Can China Market its New FC-31 Stealth Fighter For Export: New Office Set Up to Promote F-35’s Rival

A new office in China has been established for the purpose of promoting the FC-31 stealth fighter in foreign markets, indicating that the aircraft is considered ready for serial production if not that production may have already begun. The Shenyang Aircraft Manufacturing Company’s FC-31 fifth generation fighter program saw the aircraft make its first flight in 2012, a year after its rival the Chengdu Aircraft Industry Group’s J-20, and although largely overshadowed by its competitor it has seen considerable progress towards serial production over the past decade. While the J-20 entered service in the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force in March 2017, and has since seen extensive improvements made to the design and a specialised twin seat variant developed, the FC-31 program for a lighter medium weight stealth fighter appears to have seen less interest from the PLA. Although it has been used as the basis for developing a carrier based fighter, ground based variants of the aircraft has long been speculated to be aimed at export markets capitalising on the fact that the higher end J-20 is reserved for domestic use only by the PLA. There is a significant possibility that China's armed forces will not acquire any of the aircraft other than variants modified for aircraft carrier operations.

China has a history of producing fighters primarily for export, most notably the JF-17 series which are not in PLA service, as it currently has more fighter classes in production than any other country. The FC-31 is the only medium weight fifth generation fighter to have flown, and will complete with the lighter single engine American F-35 on foreign markets. The F-35 and J-20 are currently the only fifth generation fighters in the world in production and fielded at squadron level strength - highlighting Chinese and U.S. leadership in the field of combat aviation. This left the F-35 as the only fifth generation fighter offered for export, although the market is expected to become more competitive not only with the introduction of the FC-31, but also the Russian Su-57 heavyweight fighter which is expected to begin to see foreign sales around 2025. Russia is currently the only country to offer a heavyweight fifth generation fighter for export due in part to its smaller defence budget and greater need for foreign funding to support its programs. 

Alongside the FC-31 and F-35, Russia has also developed the S-75 Checkmate lightweight fighter which is expected to fly around 2025. Having flown 10-15 years earlier, however, and produced by a country with much greater experience developing and operating fifth generation fighters, the FC-31 will likely have an advantage. The Chinese fighter’s greater weight, however, while likely providing a superior performance, will also likely result in operational costs which are higher than the S-75 and possibly even than those of the F-35. It remains uncertain whether the FC-31 will see any foreign interest, with the F-35 and Su-57 potentially being more attractive because they are used in the U.S. and Russian air forces while their Chinese rival is not used in the PLA Air Force. The fighter's use in the PLA Navy, however, could do much to mitigate this - much like the American F-18E Super Hornet fourth generation fighter saw considerable interest for use in foreign air forces despite being used exclusively by the U.S. Navy domestically. The FC-31 represents the first medium or heavyweight fighter China has offered for export, with only the JF-17 and the lightweight J-10C previously having been offered abroad. Southeast Asia, the Arab world, and possibly Iran, are considered possible clients. A lightweight fifth generation fighter with a single engine configuration, possibly using the same engine that in twin configuration powers the FC-31, is reportedly also under development to serve as a successor to the JF-17 on export markets with the Pakistani Air Force expected to be its primary client. 

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