Earlier this month, Beijing sent seven of its J-10C jet fighters to the Middle East. The aircraft weren't deployed as part of any Chinese military operations – and rather were from the People's Liberation Army Air Force's August 1st Aerobatics Team, which performed during the Dubai Air Show. Named for the date of the founding of the PLAAF – the first of August 1927 – and established in 1962, the elite aviation team has performed at air shows around the world.
This was reportedly its first appearance at the Dubai event since 2017, and it was present to show off the capabilities of the Chengdu J-10C "Vigorous Dragon" (NATO reporting name "Firebird") – China's domestically-design and built medium-weight, single-engine, multirole-combat-aircraft.
Designed primarily to serve as an air superiority fighter for air-to-air combat, it can also perform strike missions. It has been compare to the U.S. F-16 Fighting Falcon, and it is currently produced by the state-owned Chengdu Aircraft Corporation (CAC) for the PLAAF and People's Liberation Army Naval Air Force (PLANAF), while it has also been adopted by the Pakistan Air Force (PAF).
This was the J-10C's first public display in the Middle East since the aircraft underwent a major modernization.
The J-10 in the Crosshairs
The J-10 made its maiden flight in 1998 and entered service with the PLAAF in 2004. It is configured with a delta wing and canard design that sets the aircraft apart from Russia's MiG-29 or the United States Air Force's F-16, while it is more reminiscent of the French Mirage series of combat fighters.
However, unlike the Mirage, the J-10 features two canards right behind the cockpit – and this provides for greater maneuverability. It also features fly-by-wire controls.
The Vigorous Dragon is well armed, with 11 external hardpoints that include five on the fuselage with one on the centerline, as well as a pair of hardpoints on each side of the fuselage and three on each wing. Those outer wing stations can carry air-to-air missiles such as the Chinese-built Python 3 PL-8, P-11, or PL-12; or the Russian Vympel R-73 (AA-11 Archer) or R-77 (AA-12 Adder).
According to AirForce-Technology, the PL-8 infrared homing short-range air-to-air missile, a variant of the Israeli Python 3 missile, was manufactured in China under a licensed production agreement by the China Academy (formerly the Luoyang Electro-optics Technology Development Centre), while the PL-11 is a licensed-manufactured variant of the MBDA Italy Aspide medium-range air-to-air missile.
For its surface attack role, the J-10 can also carry up to six 500-kg laser-guided bombs, free-fall bombs, or pods with 90 mm unguided rockets. The aircraft also has a single-barrel 23 mm cannon.
The Chinese multirole fighter is also fitted with a forward-looking infrared and laser target designator pod. It was developed to support the deployment of laser and satellite navigation-guided weapons. The aircraft further employs an indigenously designed pulse-doppler fire control radar, which is capable of tracking 10 targets simultaneously and attacking four of them. The estimated maximum detection range is 100 km.
An "Original Design" – Not Quite
Though the Vigorous Dragon was seen as a great leap forward for China's military aviation capabilities, Beijing lacked the technology to build domestically-designed advanced jet fighter engines.
Instead, the unique air intakes on the J-10 lead to a Russian-built engine, the AL-31. That particular engine was originally designed for the Russian-built Su-27 (NATO reporting name: Flanker) for use in a pair – yet the J-10 actually operates the Russian engine as a single unit.
The Upgrade J-10C
The J-10C, the newest variant, is reported to be fitted with a more powerful WS-10B engine and PL-15 air-to-air missiles.
The aircraft is also equipped with an advanced electronic warfare system, an infrared tracking target system, and active electronically scanned array radars.
Beijing is Looking for Buyers
There was a time when China's delegation to air shows such as the one in Dubai would have been looking to purchase fighter aircraft – but the times have changed, and the August 1st Aerobatics Team was part of Beijing's efforts to show the world that it is now looking to become a military hardware supplier.
The presence of the high-flying team was clearly meant to drum up interest for the Vigorous Dragon, notably in the Middle East. It was only in May that the aerobatics unit made the switch from the J-10A to the upgraded model.
It had been previously reported that Egypt had expressed interest in the J-10C, while Algeria and Saudi Arabia have each engaged in talks with China to acquire various platforms including missiles and drones. A jet fighter could be seen as the logical "next step" for China.
It was just three years ago, in 2020, that Pakistan became its first foreign buyer of the jet, with an order of 25 J-10Cs – which was followed by an additional order of 11 aircraft the following year. To date, Islamabad has received 20 of the fighters over the past two years.
Author Experience and Expertise:
Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer. He has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers, and websites with over 3,200 published pieces over a twenty-year career in journalism. He regularly writes about military hardware, firearms history, cybersecurity, politics, and international affairs. Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes and Clearance Jobs. You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu.
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