China’s Newest Export, High-Tech Stealth Fighters

Stealth Fighter

China showed off its new J-31 stealth fighter at Airshow China in the city of Zhuhai to an audience of potential foreign buyers. It seems like everything is made in China nowadays, but the U.S. has still kept one piece of manufacturing, weapons, especially high-tech ones. China aims to change that, as the J-31 gets ready to compete with Lockheed Martin’s F-35.

Rumor had it that a rogue team of engineers and designers from the Russian Mikoyan bureau, famous for the MiG-29, actually helped the Chinese with the stealth jet.

But a senior MiG official told CNN that Russian teams were not involved, saying “no, as far as I know they [the Chinese] completed this design themselves, and they seem to have done a good job on their own.”

Still, some analysts were not all that impressed. The J-31, made by the state-owned Shenyang Aircraft Corporation, has two Klimov RD-93 model jet engines. According to CNN, at Zhuhai the J-31 showed signs that it “bleeds” too much energy, so that it loses altitude when turning. Even when going straight the stealth jet has to engage its afterburners to keep it from losing altitude.

Turns out that China’s unfortunate reputation for lower-quality products extends to the defense industry, but J-31 is still ready for export. As Defense News explained, the “J” in “J-31” is a designation meaning that the plane is a fighter, but at the Zhuhai show it was also being called the “FC-31.” “FC” is the designation for planes that are being exported.

Showing off the J-31 in Zhuhai also serves as proof the Chinese are aiming for the global market. The 10th biennial China International Aviation and Aerospace Exhibition, commonly referred to as Airshow China, is the biggest defense and commercial airshow in Asia. About 700 companies from all over the world were there to show off their wares and make deals. China is notoriously secretive in its defense industry, yet now it’s using the show as an opportunity to flex its muscles for everyone to see. They might just be trying to show off to Barack Obama while he’s in China, but as expert John Stillion points out, aerial displays are great for selling stealth fighters.

“The more ambitious the display, probably the closer it is to being ready for prime time. If they fly it, that’s a big deal. One of the ways countries try to increase demand for their combat aircraft is displaying them, doing cool stuff at air shows; it’s an opportunity to show off.”

The New York Times estimates the cost of the stealth fighter will be between $75 and $100 million.

All that leaves a big question open, who would be interested in buying some low-price stealth fighters?

Mostly, the countries that have poor relations with the U.S.

Robert C. Michelson of the Georgia Tech Research Institute mentioned Iran as a potential buyer, and then there are China’s normal customers: Myanmar, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.

The J-31 stealth fighter may not be perfect, but its display at Zhuhai showed that the Chinese are making progress in taking over another manufacturing sector.

[Image: F-35A (American Fighter) Credit: MSgt John Nimmo Sr/Wikimedia Commons]