A mock-up of a fighter, likely the Shenyang FC-31 stealth jet, was seen at a naval test facility in Hubei Province’s Wuhan, fueling speculations that China intends to operate the type on its ships.
An unverified photo recently surfaced on social media that, for the first time, showed an FC-31-like model positioned on the “flight deck” of a full-size mock aircraft carrier at the test center. The photo also showed mockups of J-15 carrier fighters, as well as one of a Z-18 series helicopter, a standard heavyweight rotary-wing type in People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) service and a frequent visitor to its carriers. Although undated, the photo is, according to Chinese military aviation expert Andreas Rupprecht, fairly recent.
The familiar configuration of the FC-31, with its twin canted tailfins, twin engines and high-mounted cockpit is clearly apparent from the rear aspect, although its exact relationship to the FC-31 is unclear, U.S.-based media outlet, The Drive, reported.
“The FC-31 could be a top option for China's next-generation carrier-based fighter jet. Putting a full-size aircraft model on the mock aircraft carrier test platform indicates that the aircraft could be an option for carrier usage, since this procedure could be used to test the aircraft's size, operational scope and compatibility on a real-size carrier flight deck,” Fu Qianshao, a Chinese military aviation expert, was quoted as saying by semi-official Global Times on Wednesday.
“Development continues on the smaller FC-31/J-31 for export or as a future naval fighter for the PLAN’s next class of aircraft carriers,” according to an annual report on Chinese military developments that the Pentagon sent to Congress in 2020.
As a medium-sized stealth aircraft, the FC-31 is unlikely to replace the heavy but non-stealth J-15, as the two will complement each other for the foreseeable future, similar to the relationship between the U.S.’ F-35C and F/A-18. “China's carrier-based fighter jet combination will be able to compete with the world's most advanced planes,” said Fu.
China could upgrade the FC-31 to suit the needs of carrier operations.
As per The Drive, adapting a modern fighter jet like the FC-31 for carrier operations is a considerable undertaking. Typically, it may involve aerodynamic changes, optimizing the aircraft for the different angles of attack encountered on takeoff and landing, perhaps including additional high-lift devices on the wing. The flight-control system will need adaptation too, and then there are potential structural changes to reinforce the airframe for the stresses of launch and recovery. Invariably, the undercarriage will need to be beefed up and a catapult launch bar and arrester hook are requirements, too. More extensive use of composite materials may be required to prevent corrosion. Finally, for stowage on board ship, the wing panels would require folding mechanisms.
The facility in Wuhan is widely believed to be used for electromagnetic spectrum testing of future PLAN systems, and has been a useful indicator of the PLAN’s plans in the past. Mockups of the Type 002 and 003 aircraft carriers, 055 cruiser and Shenyang J-15 fighter have previously appeared at the site, all of which have since gone into service or continued their development process.
In July 2018, a mock-up of KJ-600 fixed-wing early warning aircraft was photographed on the concrete-made mock carrier in Wuhan. It is widely expected to be on board China's future aircraft carriers.