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Chinese Aircraft Industry’s New J-31 Stealth Fighter: Implications for India

November 09, 2012


It has been established beyond all reasonable doubt that winning the air war to enable at least local air superiority if not full air superiority over the battle area is essential for victory. The tank battles between the Germans and Allies, most notably with General Rommel and General Montgomery commanding the opposing forces, in North Africa in World War II, the Indian operations in erstwhile East Pakistan in 1971, US operations in the First Gulf War of 1991, all serve to drive home this basic point. Hence, it is essential for the Indian Air Force (IAF) to be equipped and trained to achieve a dominant position over likely adversaries.

Chinese Developments in Modern Aviation Technology

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) has invested heavily in its indigenous aircraft industry over the years and the results of this investment are very evident today. On 11 January 2011, the PRC unveiled its first Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA), developed at the Chengdu Aircraft Corporation (CAC), a part of Aviation Industry of China-I (AVIC I).1 At that time there was speculation based on isolated inputs that the PRC was actually pursuing not one but as many as three separate FGFA projects, of which at least one was believed to be at the Shenyang Aircraft Corporation (SAC)—another major component of AVIC I. This speculation has turned out to be true today as the SAC developed J-31 FGFA (fuselage number 31001) reportedly carried out its first flight on 31 October 2012 at the SAC’s facilities in the North Eastern Chinese city of Shenyang. 2

This event makes PRC the first country in the world to achieve the milestone of developing two indigenous FGFA designs near simultaneously. Russia today has just the Sukhoi T-50 prototype of the Перспективный Авиационный Комплекс Фронтовой Авиации (ПAK ФA), approximately translated as [Prospective Aviation (K) Complex [for] Frontal Aviation (PAK FA)], 3 whose first public flight and was carried out and publicly acknowledged in August 2011. 4 This remains the first and only currently known Russian FGFA project. The USA has already developed the F-22 “Raptor” and inducted it into service. The F-22 first flew on 07 September 1997, 5 and the first F-22 was delivered to the US Air Force at Nellis Air Force Base on 14 January 2003. 6 The second US FGFA project is the F-35 “Lightning-II” Joint Strike Fighter (JSF). This aircraft has had a troubled developmental history, with several slippages in development milestones. The F-35 carried out its first flight on 15 December 2006. 7 Since then, the development phase has continued with deliveries of aircraft to the US Air Force commencing on 05 May 2011. 8 The timelines above illustrate the protracted development timelines and clearly bring out that the F-22 and F-35 were not actually simultaneous programmes. As noted, the F-35 carried out its first flight after the F-22 had already been inducted into frontline service. There is no other country with its own FGFA programme today. European aviation powerhouses are at the Fourth Generation or Fourth Generation Plus stage with the Eurofighter Typhoon and France’s Dassault Rafale. India has, as per press reports, tied up with Russia to be a part of the Russian T-50/PAK FA programme9 in preference over its proposed indigenous Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) 10 project. For several months now there has been no mention of the AMCA from either IAF or DRDO sources in public forums, possibly indicating the shelving of the programme in favour of the PAK FA. Even allowing for the fact that the United States was the pioneer in the development of FGFA technologies and so would have had to build the road itself thus taking more time to complete the FGFA programmes, the achievements of the PRC in this regard are impressive to say the least.
The PRC has been able to make the jump from producing improved versions of essentially 1950s Soviet technology in aircraft [J-6 variants (essentially MiG-19 copies), 11 J-7 variants (MiG-21 copies),12 J-8 variants (scaled up MiG-21 designs)] 13 to copying and improving upon Fourth Generation Soviet/ Russian designs such as the Su-27SK (J-11B, J-11BS) 14 and Su-33 (J-15) 15 and to now being able to simultaneously develop two FGFA designs—the J-20 and J-31, in parallel. This jump in capability from second to at best third generation fighter aircraft technology to fifth generation technology in a matter of a couple of decades is impressive to say the least. The dedication and single-minded focus of the personnel involved in the PRC’s aircraft industry is indeed praiseworthy.

Lessons from China’s Transformation of its Aviation Industry

It is easy, and often quite fashionable, to belittle the PRC’s aviation achievements by saying that these have been achieved through spying and stealing technology. However, at the end of the day, the fact remains that the PRC has proven that it has internalised cutting edge aviation technology and been able to apply it for practical solutions. In the real world it is force and power that counts and not a good behaviour certificate.

There is a lesson here for other countries that aspire to develop a modern aviation industry. The PRC’s aircraft industry was helped by two different factors. Firstly, the PRC was under a virtual aviation technology embargo for most of the later half of the 20th century, thus forcing it to develop its own technology and equipment. (A similar thing happened with India’s nuclear and space programmes, which faced embargos for long periods of time.) Secondly, the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) gave full support to the aviation industry. The PRC saw the US and USSR as its main enemies. The PLAAF trained to fight these superpowers with its antiquated but indigenously built equipment. The confidence this built among the scientists and engineers involved in the PRC’s aviation industry must have been immense. Such displayed confidence would have spurred these people on to greater efforts. However, it should be borne in mind that the second factor above was in large part due to the first. Given the embargo in place, the PLAAF had no option but to go to its own industry as imports were totally ruled out.

Implications for India

The IAF is very aware of the fact that there are unresolved border issues between India and China. According to press reports, the IAF has been building up infrastructure in the North East close to the main or major in area disputed territory, the state of Arunachal Pradesh16 which is claimed in its entirety by the PRC under the ‘name’ “South Tibet”. 17 There are also efforts by the IAF to beef up its normal deployment of equipment in the region with Su-30MKI squadrons; currently the Su-30MKI is the IAF’s most potent aircraft. 18 At the same time, the IAF is moving to address its falling fighter strength through increased induction of Su-30MKIs over and above the numbers originally planned, extending the in-service life of other aircraft such as MiG-29s and Mirage-2000s through upgrades and pursuing the MMRCA selection process with gusto.

The IAF expects its own FGFA to commence entering service around 2020 onwards. This date, based on recent experience with Russia in the Gorshkov deal19 and upgrades to Il-38 Maritime Reconnaissance (MR) 20 aircraft, etc., cannot be taken as fixed. Russia has displayed an alarming tendency to demand more than earlier agreed upon funding, while at the same time pushing delivery dates further into the future. There is thus no certainty about the in-service date of around 2020 for FGFA21 to equip the first IAF squadrons being met. Looking ahead to a possible future “hot disagreement” over where the borders between Tibet and India lie, one can pit the equipment and technology equation as follows:

  • Su-30MKIs to counter J-10, J-11B/J-11BS
  • Su-30MKK, LCA with MiG-29UPG and Mirage-2000UPG to counter JF-17, J-8III etc and FGFA to counter the J-20.

So far, this equation gave me comfort in India’s ability to deny the PLAAF air superiority over the battle-area. The entry of a new factor in the form of the J-31 changes all that. A second FGFA platform would bring different, possibly supplementary to the J-20 capabilities, to the battle, quite apart from increasing the numbers of FGFAs to be faced.

Despite having been a staunch supporter of the MMRCA programme to bring the Rafale into service at the earliest, the entry of the J-31 makes me look afresh at the situation. The FGFA programme with Russia is expected to cost India about US $30 billion. 22 Can India afford to buy another FGFA at the same time? Probably not. However, India is in the process of committing about $10 to 20 billion23 to a fourth generation machine, the MMRCA Rafale, which cannot hope to match a FGFA in combat. Moreover, it should be understood that “co-development of FGFA” by India and Russia is a myth. The T-50 flew in 2011 and now there are reportedly three prototypes flying. How does one co-develop an already flying machine? The T-50, and PAK FA design, is thus obviously tailored towards a Russian Air Force requirement and not an IAF specification.

Given the need to be prudent in spending, it may make sense to replace the MMRCA project with a single vendor deal through Government-to-Government contacts for the US F-35 “Lightning-II”. 24 This aircraft could possibly enter service earlier than the PAK FA and also give a naval equivalent through selection of the Short Take Off Vertical Landing (STOVL) 25 variant for INS Vikramaditya and the indigenous aircraft carrier. In fact, the selection of the F-35 could hep reduce the IAF’s base dependency through purchase of a mix of Conventional Take Off and Landing (CTOL) 26 and STOVL variants. The learning from the F-35 programme, especially in building it under license, could possibly re-energise the AMCA project to give the IAF the FGFA’s replacement from Indian design facilities.


The PRC has made major strides in the development of its indigenous aviation capabilities. The first flight of the J-31 signals that the PLAAF is ready to take its place as a first tier air force almost at par with the US Air Force and Russian Aviation forces. The ability of the PLAAF to field higher capability and numbers of cutting edge aircraft in the event of a “Local Border War under Informationised Conditions” will increase exponentially with two FGFA aircraft types in its service. In view of the unresolved border issues between the PRC and India, it would be prudent for the IAF to reassess its equipment plans. Instead of inducting another fourth generation aircraft under the MMRCA programme, it may be better to replace the MMRCA with a mix of F-35s and increased numbers of Su-30MKI and LCAs.