The first 4th-generation fighter aircraft produced by China, the Chengdu J-10 represented the highest achievement of the Chinese aviation industry in the first decade of the 21st century.
Designed and built by Chengdu Aircraft Industry Corporation (CAIC), the J-10 is a single-engine, multirole, all-weather fighter aircraft. The development of J-10 under the code name “Project 8610” began in 1986, with the original goal to produce a high-performance air-superiority fighter to counter the F-16 and MiG-29, but the end of the Cold War and changing requirements shifted the development towards a multirole fighter with both air-to-air and ground attack mission capabilities.
Despite being denied by its manufacturer, the J-10 development is believed to have benefited from the technology of the cancelled Israeli Aerospace Industries (IAI) Lavi lightweight fighter, including its “fly-by-wire” flight control software. Chengdu originally planned to fit the J-10 with a U.S.-made turbofan engine, but the arms embargo imposed by the West in 1989 forced China to turn to Russia for help. The development resumed in the mid-1990s after Russia agreed to supply its AL-31F turbofan engine to power the aircraft. As a result, the aircraft underwent a major redesign to its airframe in order to accommodate the larger Russian engine.
The J-10 is available in both the single-seat fighter variant (J-10) and two-seater fighter-trainer variant (J-10S). It is estimated that around 300 examples are deployed by the PLA Air Force (PLAAF) and the PLA Naval Air Force (PLANAF) before the production of the basic variant ceased. The J-10 is estimated to be comparable to the Lockheed Martin F-16C/D Block 50/52 in performance and capability. It serves as the low end of a ‘hi-lo’ mix with the heavier Su-27/30MKK/J-11 twin-engine fighter.
J-10 Single-Seat Fighter
The basic variant J-10 first flown on 22 March 1998, with six prototypes produced for flight tests. Six pre-production examples in the single-seat variant were delivered to the PLAAF Flight Test & Training Base / 13th Test Regiment at Cangzhou Airbase for operational trials and evaluation in March 2003. The aircraft was certified for design finalisation in early 2004. The first operational J-10 fighter unit was activated in the PLAAF 44th Air Division / 132nd Fighter Regiment based at Luliang Airbase in the southern Yuannan Province in July 2004.
The basic variant J-10 is equipped with an indigenous Type 1473 fire-control radar featuring a mechanically slewed planar array antenna, capable of tracking 10 targets and engaging 2 (using semi-active radar-homing AAM) or 4 (using active radar-homing AAM) of them simultaneously. The cockpit of the J-10 features a “Hands On Throttle And Stick” (HOTAS) controls that enable operation of weapon systems while hands remain on these critical aircraft controls. There is one coloured and two monochrome liquid crystal multifunctional display (MFD) and a wide field of view head-up display (HUD). In addition, the aircraft could also use the indigenous helmet-mounted sight (HMS).
The aircraft is equipped with an internally-mounted Type 23-3 twin-barrel 23mm cannon, located on the port side of the front landing gear. The aircraft has 11 external stores stations for weapon carriage: three under each wing and five under the fuselage. Air-to-air weapons include the PL-11 semi-active radar-homing medium-range air-to-air missile, PL-12 (SD-10) active radar-homing medium-range air-to-air missile, and PL-8 IR-homing short-range air-to-air missile. For ground attack missions, the aircraft can carry 250 kg conventional low-drag general-purpose bombs or laser-guided bombs. A laser targeting pod can be carried under the fuselage for target designation.
The J-10 is powered by a single Russian Lyulka-Saturn AL-31F turbofan engine rated at 79.43 kN dry and 122.58 kN with afterburning. The aircraft has an empty weight of 8,300 kg and weighs 13,200 kg in a typical air-to-air combat configuration, or 18,000 kg in maximum take-off configuration. The internal fuel capacity is 4,500 kg and the maximum external weapon load is 6,600 kg. The aircraft can achieve a maximum speed of Mach 2.2 at high altitude or Mach 1.2 at sea-level, with a service ceiling of 18,000 m. The combat radius is 800 km (with three drop tanks and without in-flight refuelling). The J-10 can be fitted with a fixed refuelling probe, which extends the aircraft’s combat radius to 1,100 km.
J-10S Two-Seat Fighter-Trainer
The two-seater fighter-trainer variant J-10S is identical to the single-seater variant in performance and avionic configuration, but has its forward fuselage stretched to accommodate a second pilot seat. Two pilots sit in tandem in the two-seat cockpit with one single large bubble canopy. An enlarged dorsal spine accommodates additional avionic for the second pilot. The aircraft can be used for pilot training or as a standard fighter.
The improved J-10B single-seat fighter began flight test in December 2008. The most distinctive feature of this variant is its chin-mounted diffuser supersonic inlet (DSI), which employs a one-piece bump at the top of the inlet replacing the movable ramp. This eliminates all moving parts on the inlet, lightening the overall weight and reducing the aircraft’s radar signature.
The J-10B has been added with an electronic-optic targeting system (EOTS). Placed forward of the cockpit canopy to the right, the system comprises an infrared search and track (IRST) sensor and a laser rangefinder, which can detect enemy targets passively without requiring to turn on the fire-control radar, thus reducing the chance of the aircraft being detected.
The aircraft has also been upgraded with an improved suite of avionics, including an indigenous passive electronically scanned array (PESA) fire-control radar, capable of engaging 4 targets simultaneously. The upper edge of the aircraft’s tailfin is curved, in contrast to the straight-edged tailfin of the J-10. A large fairing is added to the tip of the tailfin to accommodate electronic warfare and countermeasures (EW/ECM) equipment. There are also four black electronic countermeasures (ECM) antenna arrays attached externally to the fuselage, a larger one on either side of the cockpit and a smaller one on either side of the rear fuselage near the engine nozzle.
As well as the weapons equipped by the basic variant, the J-10B is capable of firing the newly-developed PL-10 IR-homing SRAAM and PL-15 active radar-homing MRAAM.
The latest improved variant J-10C single-seat fighter made first flight in December 2013. This variant is almost identical to the previous B variant in appearance, but is believed to feature an indigenous active electronically scanned array (AESA) fire-control radar. It is possible that the J-10C is the finalised design of the J-10B for batch production.
The J-10 features a “tailless delta-canard” aerodynamic design, with the horizontal control surfaces becoming a canard in front of the wing. When the aircraft pitches up, instead of forcing the tail down decreasing overall lift, the canard lifts the nose, increasing the overall lift. Because the canard is picking up the fresh air stream instead of the wake behind the main wing, the aircraft can achieve better control authority with a smaller-size control surface, thus resulting in less drag and less weight.
The tailless delta-canard configuration is inherently aerodynamically unstable, which provides a high level of agility, particularly at supersonic speeds. However, this requires a sophisticated computerised control system, or “fly-by-wire” (FBW), to provide artificial stabilisation and gust elevation to give good control characteristics throughout the flight envelope. The J-10 uses a digital quadruplex (four-channel) FBW system. The onboard flight control computer ‘flies’ the aircraft for the pilot, providing automatic flight coordination and keeping the aircraft from entering potentially dangerous situations such as unintentional slops or skids. This therefore frees the pilot to concentrate on his intended tasks during the combat.
The aircraft employs an adjustable, chin-mounted air intake that supplies air to the engine. On the basic model the upper portion of the air intake is incorporated with an intake ramp designed to generate a rearward leaning oblique shock wave to aid the inlet compression process. The ramp sits at an acute angle to deflect the intake air stream from the longitudinal direction. This design created a gap between the air intake and the forward fuselage, and requires six small beams to enhance the structure for high-speed flight. On the later B and C models, this air intake design has been replaced by a diffuser supersonic inlet (DSI) with no moving part.
The pilot sits in the cockpit located above the air intake and in front of the canard. The two-piece bubble canopy gives the pilot great vision at all directions, a vital feature during air-to-air combat. On the two-seater fighter-trainer variant J-10S, the two pilots sit in tandem in the two-seat cockpit with one single large bubble canopy. An enlarged dorsal spine accommodates additional avionic for the second pilot.
The basic variant J-10 is equipped with an indigenous Type 1473 fire-control radar featuring a mechanically slewed planar array antenna, capable of tracking 10 targets and engaging 2 (using semi-active radar-homing AAM) or 4 (using active radar-homing AAM) of them simultaneously. Possibly based on Russian or Israeli technologies, the radar is believed to be comparable to the early 1990s-era Western fighter radar designs. Alternatively the J-10 could be fitted with a range of fire-control radar, including Russian Phazotron Zhuk-10PD or Zhemchug, the Chinese JL-10A, the Israeli IAI Elta EL/M-2023, or the Italian Galileo Avionica Grifo 2000.
The cockpit of the J-10 features a “Hands On Throttle And Stick” (HOTAS) controls that enable operation of weapon systems while hands remain on these critical aircraft controls. There is one colour and two monochrome liquid crystal multifunctional display (MFD) that allow pilot to view flight data, weapon status, and target information by pressing a button; a wide field of view head-up display (HUD) that displays flight data and target information in front of the pilot. The aircraft could also use the indigenous helmet-mounted sight (HMS) that enables fast reaction in air-to-air combat.
Fixed armaments of the J-10 include an internally-mounted Type 23-3 twin-barrel 23mm cannon, located on the port side of the front landing gear. The aircraft has 11 external stores stations for weapon carriage, three under each wing and five under the fuselage. The centreline under-fuselage station and the two inbound wing stations are pumped to carry drop tanks, with a 800 litre tank for the centreline station and a 1,700 litre tanks for each of the wing stations. The two under-fuselage stations at front (under air intake) could be used to carry various targeting or navigation pods for operations at night and in complex weather conditions.
The J-10 is powered by a single Russian AL-31F turbofan engine, built by Moscow-based Salyut Machine Building Enterprise. The AL-31F is a high-performance jet engine originally developed for the Su-27, Su-30MK and Su-33 fighters and the Su-34 bomber. The version used by the J-10 is the AL-31FN, a modified variant specially tailored for the J-10. In order to fit the engine into the J-10 airframe, Russia engine supplier made necessary modifications on the AL-31F, including relocating the accessory gearbox to be mounted beneath the engine. The development of the AL-31FN was completed in 2000. The AL-31FN is rated at 76.2kN (7,770kg, 17,130 lb) dry and 122.55kN (12,500kg, 27,557 lb) with afterburning.
Salyut has also developed an improved version of the AL-31FN, featuring a fully variable, all-aspect thrust vector control (TVC) nozzle and an increased afterburning thrust of 124.54kN (12,700kg, 27,998lb), but this was not adopted on the J-10 or its improved variants. Instead, the Chinese aviation industry is hoping to replace the Russian engine with the indigenous WS-10A ‘Taihang’, which was developed from the AL-31F technology. The WS-10A development was said to have completed in 2005 but only with limited success. As a result, subsequent J-10 variants continued to be powered by Russian engines.