By Ajai Shukla
Was last week’s inaugural flight of China’s second stealth fighter linked to the ongoing 18th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party? Was President Hu Jintao demonstrating his relationship with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), a powerful lever for elevating his protégés to the apex Politburo Standing Committee?
Several unanswered questions surround the October 31 debut of the J-31 Shenyang fighter, which the pathologically secretive PLA took unusual pains to publicise. Having already unveiled the J-20 Chengdu stealth fighter in January 2011, China is the only country that is developing two separate stealth fighters. The US is developing the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, albeit in three versions; Russia is working on a single design, the PAK-FA, to which India has hitched its wagon. Separately, Japan is developing the ATD-X demonstrator.
Other intriguing questions include: Given the J-31’s close resemblance to the US F-35 fighter, has China reverse-engineered it from blueprints that Lockheed Martin had reported stolen in 2009 from the computers of six American aerospace subcontractors? Is the J-31 for export only, which would explain the publicity that the PLA is giving it? Or will the PLA use the J-31 as an air superiority fighter while the larger J-20 strikes ground targets, an allocation of roles that mirrors the employment of the F-22 Raptor and the F-35 by the US Air Force? Or is the F-31 a competitor to the J-20, with the better of the two designs destined to go into production?
But the question that most worries the Indian Navy is: does the sturdy landing gear that experts have spotted on the J-31 indicate that the new fighter will operate from Chinese aircraft carriers, giving the PLA Navy, or PLA(N), an aerial combat capability that would outmuscle India’s in the Indian Ocean?
China is focusing keenly on naval air power. Just a month ago China’s first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, had joined the PLA(N) fleet. The 58,500-tonne Liaoning — bought as scrap from Ukraine for a floating casino, but then renovated in Dalian shipyard into an operational carrier — is the PLA(N)’s first attempt at learning the complex skills of aircraft carrier operations. This is difficult learning. The US Navy lost some 12,000 aircraft and 8,500 airmen from 1949-1988 in developing its naval aviation skills. But Indian planners believe the Chinese will learn quickly, especially when the Liaoning is joined by more modern aircraft carriers that are already being built in China.
Indian Navy planners tell Business Standard that the PLA(N)’s three-pronged process — learning aircraft carrier operations; building one or two modern carriers; and inducting the J-31 — could take a decade or more. But after that, PLA(N) aircraft carrier battle groups could operate in the Indian Ocean, fielding fighters that are superior to India’s.
The Indian Navy’s 45 Russian MiG-29Ks, purchased for two new aircraft carriers, are capable fighters today, but would certainly be outclassed by the stealthy J-31 whenever it enters service. The navy’s new carriers — the 44,000-tonne INS Vikramaditya that could join the fleet next year; and the unnamed, 40,000-tonne Indigenous Aircraft Carrier (IAC) that will be ready only by 2017 — are both fitted with ski-jumps that are custom-built for the MiG-29K to take off.
If the navy wants a more capable fighter, e.g. the Dassault Rafale, which the Indian Air Force is buying, or the F-35C, which is the naval version of the Joint Strike Fighter, it will need an aircraft carrier with a catapult rather than a ski-jump. If the navy designs its second IAC (a 60,000-tonne vessel that is still being conceptualised) with a catapult on the flight deck, a fifth-generation stealth fighter could soon follow.
The navy has already signaled such an interest. In 2006, and again in 2007, New Delhi asked Lockheed Martin (which runs the F-35 programme) for briefings on the F-35B, a short take off and vertical landing (STOVL) variant that the US Marine Corps will fly off its smaller aircraft carriers called Landing Helicopter Docks. While the F-35B could operate from a ski-jump, the F-35C needs a catapult to propel it off the flight deck.
Will the J-31 push the navy towards more advanced fighters and a second IAC with catapult assisted launch? All options remain on the table. Then naval chief, Admiral Nirmal Verma, speaking in Delhi on August 7 shortly before he retired, did not rule out “having an entirely different carrier with a different complement of aircraft.”
That decision, however, would be a difficult one, keeping in mind that two carriers would already be fielding the MiG-29K, and a new fighter would complicate training and logistics.
“I can’t rule out anything or rule in anything. It is something at the concept stage and it will take a couple of years before we firm up our ideas on this,” said Admiral Verma.
The navy’s eyes will be focused on the Zhuhai Air Show, in China, in mid-November for more details that might emerge about China’s new stealth fighter.