J-31 Fighters: How Will Indian Air Force Respond To Pakistan’s Acquisition Of ‘PLAAF Rejected’ Stealth Jets?

By Air Marshal Anil Chopra (Retd)

A statement attributed to Pakistan Air Force (PAF) Chief Zaheer Ahmad Babar says that the foundation for acquiring the Shenyang J-31 stealth fighter aircraft has already been laid, and it is all set to become part of the PAF’s fleet in the near future.

It may fly in Pakistan, replacing the F-16. That would mean another dive into the Chinese basket. Pakistan ordered 25 J-10CE Vigorous Dragons, in December 2021, with an option for 11 more.

In March 2022, the first batch of 6 J-10CEs joined the PAF 15 Squadron at the Minhas (Kamra) airbase. PAF has already inducted nearly 150 Sino-Pak JF-17 Thunder aircraft.

As Islamabad intends to begin negotiating the acquisition of J-31, many are asking, where is the money? And what happens to the Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI) TF Kaan (Turkish Fighter), a fifth-generation aircraft that Pakistan has been thinking of partnering with?

Development Of J-31 Platform

The Chinese Shenyang J-31 Gyrfalcon is still a prototype mid-sized twin-engine, single-seat 5th-generation fighter aircraft under development by Shenyang Aircraft Corporation (SAC).

Unlike the already-flying Chengdu J-20 stealth fighter, the J-31 was developed through internal funding of the SAC and has not been financed or endorsed by the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF). In fact, the J-20 had won the PLAAF bid for the next-generation jet fighter.

J-31 photos first emerged on the internet in June 2012. Later a fully assembled aircraft was reportedly seen parked on an airfield in September 2012. A 1⁄4-scale model of the J-31 was shown at the China International Aviation & Aerospace Exhibition, Zhuhai 2012.

On October 31, 2012, prototype No. 31001 reportedly conducted its maiden flight. China became the second nation after the US to have two stealth fighter designs under testing at the same time. Chinese aviation expert Xu Yongling had called the J-31 an export-oriented, low-end, latest-generation warplane as an alternative for those countries that cannot purchase the F-35.

The J-31 airframe was publicly unveiled on November 12, 2014, at Zhuhai Airshow. It made an air display. Most analysts felt that the display was aerodynamically unimpressive.

Aircraft had to use the afterburner continuously. The company was looking for partners for the aircraft project and still making a case with the PLAAF. A production variant was expected by 2019. The aircraft chief designer, Sun Cong, felt that it could also be a good platform as a carrier-based naval fighter to supplement or later replace the J-15.

There were also some reports that the PLA Navy (PLAN) had urged Shenyang to develop a carrier-compatible version of J-31. However, the Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC) marketing team was clear that the aircraft was primarily intended for export as a competitor to the F-35.

An improved prototype, with airframe modifications, an electro-optical targeting system, a larger payload, improvements in stealth, and upgraded electronics, made its maiden flight in December 2016.

By late 2018, there were reports that the program received government funding and saw interest from PLAAF and PLAN. By June 2020, a third variant of the J-31 with a bigger radar and some radar signature reduction measures had been developed. Some started calling the new fighter the J-35.

The naval variant of the aircraft reportedly made its maiden flight on October 29, 2021. It was modified with a catapult bar and folding wings and was meant to operate from the under-development Type 003 aircraft carrier with an electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System.

Aircraft Design Features

The J-31 is smaller than the Chengdu J-20. On many counts, the J-31 seems to have features borrowed from the F-22 and F-35 designs.

The stealth features include forward-swept intake ramps with diverterless supersonic inlet (DSI) bumps, a two-piece bubble canopy, contoured weapon bays, and two oblique vertical stabilizers. A significant part of the fuselage is made up of composite materials.

AVIC officials claim the aircraft to be stealthy against L-band and Ku-band radars and would be low-observable against a number of multi-spectrum sensors.

The engines on the prototype aircraft were RD-93, the same as on the JF-17. China later considered an improved variant of Guizhou WS-13 called WS-13E with 100 kN thrust for use on the J-31.

The latest information is that J-31 will have a WS-19 engine, with a maximum thrust of 12 tons, compared to the base WS-13 thrust of 9 tons. The aircraft is planned for super-cruise capability.

The engine nozzles are apparently being redesigned to reduce radar and infrared signatures. The J-31 has two internal weapons bays that can each carry two medium-range missiles, along with two heavy hard points and one light hard point on each wing.

It can carry 8,000 kg of payload, with 2,000 kg internally and 6,000 kg on the six external hard points. But there are issues with its capability to carry a center-line gunnery or jamming pod.

Four PL-21 missiles can fit into the internal weapons bay. The maximum take-off weight of 28,000 kg is a little more than the 25,000 kg planned for India’s Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA).

Allegation Of Intellectual Property Theft

In April 2009, the Wall Street Journal reported that China had made cyber-attacks to penetrate the database of the Joint Strike Fighter program and acquired terabytes of secret information, and the J-31 had emerged from the stolen knowledge. There are others who believe that the J-31 may be a look-alike, but it is “not a copy but a well done indigenous design.”

Pakistan’s TAI Kaan Participation

In August of 2023, Turkish Defence Minister Yasar Güler made an exciting announcement that Pakistan was potentially on the verge of participating in the Kaan aircraft program, and an agreement is close to being inked.

Güler further said that they had signed an agreement with Azerbaijan, and several other nations, including Pakistan, had expressed interest.

Turkey had said that nearly 200 Pakistani engineers and officials were involved in the Turkish TAI Kaan fifth-generation fighter project. The Turkish government has announced that Pakistan may officially join the fighter aircraft program. The CEO of Turkish Aerospace (TUSAŞ), Temel Kotil, had said the TF-X (Kaan) was a “Turkish-Pakistani fighter program.”

However, Tüfekçi’s recent announcement suggests that Pakistan’s involvement is not yet official. Turkey’s interests stem from its ambition to enhance resources and expertise to mature the program. It would mean support by the Pakistan Air Force’s (PAF’s) new National Aerospace Science and Technology Park (NASTP).

NASTP was established in August 2023 at the PAF Nur Khan airbase at Chaklala, near Rawalpindi, Islamabad. Its primary objective is to enhance the nation’s capabilities in the aerospace industry by establishing clusters and innovation hubs throughout the country.

NASTP aims to create an ecosystem that fosters design, research, development, and innovation, including aviation, space, IT, and cyber sectors.

J-31 China
J-31 China/Wikipedia

Why Pakistan Needs J-35 / J-31 Fighters?

Pakistan has ageing fleet of F-16s has seen its ups and downs because of political embargoes and spare disruptions by the USA. The 75 aircraft fleet began inducting in 1983, over 40 years back. They also have nearly 180 Dassault Mirage III and Mirage V of late 1960s vintage.

JF-17s have begun replacing the Mirage variants, and J-10s have begun augmenting the F-16s. Any future replacement of the F-16 class of aircraft would have to be by a fifth-generation fighter, or PAF may acquire more J-10s as an interim.

Pakistan is conscious that India is pushing ahead with its fighter aircraft programs. The Pakistani military is in the driving seat. India’s AMCA may induct only around 2032. Pakistan wants to remain ahead of the curve.

China is desperate for a partner in its J-31 program. Pakistan is the only contender currently, and therefore these moves by both sides. Many analysts in Pakistan are questioning putting all eggs in the Chinese basket.

The TAI Kaan TF program had to be started because the Americans forced Turkey out of the F-35 program. Turkey, too requires developmental support. Pakistan has access to Chinese technologies. Pakistan is also a market for the product. Turkish program could take longer. Yet Pakistan would prefer to have its foot on both sides.

The J-31 will be available earlier. It is likely to be cheaper. It would have the backing of the Chinese economy and technology.

One day it could be made in Pakistan through a transfer of technology. It will give better strike power and may change the dynamics in the subcontinent till India acquires its own. Pakistan has still to take the final call.

Affording a Fifth-Generation Aircraft

Pakistan is currently in a political mess. Its economy is at an all-time low. Foreign reserves have just risen to around $10 billion. The consumer inflation had jumped to 29.7 percent year-on-year in December 2023.

Elections are due. While the Army is in the driving seat, a fifth-generation aircraft won’t come cheap. Maintaining stealth is a complex and expensive exercise. A country that is surviving with largesse from the IMF and other donors would be under international scrutiny for a major arms deal of this magnitude.

Many analysts believe that the PAF Chief has launched a trial balloon by his statement. But the statement has been picked up and commented on by security experts around the globe.

The actual possibility of such an acquisition remains a mystery. The J-31 development is still slow but can leap forward if Pakistan comes on board. In its desire to remain a dominant actor in the region, Pakistan is bound to spur a regional arms race, and India may have to review its options.

Options & Challenges for India

India’s fighter aircraft development is still at LCA Mk1A stage, which can be considered as a 4th plus generation. The Mk1A will begin inducting sometime in 2024. The LCA Mk2, which can be considered as 4.5 generation, will make its first flight around 2025 at the earliest.

It will be inducted around 2028-29. IAF has committed to nearly 200 Mk1 and Mk2 variants. India’s fifth-generation aircraft, AMCA, has already been split into two variants AMCA Mk1 (partially stealth) and Mk2 (stealth).

The Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) approval has still to be accorded. Even if accorded today, the AMCA Mk1 may fly by around 2028-29 and Mk2 by 2032. AMCA variants induction may be around 2032-35. Pakistan is talking of a 2029-30 timeline. China already has over 150 J-20 aircraft and has a target of increasing to 400 by 2027.

Amca india fighter jet
File Image: AMCA Model

Can India accelerate the AMCA program by increasing funding, putting together larger teams, and arranging foreign partnerships for the transfer of technologies?

Will the fourth-largest air force, IAF wait for a fifth-generation aircraft for that long? So what are the options?

Some analysts feel that India may wish to acquire around two squadrons of F-35 as an interim measure. The aircraft is now matured, and nearly 1,000 have been produced. The aircraft is operated by India’s major partners in the Indo-Pacific. This interim step should not affect the AMCA development and, in fact, can be made conditional to AMCA support.

The second school of thought is to get on board the Russian Su-57 ‘Felon’ or Su-75 ‘Checkmate.’ Su-57 is a large aircraft (35-ton max take-off weight). 32 Su-57 have been built. 22 are in operational units. It has seen combat in Ukraine and Syria.

Su-75 is smaller (25 tons) and still under development and is planned to be inducted around 2027. Nearly 60 percent of IAF is still of Russian origin. Can India continue increasing the Russian basket? Also, India’s fifth-generation fighter aircraft (FGFA) work-sharing experience with the Russians was not very good, and it had to pull out.

The last choice is to join the Japanese or European fifth-generation programs. All these are still some distance away, albeit they may fructify earlier than AMCA.

From the above, the best choice is to accelerate AMCA and acquire around 36 F-35 provided they are on offer. It is imperative that AMCA succeeds if India has to sit on the global high table. There is no compromise on that. Both China and Pakistan remain antagonists. Any interim solution is to cater to the security dynamics of the region.

  • Air Marshal Anil Chopra (Retired) is an Indian Air Force veteran fighter test pilot and is currently the Director-General of the Center for Air Power Studies in New Delhi. He has been decorated with gallantry and distinguished service medals while serving in the IAF for 40 years. He tweets @Chopsyturvey 
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