Beijing could reveal a new carrier-borne fighter for the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) before the end of 2021, according to a leading Chinese fighter designer.
State media quote Sun Cong, chief designer of the Shenyang J-15 and FC-31 fighters at AVIC, as making the remarks at this week’s Airshow China event in Zhuhai.
“Once the new plane is ready for its debut flight, it will appear in front of all of you and also on the internet,” says Sun. “So take it easy and wait. You will get to see it before year’s end.”
China Daily quoted unidentified “observers” as saying that a first flight could occur before the end of 2021.
Sun apparently didn’t comment on the new type’s engines or provide specifics about development progress.
For several years there has been considerable speculation about Beijing’s plans for a new carrier-borne fighter to eventually replace the J-15, which is based on the Sukhoi Su-33.
It is widely believed that the new fighter will be based on the FC-31 – at one point designated J-31 – that Shenyang has been working on for some years. The first J-31 prototype performed at the Zhuhai flying display in November 2014.
So far, it is not known if the Chinese military has formally adopted the FC-31.
If the new naval fighter is indeed based on the FC-31, then this is not the first time Sun has commented on the type’s prospects. In July 2019, China Daily quoted him as saying that the FC-31 was destined to enter service with the People’s Liberation Army, though he did not specify the branch or timeframe.
“You will see its latest developments in due course, in the near future,” Sun is reported as saying in July 2019.
The FC-31, which first flew in 2016, features a cropped tail, whereas the J-31 had a nearly triangular tails with a horizontal top. AVIC has billed the FC-31 as an advanced fifth-generation fighter, with robust datalinks, the internal carriage of weapons, and a low-observable radar profile.
China Daily quotes AVIC as stating that the FC-31’s maximum take-off weight (MTOW) of the FC-31 28,00kg (61,700lb). This is somewhat lighter than the 31,800kg MTOW given for the carrier-capable version of the Lockheed Martin F-35, the F-35C.
Beijing has two in-service carriers, the CNS Liaoning and CNS Shandong. These vessels use ramps to launch aircraft, limiting payloads. These vessels also cannot launch airborne early warning & control assets, such as the developmental KJ-600.
Beijing is in the process of developing an entirely new class of aircraft carrier that will use an electromagnetic aircraft launch system (EMALS), allowing fighters to launch with greater payloads, and also allow the use of support assets such as the KJ-600. The only aircraft carrier with EMALS is the latest US Navy example, the USS Gerald R Ford.