As I predicted since the very first blurry images of J-31 hit the internet, China's youngest stealth project was meant for export as much as for PLAAF use. Pakistan is now said to be beyond the initial discussion phase for buying the stealth jet. This comes during a time of increasing tension with India, whose air combat capabilities have ballooned over the last decade.
The Chinese-Pakistani arms trading relationship goes back many decades, and as relations with the US continue to chill, Pakistan is looking for a more stable supply source for its air combat needs. This is nothing new, in fact this happened fifty years ago after the Indo-Pakistan War of 1965, when the US placed an embargo in weapons sales to Pakistan. This resulted in Pakistan turning to China for combat aircraft, specifically, the Shenyang F-6, a clone of the Russian MiG-19. Since then the Pakistani Air Force has also fielded Q-5s and F-7s from China, of which the MiG-21 based F-7s are still are in use today. Although somewhat archaic in complexity, these Chinese aircraft have been fielded alongside American F-16s and French Mirages for decades.
The largest deviation into Chinese-based air combat procurement Pakistan has made in recent years was with its jointly developed JF-17 'Thunder' (known as FC-1 in China) light fighter. This nimble and reliable jet is now in its second design evolution as the improved JF-17 Block II, with a third evolution being fielded later this decade.
Pakistan has viewed this cooperative fighter jet program as a giant success, not just in value and enhanced combat capability, but in potential future exportability. Pakistan's Rana Tanveer Hussain, minister of defense production, states in an article from Dawn.com:
"We have nearly confirmed orders from seven countries for JF-17... The PAF has a requirement of 250 aircraft, but now we have decided that we'll sell some of the JF-17 Block-2 to international buyers besides fulfilling our local demand."
This may be a similar direction that Pakistan will attempt to head when it comes to the J-31, known in its export configuration as the JF-31. Both the JF-31 and the JF-17 share the same Russian Klimov RD93 engines (also found in the MiG-29), which presents certain sustainment and commonality synergies for the Pakistani Air Force. The JF-31 may also allow Pakistan to retire other aircraft and focus on it and the JF-17 for its future combat capability, presenting a relevant and sustainable high-low air combat capability mix.
Currently, the highest-end combat aircraft flown by the Pakistani Air Force are Block 52 F-16s, of which 18 were controversially delivered just a few years ago. Although these fighters are incredibly capable, they are also stringently controlled by US arms export rules and serviced by forward deployed contractors. Export control seals are said to be placed on many of the aircraft's most cutting edge components. Even trackers are rumored to be embedded in the jets that allow the US to monitor their whereabouts and if the US ever saw the jets being used for something it was totally against, there are rumors that they could be disabled in an instant and remotely. Just the US security contingent that is part of the F-16C/D Block 52 export contract is said to cost Pakistan some $30M a year.
Even if the rumors of exotic export control devices are not true, just pulling OEM support for the advanced F-16s could leave many of their most important sensors and systems useless within a very short period of time. Additionally, Pakistan already went through one F-16 embargo and it was not pretty, many of those aircraft, built at the tail-end of the F-16A/B production run, now fly with the Navy's Strike Fighter Weapons School, otherwise known as TOPGUN.
As for procuring the stealthy J-31, Jane's Defence quoted an unidentified Pakistani official as saying that the Pakistani Air Force was in talks with China to buy 30 to 40 of the Shenyang FC-31 stealth jets, which corroborates similar numbers and statements that have been floating around the defense community for months.
The biggest thing Pakistan would gain by fielding the JF-31 is a low-observable fighter aircraft that would make some strides at leveling the Inida-Pakistan air combat equation. India has procured throngs of advanced fighters in the last decade and half, including hundreds of thrust-vectoring Su-30MKIs and dozens of carrier-capable MiG-29Ks. Additionally, many older Indian fighters have been substantially upgraded with new avionics and cutting edge jamming systems.
India did not stop there when it comes to increasing their air combat might. The Multi-Role Combat Aircraft contract, which will see the French Dassault Rafale flying in Indian colors in coming years. This brings one of the West's most advanced fighters, with a high degree of sensor fusion, to the region, and the stealthy Russian-Indian PGFA fighter program also continues to evolve. That aircraft will be based on Russia's 5th generation stealthy fighter design, the Sukhoi T-50. Finally, India has its own JF-17 like program that is fairly mature, known as the 'Tejas" light combat aircraft. This is mostly indigenous design that is just beginning to be fielded now and will be both land and carrier capable.
What this all adds up to is a vast imbalance of future air combat capabilities between the two nuclear armed and constantly unfriendly neighbors. Fielding the JF-31 would be an attempt by Pakistan of forestalling India's rapidly increasing aerial dominance.
For China, Pakistan would give the J-31 a first export customer and would help offset some of its development costs. Developing two low observable fighters at a one time is not a cheap task, and partnering up for the J-31 could allow more funds to be funneled to the more impressive and strategically relevant J-20 program.
Strangely enough, Pakistan, the US and China's roads have crossed before when it comes to stealth technology. The tail of the stealth chopper that was used in the Bin Laden raid of 2011 was trucked from the site by Pakistani forces and China was given exclusive access to it before it was finally returned to the US at John Kerry's in person request. This was seen as a retaliation for America's unilateral and humiliating action against the Bin Laden compound, located deep in Pakistani territory.
It is a little more than ironic that some of the technology gleaned from that tail is likely embedded into the J-31. Just another reminder of the tightrope the US continues to walk in Pakistan and how for many countries, the international super-power alternative to the US is increasingly China.
Photo credit: J-31 tail shot via Ivan Voukadinov, JF-17 via Russavia (wikicommons), F-16, F-7 and F-16 via USAF, Tejas via Rinju9 (wikicommons), J-31 top shot via Russavia (wikicommons). Other shots via public domain.
Tyler Rogoway is a defense journalist and photographer who maintains the website Foxtrot Alpha for Jalopnik.com You can reach Tyler with story ideas or direct comments regarding this or any other defense topic via the email address Tyler@Jalopnik.com