May 6, 2010:
For the second time in three years, it was revealed that one of China's J-10 fighters crashed. There may have been more. The two crashes that are known were initially kept quiet. News of these mishaps escaped only because of special circumstances. The most recent loss (on April 22nd) killed its pilot, who was a senior colonel. That rank and reputation led to a big funeral, attracting a lot of military and political officials. That made it difficult to conceal how the colonel died. The 2007 crash was in a rice paddy in the rural northeast. The wreckage was not immediately removed, and eventually someone with a cell phone camera and an Internet connection came along, and the pictures got out. It is believed that there have been more crashes, which have been kept from the public. Nearly 200 J-10s have been built so far, but the design has not worked out as hoped.
The J-10 began development in 1988 and first flew in 1996. The J-10 is based on the abandoned Israeli Lavi (an improved F-16) project. The J-10 initially used a Russian engine (the AL-31F, the same one used in the Su-27), and was to have used Israeli electronics. But the United States leaned on the Israelis to back off making the Chinese air force too lethal, given the probability of American pilots possibly having to fight the Chinese air force some day. The Chinese developed their own avionics, based on Russian equipment. But this did not work out well. The J-10 is also now using a Chinese copy of the Russian AL-31F engine, and the poor reliability of this engine appears to have been the cause of several accidents.
The J-10 looks something like the American F-16, and weighs about the same (19 tons). Like the F-16 the J-10 has only one engine. The J-10 turned out to perform poorly in air-to-air combat. In response, the Chinese have been reconfiguring some of them as a fighter-bombers (the J-10C). This two seat version can carry over four tons of bombs and missiles and has been equipped with a fire control system for delivering missiles and smart bombs. The J-10C will have a weapons officer to concentrate on hitting things on the ground.
China is seeking export sales for the J-10, selling the aircraft as an "F-16 replacement", but for half the price. This is not going well, because there are so many used F-16s for sale, at less than what new J-10s cost. Despite all that, the Chinese are quite proud of the J-10, as it is the first high performance jet fighter designed (albeit with Israeli plans) and built in China.