China’s military is likely to pick the country’s first active stealth fighter, the J-20, for its next generation aircraft carriers, according to military sources and a recent report on state media.
A military insider told the South China Morning Post that the Central Military Commission, the People’s Liberation Army’s top decision-making body, now favoured adapting the J-20 for its new carriers.
“The Chengdu Aerospace Corporation will announce some new products, which will include a new version of their J-20. You can guess what type it will be,” the military insider, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject, said.
The FC-31 was independently developed by CAC’s sister company Shenyang Aircraft Corporation (SAC), which also produced the J-15 – the jets currently in use on the country’s only active aircraft carrier, the Liaoning.
Both aerospace firms are subsidiaries of the state-owned giant Aviation Industry Corporation of China, which specialises in designing and developing military aircraft, and were set up to ensure benign competition between manufacturers.
A recent programme aired by the state broadcaster China Central Television also suggests the J-20 will be chosen.
An episode of Military Documentary shown on August 16 reported how the PLA Navy was selecting candidates for pilot training and illustrated the feature with a mock-up of jets that looked like J-20s taking off from a carrier.
If the selection of the J-20 is confirmed it will mark the end of a lengthy debate between its supporters and advocates of the FC-31 as to which would make a better carrier-based fighter.
Those who favoured the J-20 said it was more advanced and reliable than the FC-31, but its supporters said it was more light and nimble.
“Both the J-20 and FC-31 have their advantages. The size of the J-20 is similar to the J-15 since both are powerful heavy fighters,” Song Zhongping, a military commentator for Hong Kong-based Phoenix Television, said.
Song said the lighter FC-31 could be developed into a medium-sized carrier fighter that would complement the J-20 in future.
But another military source close to the PLA Navy said it would be almost impossible to develop both aircraft over the next few years given the risk of an economic downturn as the trade war with the US continues to escalate.
The source said China’s next generation aircraft carriers would be with equipped electromagnetic catapults similar to those used on the US Navy’s Ford-class supercarriers.
These enable the use of heavier fighters because they are more powerful than the older diesel systems used on older carriers.
“The key problem of the J-20 is not weight, but length. If it wants to be a carrier-based fighter jet, it needs to be made shorter.”
Military insiders have previously said that CAC engineers are working to produce a shorter version of the J-20 that will work with the new launch system.
China’s navy plans to build at least four carrier battle groups by 2030, three of which will be active at any given time.
Miliary analysts say China will need at least a decade to develop its new generation carrier-based fighters, so the J-15 will remain in service for at least a decade, if not two.