Thursday, November 12, 2015

A Tigershark and a Falcon Hawk walk into an arms market....

China is trying very hard to sell its J-31 Falcon Hawk (sometimes referred to at the Gyrfalcon) stealth fighter to other countries. Most recently, it was on display at the Dubai Airshow, where officials with its manufacturer, AVIC, promoted such features as:

-It has two engines
-It has vertical stabilizers (i.e. "tailfins")
-It can carry weapons

If you thought to yourself, "Self... aren't these features that many military aircraft have?" you'd be asking a legitimate question. But lest you think I'm exaggerating, here--watch the promotional video for yourself:

They didn't go into great detail about anything, as you can see. What is arguably the plane's biggest selling point, its stealthiness, is asserted without any quantification. What's the radar cross-section? How far away can it be detected? All open questions.

Another key detail not addressed was how much each plane would cost buyers. And here's the most important bit: there are no customers. A major aerospace company is selling a low-cost (maybe?) stealth fighter to anyone who wants it, but, well... no one wants it. Including the Chinese military, which is focusing on the J-20 and has no plans to buy any J-31s.

It's easy to mock AVIC for this. But this isn't the first time a company invested money in what it thought was a superior product, only to find its plane utterly ignored.

In the mid-1970s, the American defense giant Northrop (now Northrop Grumman, maker of such obscure aircraft as the B-2 stealth bomber) began developing a light fighter for export. The idea was to supply U.S. allies with a high-quality fighter that could defeat front-line Soviet gear, but not sell them top-of-the-line U.S. hardware, like the newly developed F-15.

Thus spawned the F-20 Tigershark. It was basically re-engineered F-5 Tiger II, with its wings and tail tweaked to improve maneuverability and a single engine that generated more than 50 percent more thrust that the F-5s two engines. Overall performance was, in the end, comparable to the more-expensive F-16. It looked like this:

Neat, right? But despite its relatively low cost and relatively high performance, there were no buyers. Well, Bahrain ordered a few, but they were never delivered. The biggest issue was that the U.S. changed its export policies, allowing better equipment--including the F-16--to be sold overseas. Northrop was never even able to sell any to the U.S. government. And so after the better part of a decade, Northrop abandoned the program after spending more than $1 billion on it.

So there are all kinds of factors at work with the J-31. Buyers who are allowed to purchase an F-35 or Eurofighter Typhoon probably will. Buyers who aren't--I'm looking at you here, Pakistan--are probably reluctant to shell out money for a plane that may or may not do any of the stuff its advertised to do. (And a J-31 buy would not generate goodwill with Washington, either.)

In the end, the J-31's problem is that it's probably just a dog, developed for Chinese use but discarded in favor of the superior J-20. AVIC is trying to get something back on its investment. But like Northrop, it might be better served moving on to the next project and leaving the Falcon Hawk alongside the Tigershark as a footnote to aviation history.

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