Images have recently surfaced of what bloggers have alleged as an air frame of the Shenyang Aircraft Corporation (601 Institute) F-60 or J-19/21 (or simply J-XX).

At first glance, the air frame beneath the canvass appears to resemble the Lockheed Martin F-35. But a closer inspection reveals a  small, twin-engine design.

SAC_F60

The air frame of what has been alleged as Shenyang Aircraft Corporation’s latest combat aircraft is being transported in full view to the public.

The first sensible issue to resolve is whether this is indeed confirmation of a new fighter.

There is a strong possibility that this is nothing more than a display prop. It is not uncommon to see Chinese model makers produce 1:1 scale replicas of weapon systems. For instance, there are full-scale models of the MiG-23 on the former Soviet Kiev-class carriers that now constitute China’s floating theme parks.

Another hypothesis is that this is the long-rumored single-seat variant of Hongdu’s L-15 advanced jet trainer. The L-15 is a twin-engine design similar to the Yak-130. A single-seat light attack variant would be a logical development. It could be an attractive export offering and a much needed replacement for the PLAAF’s obsolete Q-5 light attack aircraft.

But given the heavy security presence around the air frame’s  transporter, it is most plausible that this is either a mock-up or static test frame of Shenyang Aircraft Corporation’s latest combat aircraft program. The images reveal an air frame that bears a strong resemblance to a model displayed by Shenyang in a recent UAV exhibition. While the unveiling of a flying prototype may not take place this year, photos of the mock-up/static test frame is proof that there is at least one other advanced combat aircraft project in China other than the J-20.

A suggestion from a popular online source, Huitong,  is that this is intended to be China’s next generation export fighter. China is trying to position itself as a major exporter of military hardware. It has unveiled modern land combat systems and export warship designs. Offering an aircraft that could compete with the F-35 in the international market is a bold and costly endeavor, however. The current export fighter, the FC-1/JF-17, has only been exported to Pakistan, and most buyers of Chinese arms would not be able to afford expensive fourth generation fighters anytime soon.

If this latest “J-XX” would enter service with the PLAAF, it could indicate that China might emulate Washington’s decision to operate two types of advanced combat aircraft simultaneously. Chengdu Aircraft Corporation’s J-20, unveiled last year, fits into the category of medium to heavy combat aircraft. The “J-XX”, on the other hand, would constitute a lighter design. Although its small size would limit its endurance and capabilities, it would be a cost effective complement to the J-20 and a natural replacement for the bulk of the PLAAF’s J-7s and Q-5s.

In spite of the existence of the J-20 and the “J-XX” programs, it would be many years before either design enters operational service. Moreover, the “J-XX” would not be as cutting edge as the F-35. While it is likely to feature low RCS, internal weapons carriage and other modern features, Shenyang’s “J-XX” will unlikely match the F-35′s advanced propulsion, sensors, avionics, pilot interface and multi-mission capability.

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Wilson's publication, "Examining China's Participation in Bilateral and Multilateral Military Exercises", Security Challenges Journal 7, no. 3 (2011), won first prize in the Australia Defence Business Review's 2011 Young Strategic Writers' Competition (article is available for download at www.securitychallenges.org.au). Wilson completed a conjoint degree in LLB (Hons) and BA (Hons) at the University of Auckland. He was a summer research scholar at the Australian National University's Centre for Strategic and Defence Studies and interned with the Lowy Institute of International Policy. His area of expertise includes the South China Sea, China-India relations, and China's military modernisation.
Wilson Chau has 13 post(s) on New Pacific Institute