If China is planning to build nuclear aircraft carriers using the CATOBAR system, then it would be in need of a new carrier based aircraft. China’s current carrier based aircraft lack the structural integrity to survive the forces generated by a catapult launch. As we stated earlier, the development of an aircraft carrier using the CATOBAR system by China would be unlikely unless it simultaneously develops a more robust aircraft.
The J-31 is China’s fifth generation aircraft. Photos and videos of the aircraft began to emerge in June 2012. It is a twin engine mid-weight aircraft designed for medium to low altitude missions such as air interdiction and aerial bombardment in contrast to its predecessor, the J-20, which is a high altitude fighter. In December 2013 it was reported that the J-31 would be redesigned to have ground attack capabilities.
Although the J-31 is an evolution of the J-20 it is unclear if the J-31 will replace the J-20. When comparing the missions for which both planes are designed they seem to complement each other. This could mean that the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF), the Chinese air force, could operate both planes in the future. Several news reports by China in September 2013 state that the J-31 is designed for export to offer a low cost alternative to the US F-35 aircraft. With little real information known about China’s weapon programs it is hard to judge if the J-31 will indeed be an export aircraft to compete against the F-35 or see actual service in the Chinese armed forces.
Several sources mentioned that China might use the J-31 to serve on board of a nuclear carrier. The J-31’s chief designer, Sun Cong, has said that he hoped that the aircraft would follow his J-15 onto China’s aircraft carriers. The J-31 was however developed for the PLAAF. There are no indications that the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) was involved in its design. The J-31 is smaller then the J-20 and more robust. It also shares several similarities with the F-35C, the new aircraft for US Navy aircraft carriers and the British Royal Navy. The twin forward wheels are a feature that is mainly found on carrier based aircraft.
|J-31 during test flights|
Although the J-31 was developed for the PLAAF, and not for PLAN, the question remains if the J-31 is a suitable plane for China’s future aircraft carriers. Several questions need a definitive answer. Does China intend to use the J-31 in its armed forces or is it indeed an export aircraft only? And if used by the PLAAF, will the PLAN decide to convert the J-31 so that it can be used on board of its carriers?
No matter what the answers are to these questions, the J-31 is not only a step forward in Chinese aircraft design, it is also a step in the direction of building a modern aircraft that can be used on aircraft carriers using the CATOBAR design. Until China develops another aircraft suitable for this task, the J-31 is an aircraft that is worth to be followed up on in order to know what direction China’s aircraft carrier development program is going.