Details are beginning to emerge of China's Chengdu J-10, but doubts linger over whether the fourth-generation fighter will enter service in significant numbers this decade.

The J-10 first flew in March 1998, but remained an enigma until the surreptitious release of a grainy photograph on the internet in January (Flight International, 23-29 January). Another picture of two aircraft found its way onto the internet this month, but was removed after a few hours.

The latest picture confirms the J-10's resemblance to the cancelled Israel Aircraft Industries (IAI) Lavi. Israel denies involvement, but Lavi influence is clear in the J-10's canard-delta design.

Despite differences in wing planform, inlet and vertical tail shape, the close similarity suggests Chengdu used Lavi data in the design of the J-10. Israeli involvement is believed to extend to avionics, flight controls and composites.

Problems with the flight control system and the crash of a prototype have been attributed to Chengdu's difficulties in mastering fly-by-wire technology. India has experienced similar difficulties with its indigenously developed Light Combat Aircraft.

The single-seat, single-engineJ-10 is similar in size to the Lockheed Martin F-16. China's inability to produce a suitable engine led to the adoption of the 27,500lb-thrust (120kN) Lyulka Saturn AL-31F, which powers Chinese air force Sukhoi Su-27s and Su-30s.

Some sources suggest the Russian engine may be replaced with the 26,700lb-thrust Wopen WP15, under development in China. This would increase Chinese content and could help exports, but successful development of the engine would be a major achievement for China.

Chinese sources say the cockpit has three multifunction displays, wide field-of-view head-up display and helmet-mounted sight (HMS). It is not known whether this is the basic Ukranian Arsenel HMS - copied by China's Luoyang Avionics - or a new helmet display featured briefly at the 2000 Zhuhai air show.

The radar is thought to be the Russian Phazotron Zhuk 10PD, a version of the system in laterSu-27s, with 160km (85nm) search range and ability to track up to six targets. Israel reportedly offered the Elta EL/M-2035 and China is developing its own radar.

For low-level navigation and precision strike, a forward-looking infrared and laser designation pod is likely to be carried F-16-style on an inlet hardpoint. A Chinese pod - similar to the Israeli Rafael Litening - was displayed at the 1998 Zuhai air show.

The J-10 is believed to have 11 stores stations - six under the wing and five under the fuselage. The inner wing and centre fuselage stations are likely to be plumbed to carry external fuel tanks.

Photographs show the aircraft carrying the PL-8 short-range air-to-air missile, a Chinese copy of the Rafael Python-3, or PL-9, a development of an Israeli weapon, on the outboard wing station. An unidentified medium-range missile, possibly the PL-10 or PL-11, is mounted on the centre wing station. The J-10 will also have an internal 23mm cannon.

Other air-to-air weapon options could include the Russian Vympel R-73 (AA-11) short-range and R-77 (AA-12) medium-range missiles carried by Chinese Flankers.

For attack missions, the J-10 will carry unguided and laser-guided bombs, as well as guided weapons such as the C-801/802 and a new Chinese ramjet-powered missile revealed at last year's Zuhai show.

With the J-10, China is trying to leapfrog not one, but two fighter generations in a bid to modernise its obsolescent air force. But unless development is faster than in previous programmes, the J-10 is likely to be outclassed before it enters widespread service.

Other modernisation programmes have not made rapid progress. China's Xian JH-7 fighter bomber, roughly equivalent to the McDonnell Douglas F-4EPhantom, is in only limited service after 25 years of development. The updated Shenyang J-8 II fighter first flew in 1995, but remains in only limited production.

The J-10 programme has been under way for almost two decades, and can trace its origins back to the J-9, a Mach 2.5 canard-delta fighter resembling the Saab JA37 Viggen. The J-9 project was transferred fromShenyang to Chengdu in 1969, but was killed by lack of funding and Chengdu's focus on further developing the J-7 (Mikoyan MiG-21).

Work on the J-10 began in the 1980s as a counter to the Soviet Union's emerging fourth-generation fighters, the RSK MiG-29 and Sukhoi Su-27. The original mission was air superiority, but the breakup of the Soviet Union and changing requirements shifted development towards a multirole fighter to replace the ShenyangJ-6s (MiG-19s) and J-7s that are the backbone of China's air force.

It is not clear how many J-10s will enter air force service, and when. Six prototypes are believed to have been built. Some estimates project that up to 300 aircraft could be produced for the Chinese air force, although reports suggest as few as 30 will have been built by 2005 - a drop in the ocean of obsolete J-6s and J-7s. Nonetheless, China is said to be already considering upgrades such as thrust vectoring and phased-array radar.

Although the aircraft would be offered at a price well below that of Western fighters and be competitive with Russia's MiG-29, the J-10 is unlikely to make an impact, if any, on the export market for many years to come.

Source: Flight International