, the J-15 Flying Shark, an indigenously designed fighter derived from the same prototype as Russia’s Su-33 fighter.
The FC-31, sometimes erroneously called the J-31, has been flying since 2012 and has long been speculated as destined to become China’s second fifth-generation fighter and its primary carrier-based fighter, thanks to its smaller profile than the J-20 Weilong already in commission with the air force.
In July 2020, the Chinese Aeronautical Establishment, AVIC’s research and design bureau, reported it intended to begin testing a “new type of aircraft” for naval use in conjunction with Shenyang. Then, two months later, an FC-31 was spotted with a new paint job, removed airspeed measuring device, and the logo of AVIC painted on its tail, was spotted on maneuvers and the pictures posted on Sina Weibo.
The PLA Navy’s Type 003 aircraft carrier, its third carrier but first with a level flight deck and aircraft catapults following the American model, is expected to be launched in the next year or so. Recent photos of the Shanghai shipyard where it’s being built suggest its interior hangars are nearing completion and installation of the flight deck could soon follow. Other aircraft are also under development with the new carrier in mind, such as the KJ-600 airborne early warning aircraft.
However, Shenyang also noted in its WeChat post that it’s beginning work on a “next-generation aircraft,” researching technologies such as thermal adaptation and integration of structure and function.
In this context, such an expression likely refers to what would be called a sixth-generation fighter in the West. The concept is nebulous since no such aircraft is admitted to exist, but it would likely be heavily computer-integrated, including allowing for optionally manned flight, would likely carry directed-energy weapons such as lasers, and would, of course, be even stealthier than present jets.