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China's J-10 Just Got A lot Stealthier and More Manoeuvrable; Three Dimensional Thrust Vectoring for the J-10C

April 09th - 2018

China's Chengdu J-10 light fighter entered service in 2006 as China's first fully indigenous fourth generation fighter platform, and approximately 400 aircraft have been inducted into active service since. The delta wing canard aircraft made extensive use of weight reducing composite materials, which combined with a powerful WS-10A engine gave it a world leading thrust/weight ratio of 1.15. The fighter's canard delta wing further served to facilitate the J-10's extreme manoeuvrability, while the fighter was capable of operating at speeds and altitudes unrivalled by other light platforms, able to travel at Mach 2.2 and reach altitudes of 18km (compared to the F-35's Mach 1.6 speed and maximum altitude of under 15.5km.) The fighter's capabilities, which include advanced AESA radars and world leading air to air missiles, make it perhaps the most capable single engine fighter ever designed.

While formidable, China's Chengdu Aerospace Corporation has continued to upgrade the J-10's capabilities for the People's Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force to ensure the fighter retains and can consolidate its advantage in air to air combat. The most recent iteration of the Chinese platform, the J-10C, boasts advanced capabilities well ahead of its predecessor and integrates a number of new technologies. These include several modifications to reduce the fighter's radar cross section and thus increase its beyond visual range combat survivability. The J-10 boasts a lighter and stealthier diverterless supersonic inlet and include sawtooth edges on the exhaust nozzles to improve both frontal and rear aspect stealth characteristics - as most iconically implemented on the U.S. F-22 Raptor heavy stealth fighter.

Another means of increasing the fighter's survivability has been the addition of thrust vectoring technologies, which will improve its already formidable manoeuvrability and make the J-10 the only single engine fighter in the world able make use of such systems in combat. Whether the platform will incorporate basic two dimensional thrust vectoring similar to that used by the U.S. F-22 Raptor, or will use a three dimensional system for 'supermanoeuvrability' similar to that of the Su-35 and MiG-35, remains to be seen. Such systems would however make the fighter near impossible to hit in visual range engagements, and increase its survivability against long range missiles. The J-10C notably has part of the bottom of its brake parachute housing, located on the base of its vertical fin on previous variants, removed. This allows the fighter's thrust vectoring nozzle to be rotated upwards, meaning it can be applied in both vertical and horizontal plains and indicating that the fighter could potentially make use of three dimensional thrust vectoring and supermanoeuvrability in future.

China's PLA has long been suspected of researching three dimensional thrust vectoring capabilities similar to those used by the Russian Air Force for its own fighters, and could potentially have reverse engineered such systems from the Su-35 fleet it acquired from Russia in the mid 2010s. The J-10C could well be the first testbed for such systems, which are expected to be applied to the twin engine J-11D air superiority fighter in future. Experimental three dimensional thrust vectoring systems have also reportedly been installed on the J-20, though application for the larger stealth platform is expected to be more complex. Whether the J-10 will be able to integrate three dimensional thrust vectoring remains to be seen, but if it does it could well become the world's most manoeuvrable fighter given its extensive use of lightweight composite materials and already extremely high thrust/weight ratio.

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