Key point: Militaries are always learning from experience and upgrading their weapons. In this regard, Beijing is no different from Washington.
China reportedly is developing a new stealth fighter. The new warplane, under development by the Shenyang Aircraft Design and Research Institute, could be a clean-sheet design. Or it might be a development of the company’s older FC-31, an export-optimized stealth fighter that has yet to secure a single order.
Shenyang and the military department of the AVIC Manufacturing Technology Institute in 2018 jointly established a team codenamed "J.J." with the goal of developing the new type fighter, Global Times reported, citing an article that the companies published on social media platform WeChat.
“The joint-development project was first planned in June 2018 and commenced with an opening ceremony in September 2018,” Global Times reported. “The J.J. team submitted an illustration of a test piece in November 2019, according to the article.”
The joint team reportedly is focusing on developing a curved, S-shape engine inlet. Curved inlets can block an engine’s turbines from view, thus reducing a plane’s radar signature. But the S-shape inlets are difficult to design and integrate.
China’s first operational stealth fighter, the twin-engine J-20, entered service in 2019. Around 15 are in service with a single front-line regiment, according to unofficial tallies. Whereas Beijing specifically commissioned the J-20 from manufacturer Chengdu, the later FC-31 was a strictly private project that Shenyang hoped would lead to domestic or foreign orders.
But the twin-engine FC-31 remains unsold. There were rumors that the type might evolve into a sea-based fighter for China’s future, large aircraft carriers, but now it appears a version of the J-20 will fill that role. In developing a new stealth fighter, Shenyang might be admitting that the comparatively lightweight FC-31 is a failure.
The new Shenyang stealth fighter joins a crowded stable of warplanes under development in China. There are rumors of a J-18 vertical-landing fighter that could fly from the Chinese navy’s new big-deck amphibious assault ships. Chinese industry also is working on a stealthy fighter-bomber and a radar-evading heavy bomber called the H-20.
How many of these new planes will complete development and enter front-line service remains an open question. When it comes to stealth fighters, ideas are cheap. Airframes, engines and decades of maintenance are expensive. Beijing has already signalled a slowdown in its military expansion, reportedly canceling a fifth and possibly sixth planned aircraft carrier.
With even the J-20 entering service slowing and in small numbers, the Chinese military might discover that it can’t afford simultaneously to field four new stealth warplanes.
But a warplane in development in China still has a better chance of entering service than a plane that any smaller country is trying to develop. China spends more than $200 billion annually on its armed forces, a level of investment second only to the United States with its $700-billion defense budget.
China like the United States can afford multiple domestic warplane programs. It’s not clear that other countries can afford even one.
Still, there has been a veritable explosion of stealth-fighter projects in recent years as a growing number of countries try to fill niches in their own force structures while also eyeing the international market for advanced warplanes.
Beside the United States and partners with their three variants of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, Russia is working on its own Su-57 stealth fighter. India briefly was a partner and now Turkey could join the troubled project. Ankara also is funding a study of a purely domestic radar-evading warplane.
Japan is tinkering with a stealth-fighter concept, as is South Korea. Indonesia signed on to collaborate on the South Korean project.
Most of these so-called “national fighter concepts” likely are doomed. “National fighter concepts are almost always a very bad idea,” explained Richard Aboulafia, an analyst with the Virginia-based Teal Group.
Past examples include Israel’s Lavi, an overpriced Czech fighter-bomber called the L-159 and, most catastrophically, India’s Light Combat Aircraft, which spent 30 years in development, consuming billions of dollars before finally producing a rudimentary lightweight fighter in 2011.