As readers of this blog probably know, I have been a fan of J-10 for a long time. In many ways, the J-10 project marked a turning point in Chinese military aviation industry. When its development first started in 1986, the Chinese aviation industry was constantly abandoning new development projects due to lack of funding, technology and development experience. China was forced to go the conservative route and continue to develop J-7 and J-8 variants. Many J-7 and J-8 variants were delayed due to delays in avionics, engine and missile projects. With the exception of J-8, China had not successfully developed a fighter jet since the Soviet split. The J-10 projects succeeded in large part because China finally opened up itself to the West. The help that China received from Israel is well documented. However, I would say that another important help to J-10 and all recent aviation projects is the improved manufacturing capability, improved funding, access to advanced civilian technology and improved project management that came through the trade liberalization. For example, how would companies like NRIET be able to develop radar and avionics for PLA if China did not become competitive in the electronics industry? After 18 years of hard work by CAC, J-10 finally achieved operational status in 2004. With the success of the J-10 projects and advancement in civilian industry, we have seen a lot more stories of successes in Chinese military aviation industry in the recent years. I have read some real praises recently toward the aerospace engineers at CAC about their youthfulness and energy. I don’t think we would’ve seen something like J-20 come out this soon, if CAC did not gain so much experience from the J-10 program.
Back when J-10 first came out, there were a lot of skepticism about its capabilities and deployment status. Even though the first J-10 regiment achieved operational status by 2004, many people questioned its status until it was officially declassified in late 2006. At the same time, I read many reports about its successes in exercises against different flanker variants. Most people were rightfully skeptical toward such reports. As time went on, it became more and more obvious that J-10 was taken over the reign as the backbone of PLAAF from flankers. Even now, we still often read reports about J-10s crushing flankers and J-8s in different training exercises. Even with all of its successes, the J-10 program still has experienced some stumbles along the way. I think most people would agree that propulsion is the biggest bottleneck for J-10. Due to lack of available domestic options and the Western arms embargo, China was forced to select AL-31FN as the powerplant. After the initial batch for J-10 prototypes, China has since placed orders for batches of 54, 100 and 122 AL-31FN engines for production variants. Many of us thought WS-10A might be available after the second batch of engines, but its production problems in the past 2 years have been well documented. As a result, China had to make that third purchase in 2009 for 122 AL-31FN costing $500 million. Due to the delays in WS-10A, J-10 production basically came to a standstill for most of 2008 and early part of 2009. Although, it is believed that some of the first product batch of J-10s delivered to 44th division were brought back to CAC to be upgraded to the latest configurations. From the first 154 AL-31FNs, CAC delivered J-10s for FTTC (60x8x), 131st regiment of 44th division (50x5x), 8th regiment of 3rd division (10x4x), 5th regiment of 2nd division (10x3x) and 2nd regiment of 1st division (10x2x). After signing the 3rd AL-31FN contract, CAC produced a 4th batch of J-10s to 70th regiment of 24th division (30x5x) and the special August First flight demonstration squad of 24th division. In this past year of 2010, CAC produced a 5th batch of J-10s of 37 single seaters + a good number of twin-seaters to fully convert the 25th regiment of 9th division (20x0x) and a good portion of the 12th regiment of 4th PLANAF division (83x4x). Since late last year, we have started seeing test trials of a 6th batch of J-10s from CAC. This batch will most likely be delivered to fill the 12th regiment of PLANAF and also convert a new PLAAF regiment. I think this will be the last batch of J-10s that can be produced from the third AL-31FN contract. Here is a breakdown of production J-10s at the moment:
- 6 PLAAF regiments (28 J-10s each 6 x 28 = 168)
- 12 J-10s serving in the August First demonstration squad
- Around 16 J-10s serving in the FTTC aggressor squad
- 10 to 20 J-10s serving in the 12th regiment of PLANAF
So, my guess is that there are around 200 to 220 J-10s in service at the moment for different branches of PLAAF and PLANAF.
So, where does the J-10 program go from here? Some fans are already gushing over the first flight of J-20 and about ready to stop J-10 production very soon. Some question whether or not J-10B is needed at all. I definitely think those talks are crazy. China will have many J-7 regiments retiring in the coming years. I think some regiments will not be replaced, but PLAAF also does not want the fleet to shrink that much. I have brought up the talk of using JF-17 to fill a good number of the third tier regiments, but J-10s are still needed to replace more strategically located J-7 regiments. CAC has shown that it can mass produce J-10s at relatively low cost of less than 200 million RMB. Until J-20 joins service, J-10 and J-11 will form the core of PLAAF. Even though J-10 is smaller and cheaper than J-11, it has been the more capable air defense fighter jet. Therefore, even after J-20 becomes available, J-10 should still be continually produced. As we saw with J-7, CAC kept producing newer variants for PLAAF until at least 2007 even though J-10 was already operational with several regiments. So I think different variants of J-10s will be produced for the foreseeable future. In the immediate future, CAC will finish the 6th batch of J-10s to fully convert the 12th regiment of PLANAF and possibly fully convert another PLAAF regiment. I think this should be the end of J-10/A production run (about 240 to 250 using 276 AL-31FNs).
After this point, I think the production should shift to J-10Bs. We’ve seen the Y-8 radar test bed recently testing with what appears to be the nose of J-10B, so all signs are pointing toward J-10B production starting sometimes late this year or early next year. As stated before, J-10B should represent quite an improvement over J-10A when it comes to new avionics architecture, latest range of sensors (AESA radar, IRST and MAWs), new generation of MMI and more integrated EW installations. It should also have better multi-role capability and be able to fire all of the latest generation of AAMs, AGMs and PGMs (many shown in Zhuhai Airshow). The other question with J-10B and future J-10 variants is how it will move into the future world of stealth fighters. Clearly, future J-10 variants can be designed to have reduced signature like hornets to super hornets or eagle to silent eagle, but it cannot be redesigned into a LO aircraft. In fact, we are already seeing some greater consideration for stealth on J-10B when it comes to greater usage of composite material, integrated IRST/ECM, LPI radar and adoption of DSI inlet (although this could be more of a weight/subsonic performance vs supersonic performance tradeoff). There are also plenty of claims on Chinese forums that J-10B has also adopted plasma stealth, but I do not know how I can verify that. The other question is what engine will be used by future J-10s. Will China make a new large order for AL-31FN or will WS-10 series finally reach acceptable performance/reliability level to be installed on J-10B? We will have to keep the wait and see approach to find out. I would say that at least one more order of AL-31FNs is needed before WS-10 can become ready for both J-10 and J-11.
And finally, we should also see more export deals with J-10 in the coming years. As we’ve seen in numerous reports, PAF will be the first export customer for J-10, although we don’t know the exact configuration yet. After Pakistan, J-10 will probably be offered to most countries around the world. It will actually be interesting to see how that will affect JF-17’s export prospects, since most potential export customers would only select one of the two fighters. China will also not be able to export to many countries until WS-10 becomes a viable engine option.