At the biennial air show in Zhuhai in early November 2018, a J-10B fitted with a thrust-vectoring engine demonstrated extreme maneuverability. Credit: China Daily.

A lethal dragon that can stand on its tail — not something the Pentagon can ignore.

While China’s new J-20 stealth fighter grabs most of the attention and the headlines, the Chinese air force steadily is quietly improving and building more copies of an only slightly less sophisticated fighter: the J-10 “Vigorous Dragon.”

Much like the US Air Force with its mix of stealthy and non-stealthy fighters, the Chinese air force is developing a capable two-tier fighter fleet. Alongside a handful of radar-evading J-20s, Beijing is acquiring hundreds of more-conventional J-10s, writes David Axe for National Interest.

The single-engine, single-seat J-10, a product of the Chengdu Aircraft Industry Group, first flew in 1998 and entered front-line service in 2003. Featuring a tailless delta wing and canards, is similar to the defunct Israeli Lavi fighter, although there’s no proof that Beijing deliberately copied the Israeli design.

In performance and mission, the supersonic J-10 is similar to the USAF’s F-16. It’s capable of air-to-air and air-to-ground missions, the report said.

In November 2018 the online magazine China Military published photos of a J-10 firing unguided rockets at a mock ground target. A separate photo from August 2018 depicted a J-10 carrying radar-homing missiles for suppressing enemy air-defense.

The 2018 edition of the Pentagon’s annual report on Chinese military capabilities describes the latest J-10C variant as an “advanced fourth generation fighters armed with the latest weapons.”

As of late 2017 the Chinese air force possessed around 260 J-10s, according to Flight Global’s annual survey of world air arms. J-10s account for 15% of Chinese combat aircraft and nearly half of the roughly 600 Chinese warplanes that, in 2018, the US Defense Department considered modern, the report said.

The growing J-10 force stays busy with exercises and air-sovereignty patrols. In the fall of 2018, J-10s flew alongside other Chinese warplanes in a war game that the Chinese air force called “a solid step towards comprehensive combat capability.”

In July 2017, a missile-armed J-10 buzzed a US Navy EP-3 surveillance plane flying in international airspace over the East China Sea. US officials were quick to describe the provocative fly-by as “unsafe.”

Beijing is continuing to improve the J-10 even as it develops the J-20 and other new fighter types. At the biennial air show in Zhuhai in early November 2018, a J-10B fitted with a thrust-vectoring engine demonstrated extreme maneuverability, the report said.

According to Defense News, the modifications to the J-10C model include sawtooth edges on the exhaust nozzles similar to that used by other low-observable aircraft to improve their rear aspect stealth characteristics.

The aircraft also has part of the bottom of its brake parachute housing, located on the base of its vertical fin, removed. This would allow its thrust vectoring nozzle to be rotated upwards and would allow thrust vectoring to be applied on both the vertical and horizontal planes, Defense News reported.

Thrust vectoring, also known as thrust vector control or TVC, is the ability of an aircraft to manipulate the direction of the thrust from its engines in order to control the attitude or angular velocity of the vehicle, improving the maneuverability of the aircraft compared to solely using its control surfaces. With advanced TVC, the J-10 has shown it can literally stand on its tail.

TVC for improved maneuverability is already used on the Lockheed-Martin F-22 Raptor and Russia’s Sukhoi Su-30/35 Flanker family.

 The J-10C might also have an electronically-scanned-array radar, which is more powerful and reliable than conventional sensors are.

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