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Wrapped in secrecy for most of the decade following its 1998 test flight, Chengdu Aircraft Corp.’s J-10 multirole fighter is set to enter the global market. Following a development history that extends to the 1960s, and five years in the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF), the J-10 may emerge in the market soon after 2010, offering capabilities approaching Lockheed Martin’s F-16C Block 60, at half the price.
About 150 J-10s may be in PLAAF units. This could exceed 300 based on Russian disclosures that China purchased 300-400 12.7-ton-thrust Salyut AL-31FN engines for the fighter. Pakistan, which received Chinese nuclear weapons technology and generations of conventional weapons, will be the debut J-10 customer.
Reports from Pakistan say a deal has been reached to sell 36 J-10s to Islamabad for $1.4 billion, about $40 million per unit. F-16C Block 60 fighters with AN/APG-80 active phased array radar were sold to the United Arab Emirates for about $80 million each. It is not known whether the price of Pakistan’s J-10 includes spares, support and training.
Pakistan could buy 70-150 J-10s. The country has been an F-16 operator since 1982, and is taking delivery of 18 F-16C/D Block 52 fighters, half of an expected sale of 36. Pakistani sources tell DTI that the J-10 is not expected to become a coproduction project with Pakistan. There have also been reports of interest in the J-10 by Iran, Myanmar and the Philippines.
China has not released data about the J-10. Recent Chinese media reports, however, offer the following: length, 16.43 meters (53.9 ft.); wingspan, 8.78 or 9.75 meters; maximum takeoff weight, 19,227 kg. (42,300 lb.); maximum weapons load, 7,000 kg.; combat radius, 1,100 km. (683 mi.); maximum speed, Mach 2; maneuverability, 9g.
Despite a history of Israeli and Russian design assistance, and its dependence on the Salyut engine, China touts the J-10 as a domestic product. November festivities marking the PLAAF’s 60th anniversary featured a J-10 aerobatic display and the showing of a prototype and full-scale, twin-seat mockup at the national aviation museum.
Besides price, what makes the J-10 attractive is competitive electronic and weapon systems. The latest version, sometimes called the J-10B (or FC-20 when slated for Pakistan) emerged in Internet photos in January 2009. It features a diverterless supersonic inlet similar in principle to that of the Joint Strike Fighter. The nose is redesigned, with an infrared search-and-track system in front of the windscreen and what appears to be a canted radar bulkhead consistent with a fixed electronically scanned array radar. If true, this would be a major advance for China’s radar technology, and may make the J-10 competitive with upgraded Western and Russian fourth-generation-plus fighters. The cockpit is dominated by three multifunction displays and a head-up display.
The J-10 has 11 hardpoints, including five on the fuselage. Its principal counter-air weapon is the Luoyang PL‑12 active radar-guided air-to-air missile (AAM) with 70-km. range. With a twin-AAM pylon on the inner wing mount, plus two on forward fuselage mounts, the J-10 could carry eight PL-12s. Short-range AAMs include the PL-8, a copy of the Israeli Python-3, and an improved version of this missile, the PL-9, both helmet-sighted. The J-10 may soon feature a more capable helmet-mounted display and a new fifth-generation AAM from Luoyang.
The fighter’s market success will depend on China’s ability to produce reliable advanced turbofan engines. Rival fighter maker Shenyang has been developing its WS-10A Taihang turbofan since the mid-1980s, which could offer 13.2 tons of thrust. Russian sources believe it is beset by developmental difficulties.
Chengdu may have a competing Huashan advanced turbofan engine program, which some Chinese sources note is based on its late-1990s acquisition of the engineering data and sales rights to the Tumansky R-79 turbofan developed for the defunct Yakovlev Yak-141 supersonic vertical/short-takeoff-and-landing fighter. Nevertheless, Russian sources say China remains interested in more powerful versions of the Salyut AL-31FN, which could come in 13.5- and, eventually, 15-ton-thrust versions.
Chengdu remains ready to develop a carrier-based version of the J-10. During the PLAAF anniversary, a test pilot was reported noting that ground-test simulations prove the J-10 can operate from a carrier.
Photo: Chinese Internet