By WENDELL MINNICK, TAIPEI
Six days after Chinese officials unveiled the Jian-10 (J-10) multirole fighter in Beijing, much remains secret about the aircraft’s capabilities and its future.
But observers say China intends to offer the jet for export as a cheaper competitor to the F-16 and MiG-29.
“We all start from the premise that we have no official data from Chengdu Aircraft Industries about the dimensions, weights, fuel fraction, performance and radar performance of the J-10,” said Richard Fisher, vice president of the Washington-based International Assessment and Strategy Center. “The J-10 has merely been ‘acknowledged’ by the Chinese government, not ‘declassified.’ Its revelation has been an ongoing story since about 1993.”
Here’s what’s known: The aircraft is manufactured by Chengdu, a subsidiary of China Aviation Industry Corp-1. It carries one 23mm cannon within the fuselage, and has three ordnance stations under each wing and five under the fuselage. Powered by a single Russian-built AL-31FN turbofan, the J-10 can carry 4,500 kilograms of ordnance, fuel tanks and other equipment for a range of 2,900 kilometers.
Andrei Chang, founder and editor of the Hong Kong-based Kanwa Defense Review, said the J-10’s 1473 multifunction radar was developed specifically for the aircraft.
Beyond that, analysts speculate.
“The general opinion among U.S. folks who watch China’s military is that the J-10, first flight-tested over 10 years ago, is a Chinese attempt to replicate the F-16, using technology provided by Israel as the result of the canceled [at U.S. demand] Lavi fighter project,” said Bernard Cole, a China specialist at the National War College in Washington.
Some see evidence of design problems.
“The J-10 is a potpourri of built-in limitations to overcome which has taken, and may still take, much effort to correct,” said Lin Chong-pin, former Taiwan vice defense minister. “It may yet take some more time to modify them into full operational condition.”
He noted that the aircraft is deployed only at two air bases deep within Chinese territory, and not fielded on the frontiers.
Kanwa’s Chang said the aircraft has “structural design trouble and poor weapon quality.”
He said video released by Beijing “showed the J-10 still dropping traditional bombs and launching rockets. No precision-guided arms were displayed.”
Engine Switch Suggests Problem
Chang also said the manufacturer had switched engines mid-development, suggesting prob-lems with the air-intake channels.
“As a result, the section between the air-intake opening and the fuselage has to be strengthened with six reinforced ribs, making the fighter look odd and affecting its stealth performance as well,” said Chang.
So far, China has imported 154 AL-31FN engines from Russia’s Salyut Co.
Fisher compares the J-10 to a U.S. F-16 Block 40, which entered service in 1988.
“In terms of raw performance it is also very comparable to the F-16, if not slightly better in terms of maneuverability due to its canard configuration,” said Fisher.
“It appears the fuel fraction is slightly better than the F-16, though this may be offset by the less-efficient Russian engine. The J-10 also starts its service with a helmet-sighted high-off-bore sight air-to-air missile, most likely the PL-9C.”
Fisher says sketchy evidence suggests China is working on a better, stealthy version of the J-10. Dubbed the Super-10 or J-10C, the new, possibly naval variant is believed to have two thrust-vectored engines and a new radar.
Chang said the J-10 will challenge the F-16 Block 52 aircraft on the world market.
“The Chinese strongly want to sell J-10 on the foreign market; this is the reason that they are promoting it now,” he said.
He said estimates for the J-10’s cost run from $25 million to $40 million, less than the $60 million Chile recently paid for an F-16.
“If China were to combine these prices with far better market exposure, such as flying the J-10 at Le Bourget, and the logistic assurance of large numbers in the Chinese Air Force, they would start to achieve some market share at Lockheed’s and MiG’s expense,” Chang said.
Last April, Pakistan announced plans to buy 36 FC-20s — the Pakistani designation for the J-10s.
Chang suggested that Beijing will offer the J-10 to Iran, in hopes of dissuading Washington from selling more F-16s to Taiwan.