China is again making a major effort to sell its J-10 jet fighter to export customers. The J-10CE, the export version of the Chinese Air Force J-10C was on display at a November 2019 air show, along with eager sales reps looking for customers. There were some nibbles but nothing serious. The “E” designates an export model, with some advanced or highly-classified, items left out. The J-10CE appeared to have all its major new features and apparently the only items left out were Chines IFF (Identify Friend or Foe) transponders and similar China-specific features of the communications or defensive systems. Sales reps touted the J-10CE as having the same capabilities as the latest version of the F-16; the F-16V or (as offered to India the F-21). The sales force men pointed out that the J-10CE had all the advanced electronics in the F-16V as well as some stealth features like radar absorbing surfaces and stealthy air intakes. Every sales pitch ended with an emphasis on the fact the J-10CE cost only $40 million, half of what the F-16V was selling for. That was also a lot less than modern European jets like Eurofighter or Rafale as well as the latest Russian offerings like the MiG-35 or the latest Sukhoi models.
What the J-10 sales reps did not want to discuss was what most potential customers already knew; the F-16 had an exceptional service and combat record and was the most widely exported post-Cold War fighter. In contrast, the J-10 first flew in 1998 and entered service six years later. Less than 500 J-10s have been produced so far and none have been bought by export customers. The F-16 entered service in 1978, four years after the first flight and nearly 5,000 have been produced so far. Over a third of F-16s were purchased by export customers and sales are still brisk.
The reputation of the J-10 is less attractive. The J-10 is considered less safe to operate with at least eight of them crashing since 2014. The F-16 has a much better safety record. The Chinese J-10 sales force was also had to deal with the fact that the Middle East is full of satisfied F-16 customers, including Turkey, Israel, Egypt, Iraq and several Persian Gulf states. This satisfaction was expressed by repeat orders for F-16s.
In 2017 Bahrain ordered another 22 F-16V jet fighters along with upgrades of their existing F-16s to the F-16V standard. This deal involved a lot of additional equipment, training and tech support for all the Bahrani F-16s and cost a total of $3.86 billion. The F-16V Block 70 is similar to the F-16E Block 60 “Desert Eagle” the UAE (United Arab Emirates) next door has been using since 2005. Bahrain has been using F-16s since 1990 and has already upgraded them with items like targeting pods and the ability to deliver smart bombs like JDAM (GPS). Originally their F-16s were mainly used for air defense but ones like the F-16E and the Israeli F-16I were obviously more effective and the way to go.
The Chinese are undeterred and keep seeking export customers for the J-10 while also improving it. China finally got the latest version of the J10 fighter, the J10C, into service in mid-2017, 13 years after the first J10s entered service in 2004. This in itself was after a long (since 1988) effort to get an original modern Chinese fighter design operational. This latest J-10 version uses more composites in the airframe and has improved electronics. This includes a new AESA radar. The J10 is the most widely used modern Chinese jet fighter, with over 400 in service. More numerous are several different models of modern Russian jets. Legal and illegal copies of the Russian Su-27/30 were obtained by the end of the 1990s.
In mid-2019 China finally formed its first fighter squadron equipped with J-10C. There were about 40 J-10Cs in service then and a full-strength fighter squadron has 24 aircraft. It is unclear if the first J-10C squadron was at full strength, many squadrons are not. The J-10C began arriving at the new squadron in May 2019 and many were still being used for training and testing.
China produced a lot of J10s because, well, they were a Chinese, not Russian, design. That meant it took longer to get the J10 into service and China used the J10 to advertise its new aircraft development capabilities. This includes Chinese developed electronics. This includes a “glass cockpit”, helmets with built-in HUD (head-up display), “look and shoot” capabilities and AESA radar. J10s got the first Chinese fire control systems that handled smart bombs (satellite or laser-guided). The J10 was the first to receive targeting pods, ECM (electronic countermeasures) pods and improved fly-by-wire systems. The J10 was also the first Chinese jet fighter to switch to Chinese made engines rather than ones bought from Russia. Until 2019 the J10 still depended on the more reliable Russian made AL-31 engines. That has now changed with the WS10 standard on all newly built J-10s and for those in need of an engine replacement
Partly because of the Russian engine, China has not been able to get any export orders for the J-10. China has to get Russian permission for the AL-31 engines used in exported J-10s and the Russians would not automatically cooperate. Before the J10 entered service China began buying the most modern Russian fighters (Su-27/30) in the 1990s and were able to buy and steal a lot of Russian aircraft tech during the 1990s because Russia was broke and the only thing keeping the Russian military aviation producers in business was export sales. China and India were the biggest customers and China, unlike India, had more advanced aircraft production capabilities and fewer scruples when it came to stealing foreign technology. Before the 1990s ended China had created an illegal copy of the Su-27, calling it the “Chinese developed” J11. Russia knew better and despite China continuing to claim the J11 design is Chinese, and that it just happens to resemble the Su-27, China has not tried to sell the J11 to export customers.
Only two jet fighters designed in China were offered for export; the J10 and the JF17. Only the JF17, designed as a joint effort with Pakistan. Until 1989, when the U.S. imposed sanctions,American aircraft firm Grumman was also involved. China and Pakistan continued alone. While prototypes and most of the components for the JF17 were Chinese built, the main export customer was Pakistan and China never bought any, mainly because by the time the JF17 was in service (2007) the J10 was already in production and was considered a superior aircraft.
Technically the JF-17 is a Pakistani aircraft because most are assembled there. Pakistan has exported some to Burma and Nigeria because Russia agreed to supply and support the RD-93 engines required. In return, Pakistan has been buying more Russian weapons. Pakistan was not interested in the J10 because it also had F-16s, which is was very satisfied with and the locally assembled JF-17.
The J10 looks something like the American F-16 and weighs about the same (19 tons). Like the F-16 the J10 has only one engine and the aircraft is longer than the F-16 to accommodate the larger Russian/Chinese engines. It's no accident that the J10 resembles the F-16 because Israel sold China the technology for their Lavi jet fighter, a "super-F-16" design that Israel abandoned in 1987 because it was too expensive. China always insisted the J10 was an original Chinese design but after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 a lot of Russian engineers and scientists who assisted China in developing the J10 revealed details about how the Chinese had access to the Lavi design data and used it extensively. Israel won’t comment because the U.S. cracked down on Israeli sales of military technology to China during the 1990s.
Despite the J10 being the first Chinese designed modern fighter and the most produced model, China has purchased more legal and illegal versions of the Su-27/30. Russia is still selling China improved versions of the Su-30 design with an understanding, part of it in writing, that any tech stolen from these aircraft will not be offered for export. The understanding is that if China tried the export the stolen tech Russia would make a fuss, sue and make China look bad
China has gone on to develop several stealth fighter designs that are sufficiently “Chinese” (and not stolen foreign tech) to be offered for export. Not many takers, not yet anyway. China appears to feel their new stealth designs are not ready for active service or export customers. Getting all the new tech working together, as well as developing a powerful enough engine, are major obstacles. A less powerful Chinese engine is being used temporarily. While China declared its J-20 stealth fighter ready for service in 2019, the reality was it was still in development. China fears the J-20 will have some of the same problems that still plague the J-10
Despite the help from Israel and Russia, the J10 turned out to perform poorly in air-to-air combat. In response, the Chinese concentrated on reconfiguring the design to operate as fighter-bombers (the J-10B). This version carries over five tons of bombs and missiles and has been equipped with a fire control system for delivering missiles and smart bombs. The J10B didn’t enter service until 2014 and did not get its solid-state AESA radar until the J10C, basically, an upgraded J10B, appeared and was declared as capable as late-model F-16s. That was not true and potential export customers told the Chinese. China will eventually find export customers for its jet fighters. But not the flawed J-10. China already has many satisfied export customers for its large armed UAVs. These are similar in performance to the American Predator and Reaper but a lot cheaper.