An industrial consortium led by China’s Shenyang Aircraft Corp (SAC) has been formally entrusted with the task of developing and series-producing the definitive new-generation aircraft carrier-based medium-weight multi-role combat aircraft (M-MRCA) for the People’s Liberation Army’s Navy (PLAN). Nicknamed the ‘Gryfalcon’, this MMRCA will be a navalised derivative of the FC-31 stealthy technology demonstrator (TD) that was unveilled at China's Zhuhai Airshow in November 2014.
A land-based M-MRCA variant is being developed for its launch customer--the Pakistan Air Force—which presently does not possess any twin-engined deep-strike interdictor platforms (its entire fleet of combat aircraft presently comprises single-engined aircraft) and therefore remains deeply interested in procuring about 80 such M-MRCAs.
The SAC-led industrial consortium includes its No.112 Factory, the 601 Research Institute (Shenyang Aircraft Design Institute), 603 Aircraft Design Institute (later named the First Aircraft Institute of AVIC-I) and the 606 Institute (Shenyang Aero-engine Research Institute). The FC-31 TD’s (No.31001) maiden flight took place on October 31, 2012. It has been designed to carry an eight-tonne weapons payload (including four precision-guided munitions totalling two tonnes internally, and 6 tonnes being carried on six external hardpoints). It has a combat radius of 648 nautical miles (1,200km) and a maximum takeoff weight (MTOW) of 25 tonnes. The fuselage length is 16.8 metres, while the wingspan is 11.5 metres, and the height is 4.8 metres. The maximum attainable speed is Mach 1.8, and the powerplant comprises two 85kN thrust-rated Klimov RD-93 turbofans imported off-the-shelf from Russia’s Moscow-based Chernyshev Machine-Building Plant, a division of the United Engines Corp (UEC).
First flight of the FC-31’s definitive prototype took place on December 23, 2016, which revealed that the length of the ‘Gryfalcon’ had been increased from 16.8 metres to 17.5 metres, while the MTOW now stands at 28 tonnes. In addition, the wheel-wells were significantly smaller, allowing for a larger internal weapons bay capable of accommodating up to eight tonnes of armaments.
In addition, a twin nose gear and cropped vertical stabilizers were incorporated, as was a chin-mounted electro-optic targetting sensor (EOTS-86) under the nose. The powerplant comprised twin Klimov RD-93MA turbofans that incorporated full authority digital engine controls (FADEC) and a gearbox locdated at the bottom front-end of the engine casing. The RD-93MA has a service-life of 4,000 hours, and a total thrust rating at 94kN.
The ‘Gryfalcon’ will feature a glass cockpit containing panoramic active-matrix liquid crystal displays, hands-on-throttle-and-stick controls, and a helmet-mounted display system. The principal on-board beyond-the-horizon sensor will be the KLJ-7A multi-mode radar with an active electronically-steered antenna array that is now undergoing developmental flight-tests. The airframe will also accommodate an internally-mounted self-defence suite comprising a self-protection wideband jammer, radar warning receivers and missile-approach warning sensors in a distributed aperture configuration.
Primary armament for air combat will include two types of new-generations beyond-visual range air-to-air missiles—a medium-range variant and a long-range variant now undergoing development, plus PL-10E short-range air-to-air missiles. For maritime strike, a smaller and lighter variant of the YJ-12 warship-/land-launched supersonic anti-ship cruise missile (whose export designation is CM-302 and has a 290km-range) is now being developed, which will have a range of 180km.
The PLAN’s decision to switch to the ‘Gryfalcon’ follows its insurmountable difficulties with operationalising the carrier-based J-15H ‘Flying Shark’ heavy-MRCA, along with the difficulties that continue to be experienced by the state-owned Aviation Industries of China (AVIC) in developing new-generation durable turbofans and their thrust-vectoring nozzles. Therefore, to play safe, the PLAN decided in favour of procuring RD-93MA turbofans that are derived from the RD-33MK ‘Morskaya Osa’ (Sea Wasp) turbofan now powering the MiG-29K and MiG-29KUB M-MRCAs of both the navies of Russia and India.
The J-15, with a MTOW of 33 tonnes, is the heaviest active carrier-based MRCA in the world, while its empty weight is 17.5 tonnes. Until 2016, China was confident about its homegrown electromagnetic aircraft launch system (EMALS) technology capable of launching the J-15 from ski ramp-equipped aircraft carriers like the PLAN’s Liaoning CV-16, since it was able to produce its own insulated-gate bipolar transistor chips, a key component of the high-efficiency electrical energy conversion systems used in variable-speed drives, railway trains, electric and hybrid electric vehicles, power grids and renewable energy plants. The technology was developed by China’s first semiconductor manufacturer, Hunan-based Zhuzhou CSR Times Electric, and British subsidiary Dynex Semiconductor after the former acquired 75 per cent of Dynex’s shares in the aftermath of the 2008 global financial crisis.