China Developing Light Fighter Jet
By Wendell Minnick
TAIPEI - China is test-flying prototypes of a light multirole fighter jet that may offer much of the performance of the U.S. F-16 at a lower cost, Western analysts said.
The Fighter China-1 (FC-1) Xiaolong is slated to replace much of China’s aging air force and boost export sales, and may also influence military buying decisions around the Pacific Rim, they said.
The delta-winged Xiaolong (“Fierce Dragon”) tops out at Mach 1.6 on its single engine.
“The FC-1 is going to be a bestseller. It offers about 85 percent of the performance of a fourth-generation F-16 at about half the price,” said Rick Fisher, vice president of the Washington-based International Assessment and Strategy Center. “Look for this fighter to pop up in many unsavory places, much to the chagrin of the U.S. and its allies.”
The fourth Xiaolong prototype, dubbed FC-4, took wing for 16 minutes April 28 from Chengdu in the southwestern province of Sichuan, China’s official Xinhua news agency reported.
It included several improvements over earlier prototypes, Fisher said, including missile racks, diverter-less supersonic inlets, leading-edge wing root extensions, better ground-attack capabilities and a combat electronics suite intended to closely resemble the eventual production version.
The production fighter will be able to carry the Chinese PL-12 active-guided air-to-air missile and various precision guided munitions, Fisher said.
The Xiaolong has a long heritage. It is based on the Chengdu Jian 7 (J-7), a 1960s-era licensed-production version of the even older Soviet-built MiG-21 Fishbed. The J-7 was an export success in the 1980s and 1990s, when it was purchased by Bangladesh, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.
The FC-1 is “the third-generation multirole fighter aircraft of the PLA [People’s Liberation Army] Air Force. It’s meant to be competitive to the F-16,” said Andrew Yang, secretary-general of the Taipei-based Chinese Council of Advanced Studies.
The jet is expected to replace many of China’s aging fleet of fighter and ground-attack aircraft. Some 250 are expected to replace its Shenyang J-6, Changdu J-7 and Nanchang Q-5A — all based on Soviet designs.
The Xiaolong also may reinvigorate China’s drooping fighter export sales, which have seen “scant success other than its large sales to Pakistan,” Fisher said.
In the past year, Bangladesh bought a squadron of F-7MG fighters, and Nigeria may have done the same. In April, Pakistan reportedly decided to purchase up to 36 larger J-10 canard fighters for $1.5 billion, Fisher said.
“Pakistan’s purchase of significant numbers of the FC-1 and the J-10 will serve to encourage other states, such as Iran, Egypt and others in Africa and Latin America, to consider these capable bargain fighters,” Fisher said.
Pakistan has another reason to buy the Xiaolong, which it calls the Joint Fighter 17 (JF-17) Thunder: its Pakistan Aeronautical Complex in Kamra has been given a role in developing the aircraft under lead companies Chengdu Aircraft Industrial Corp. and China Aero Technology Import and Export Corp. (CATIC).
The partnership goes back to a 1999 agreement with China. Pakistan opened production facilities for the JF-17 in April 2005, but the first aircraft of the series is not expected till 2009, Fisher said.
China and Pakistan also are working together to develop the Karakoram-8 advanced jet trainer, whose parts will be built in both countries for final assembly in China. Pakistan Aeronautical Complex, Pakistan’s Aircraft Manufacturing Factory and CATIC began the program in 1999.
The fighter jet agreement came under threat last year when Russia forbade China to put its RD-93 engine into aircraft that might compete against Russian aircraft in the export market.
China may now be trying to work around that prohibition. Fisher says a co-produced RD-93 might be given a Chinese name, “much as the Xian JH-7A’s Qingling’ engine is really an updated Rolls-Royce Spey 202.” Or it may be trying to reverse-engineer the RD-93; the resulting engine would be called the WS-14, Hong Kong-based Kanwa Defense Review reported in November.
Moscow’s engine ban also may have been an attempt to preserve its ties with New Delhi, which buys more arms from Russia than from any other country, and which is looking to buy 126 fighter aircraft for $10 billion. India is considering Lockheed Martin’s F-16, Boeing’s F/A-18 Super Hornet, the Russian MiG-29 Fulcrum, Sweden’s Saab JAS-39 Gripen and the French Mirage-2000.
The FC-1 is being watched carefully in Taiwan, which is debating its own future fighter purchases.
“It’ll be a formidable fighter and may pose threats to not only the Taiwan Air Force, but for the Japanese and USAF and even Indian Air Force in the region as well,” said Alexander Huang, a senior associate of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies who lives in Taipei.
Taiwanese officials may talk with U.S. and Japanese officials about the proper procurement response to the FC-1, Huang said. Its Air Force has an official requirement for 400 fighters but currently flies about 390, including 146 Block 20 F-16s, 128 locally made Indigenous Defense Fighters, 56 French Mirage 2000-5s and about 60 aging F-5s. The F-16s and Indigenous Defense Fighters are slated for retirement in 2020; the F-5s between 2010 and 2015.
Options include upgrading the F-16s and Indigenous Defense Fighters, buying more F-16s, or even seeking F-35 Joint Strike Fighters or F-22A Raptors.