The J-31B Gyrfalcon

A video released by major Chinese defense company Shenyang Aircraft Corporation [SAC] features the J-31B, their latest fifth-generation fighter aircraft. As reported by Bulgarian Military, the clip shows a computer-generated image of the aircraft (designated J-31B and called “Gyrfalcon” from the front. The aircraft features side weapon bays, each with two missiles.

Known in Chinese media as the J-31 or J-35, this medium-sized stealth fighter has been initially called the FC-31 for export. The recent video (shown below) names it the J-31B. the J-31B looks larger and more advanced when compared to the original FC-31, introduced a decade ago.

The clip implies not only that the J-31B aims to compete with heavy fighters regarding payload capacity but that it also shines in design, space use, and engine performance. Noteworthy at least two missiles can be carried in the J-31B’s side weapon bays. This sets it apart from the US F-22 Raptor and China’s J-20, which can only take one missile per side. Moreover, the Gyrfalcon also has a main weapon bay like the J-20, that can hold at least four PL-12 medium-range air-to-air missiles.

China’s J-31B Gyrfalcon ability to carry two missiles in each side weapon bay could set it apart from F-22 Raptor and J-20 stealth fighters

As reported by the South China Morning Post, Chinese experts point out that moving from the designation FC-31 to J-31 means the Gyrfalcon is ready for military use and has received an official designation.

Nevertheless, questions about the J-31B’s exact role and use remain: in fact, the “B” might indicate different versions of the J-31 according to Fu Qianshao, a military analyst from Beijing and retired PLA Air Force equipment expert.

Will the J-31B Gyrfalcon capable to operate from aircraft carriers?

Moreover, it is not known if the J-31B will be capable to operate from aircraft carriers, will be land-based or will be dedicated to the export market. Because of the single-wheeled front landing gear shown in the video, typical for land-based aircraft, another expert believes the J-31B is more likely to join the PLA Air Force instead of the Navy.

However, a carrier variant of the J-31 could be in the works as hinted by the first high-resolution picture (shown below) of what was then known as J-35 or J-XY (even though some already called it a variant of the FC-31) surfaced in 2022.

J-15

Actually, as we reported back then, the carrier variant would be flown by the People’s Liberation Army Navy Air Force (PLANAF) from China’s Type-003 Fujian-class aircraft carriers.

Third J-35 prototype

That picture showed the third J-35 prototype with tail number 350003. Several other interesting details were listed back then by Naval News:

  • The fighter features an IRST sensor under the nose. It looks similar to the F-35’s Electro-Optical Target System (EOTS) and likely has a similar role.
  • The engines feature sawtooth nozzles. This is to reduce heat signature and therefore improve stealth in the infra-red (IR) spectrum.
  • The main landing gear is “beefed up” to allow for CATOBAR operations. Sadly, the front landing gear is hidden by a technician and we cannot see the presence of a “launch bar”, typically used for catapult launch. But previous, lower quality, images of the J-35 in flight showed the launch bar on the front landing gear.
  • The radar dome (at the nose) appears to be canted. This likely indicates the presence of a tilted Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar antenna.
  • The cockpit shows the presence of a good old head-up display (HUD), while on the F-35, the HUD is replaced by an advanced helmet mounted display system (HMDS).
  • The canopy configuration and its opening are similar to that of the F-35.
  • The tip of the vertical stabilizer shows the “flying shark” logo, typically seen on J-15 carrier borne fighters currently deployed on the PLAN’s Liaoning and Shandong carriers.

The folding wings featured by the airframe were clearly visible in the earlier pictures of the unpainted aircraft. Folding wings are used to reduce the footprint when stored onboard the carrier. But this is almost impossible to tell when looking at the picture of 350003 (potentially indicating a high level of quality).

A full-size mock-up of the stealth plane first appeared in June 2021 on a full-sized mock-up of a real Chinese Navy aircraft carrier, located at Wuhan land based testing facility.

Type-003 Fujian-class aircraft carriers

The aircraft would be operated from the Type-003 Fujian-class aircraft carriers the first of which has begun its maiden sea trials, Chinese official media said on May 1.

The Type-003 is China’s biggest most modern and most powerful aircraft carrier. As reported by News18, at 80,000 tons and 318 meters, the Fujian is named after the Chinese province that sits across from Taiwan.

Unlike Liaoning and Shandong, the other two People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) aircraft carriers, that feature a ski jump (a ramp at the bow of the ship that helps jets take off from the carrier’s short runway), Fujian is reported to have electromagnetic catapult launch systems (EMALS).

The ski jump launches are extremely restrictive as they impose big constraints on the size, weight and payload of the aircraft being launched. Instead EMALS’ main advantage is that it accelerates the aircraft more smoothly, putting less stress on their airframes. Furthermore, it weighs and costs less and also requires less maintenance than a steam piston-driven system. It also reduces the carrier’s requirement for fresh water, thus reducing the demand for energy-intensive desalination. Most US carriers have steam-driven catapults except the new USS Gerald Ford class.

Photo credit: Weibo