The Chengdu J-10 ‘Firebird’ fighter is the first multi-role fighter of Chinese design.

It is often assumed that the Chinese Air Force only uses aircraft of outdated national design or acquired from Russia. In fact, if this idea was true a few years ago, it is now tending to fade away before disappearing in the coming years. The situation has been reversed with a 4.5 generation fighter: the Chengdu J-10.

At the beginning of 1985, the Chinese authorities requested that the Chengdu industrialist launch the studies and development of a new fighter capable of beating two of the best fighters of the time, the American General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon and the Soviet Mikoyan MiG-29. In fact, after unsuccessfully trying to acquire the latter, the Chinese decided to compete with it.

The Chengdu aircraft manufacturer was then, with Shenyang, the only one in China capable of designing such an aircraft. Despite the bitter (and very costly) failure of the J-9 interceptor a few years earlier, its managers had the full confidence of the Chinese Communist Party’s senior officials. The first engineering work began in the fall of 1986 under the provisional name of Project 8610. However, the future aircraft did not go beyond the stage of artist’s views.

The first elements seemed to show that the 8610 project was strongly inspired by two European experimental aircraft: the BAe EAP and the Dassault Rafale A. Like the latter two, the future Chinese aircraft seemed to be oriented towards a delta wing. The ventral air intake was very similar to that of the British plane. For a time, Western intelligence services, notably American and French, considered that the Chinese had received technical assistance from Israel. Indeed, the first images of the future plane showed strong resemblances with the Lavi prototype, a light combat aircraft rejected by Heyl Ha’Avir and strongly inspired by the F-16.

Chengdu J-10 ‘Firebird’

In the mid-1990s, the first authenticated images of the plane showed very modern lines, far from the planes designed in China until then. It was on this occasion that its designation as the Chengdu J-10 was made official. The plane was then one of the most secret machines in the world. It made its first flight in March 1998. In February 2003, the first two production J-10s appeared in a flight test unit of the Chinese Air Force. They were declared operational ten months later.

Compared to its predecessors, the Chengdu J-10 was a quantum leap forward, especially compared to the Shenyang J-8 that had entered service more than 15 years earlier. The new aircraft was the first Chinese multi-role fighter with fly-by-wire controls. The state-of-the-art cockpit was fully digital and featured a HOTAS-type joystick. The pilot was seated in a zero-zero ejection seat. This means that it can be used at zero altitude and zero speed, in other words on the ground while the aircraft is stationary. This was again a novelty for a Chinese-made aircraft.

If the Chinese air force is the main user of the aircraft, it should be known that the naval aviation of this country uses about twenty examples. However, these aircraft have no boarding capability, unlike the Shenyang J-15s also in service. As a result, they are mainly used for air defense missions in coastal areas.

The Chengdu J-10 is also the mount of the official Chinese aerobatic patrol, named August 1st. Its aircraft wear a blue tricolor livery and are mainly used in China.

It is officially offered for export under the designation of F-10 (not to be confused, of course, with the American Douglas F-10 fighter dating back to the Cold War) and the very commercial christening name of Vigourous Dragon. At the beginning of 2017 it had not yet been acquired by a foreign country even though serious leads are being studied in Beijing with the Argentine, Iranian, and Pakistani aviations.

Even if we don’t know if its operational capabilities would allow it to compete with the Dassault Rafale, the Eurofighter EF-2000, or even the Lockheed-Martin F-35A Lightning II, it is undeniable that the Chengdu J-10 represents a more than credible threat to the Taiwanese fighter and its F-16 Fighting Falcon and Mirage 2000-5. To date, it is the most advanced Chinese-made fighter aircraft in service in large numbers. While waiting for future stealth aircraft of indigenous design.

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