China has begun flight testing the new Chengdu F-10 fighter, but there is continuing uncertainty as to whether the programme will progress beyond the prototype stage.
The first prototype made its long-awaited maiden flight at the end of March from Chengdu Aircraft's plant in the southern province of Sichuan.
It is understood that the Chinese air force's chief test pilot, Li Chen, was at the controls during the 40min flight.
According to local sources, the first flight was initially delayed as the result of problems with the prototype's braking system, experienced during taxi trials in February. The single-seat fighter has since completed at least a further eight test flights.
Israel Aircraft Industries (IAI) has been providing China with technical assistance to design and develop the fighter. The F-10 strongly resembles IAI's now defunct Lavi fighter, originally developed for the Israeli air force in the early 1980s.
The fighter is powered by a single Klimov RD-33 afterburning turbofan supplied by Russia.
It is unclear if the air force has yet selected a multi-mode radar for the aircraft. The choice is between the Israeli Elta EL/M2035 with an enlarged 680mm-diameter antenna and Phazotron's Zhemchoug system. China's 14th Technical Research Institute is also pushing its own JL-10A pulse-Doppler radar, which may also include Phazotron components.
There is further uncertainty as to whether the air force regards the F-10 project as a technology demonstrator or intends to put the fighter into full-scale production. Chengdu is known to be working on a larger twin-engine, tandem-seat fighter design, which has been loosely referred to locally as the F-12, or as the XXJ by the US Office of Naval Intelligence.
The air force appears to be working towards a high-low mix of fighters, with its more immediate needs met by the Sukhoi Su-27/30MK and improved Chengdu F-7E/MG fitted with a multi-mode GEC-Marconi Super Skyranger radar. China recently signed a memorandum of understanding with Pakistan to jointly develop the Chengdu FC-1, or Super Seven, light fighter as a follow-on to the F-7.
Pakistan has been pressing China to commit to ordering the FC-1, but there is believed to be some resistance to this within the air force.
The single-seat fighter is tentatively scheduled to fly in late 1999 and enter service in 2002, but this is subject to Beijing and Islamabad finalising an industrial co-operation agreement.