An upgraded version of China's J-10 fighter jet stole the limelight at the country's biggest air show this week.

The J-10 variant has manoeuvrability and combat capability that, until now, were the preserve of the United States and Russia.

At Airshow China 2018 in Zhuhai, southern Guangdong province, the J-10B TVC performed a series of flying drills including a J-turn (rapid change of direction), the Cobra (raising the nose to vertical) and falling leaf moves, all of which were made possible by the WS-10 Taihang engine, which is equipped with a thrust-vectoring nozzle control system.

The new engine proves that China can build first-class, thrust-vectoring engines to power its advanced fighters, a People's Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force lieutenant colonel told the Chinese government-controlled Global Times, adding that such technology could give Chinese pilots an edge in combat.

Advertisement

While China has strengthened its navy and air force, engine technology is a weakness of its fighter jet programme and for years it has had to rely on imports. According to people close to the matter, mass production of home-grown engines for the fifth generation J-20 stealth fighter was delayed this week after failures in reliability tests.

Song Zhongping, a Beijing-based military affairs commentator, said the performance of the J-10B TVC was a sign that the flight control of China's fighter jets had improved.

"The system that controls the TVC nozzle and the whole plane is far more complicated [now], and the smooth operation in the show demonstrated that China has solved the problem," Song said.

Fighter jets need much higher manoeuvrability than civilian aircraft to avoid other combatants or air-to-air missiles, and this requires a complex propulsion system that can rapidly alter a plane's flight path.

A thrust vector control is a propulsion system that not only provides the thrust but can control the plane's attitude - its orientation in airspace.

With TVC, a fighter can rapidly change course, rotate suddenly then just as quickly correct its deviation from course.

A small number of fighters use the system, including the US' F-22, and Russia's Su-30, Su-35 and Su-57. Advanced Chinese fighter jets, such as the J-20 and FC-31, are not equipped with the system.

Russia has incorporated TVC into the Sukhoi Su-30 and the later Su-35. It is also a feature of the Su-57 fifth-generation stealth fighter.

While the US began developing TVC in the 1990s, China was late to the game. Visitors to the Zhuhai air show caught a glimpse of its first TVC nozzle prototype in a video shown at the event 16 years ago. Since then, Chinese aircraft engineers have stayed in the hunt, but the J-10s in service do not have the technology.

China agreed in November 2015 to pay US$2.5 billion for 24 Sukhoi Su-35 multirole fighters from Russia, and the first four were delivered in 2016. They were the first fighter jets powered by thrust-vectoring engines to serve with the Chinese air force.

Late last year, online photos suggested that a version of the J-10 had been equipped with a home-built TVC nozzle and the performance in Zhuhai was the first time the technology was shown to the public.

China is rapidly modernising its military under President Xi Jinping, who plans to turn it into a force capable of long-range power projection.

China's new J-20 stealth fighter engine a no-show at Zhuhai air show after it fails reliability testsWhile the J-10B TVC's performance at Zhuhai was a milestone, experts said it remained to be seen how the Chinese air force's offensive capabilities will be strengthened by it.

"It takes time to train pilots in the new plane and lots of exercises are needed to maximise the use of TVC," said Beijing-based military affairs analyst Zhou Chenming.

Li Jie, a retired colonel, said TVC was most effective in close combat, and China had to develop more advanced aircraft to project power quicker.

"China needs more fighters that have supersonic and stealth features, these are the planes that will dominate the future competition for the air," he said.

- South China Morning Post