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With the Shenyang Aircraft Corporation (SAC) FC-31 progressing, most notably with the maiden flight of its second prototype, the question of whether China’s new platform will figure into the Pakistan Air Force’s (PAF) next-generation fighter plans has returned to the fore. The known answer has not changed: the PAF is currently in the process of conceptualizing and forming its next-generation solution, and thus, it has not issued its desired configuration, much less selecting a platform.

随着沈飞公司FC-31项目的推进,尤其是最近第二架原型机首飞之后,最主要的问题重新回到了中国的这个新平台是否会加入到到巴空军下一代战机的选型计划上来。有一件不变的事实是世所公知的:那就是巴空军对于下一代战斗机仍处于构想和形成概念的阶段,故而并没有什么意向配置流出,更遑论选定五代机平台了。

Before venturing further into the question, it will be worth re-visiting what the PAF, especially the Chief of Air Staff (CAS), Air Chief Marshal (ACM) Sohail Aman, has stated regarding next-generation aircraft. In this respect, there are two key facets: First, in conceptualizing a solution, Aman stressed that the PAF will need to look beyond the capabilities and systems on offer in fifth-generation designs. It is not clear what ACM Aman meant in this statement, but it appears that he was advocating for the inclusion of emerging technologies, especially at the abstract level. Second, ACM Aman outlined that indigenization will be a key facet of the PAF’s next-generation fighter plans. From expanding the JF-17’s industry and technology base to finally making a concrete and directed effort in aviation research and development (through the Kamra Aviation City initiative), ACM Aman wanted Pakistan to “no longer be dependent on few sources to again ask for next-generation aircraft.” Third, there is urgency in bringing a next-generation solution to fruition, especially since the older F-16s (and, in due time, older JF-17s) will need to be replaced.

在深入探讨这个问题之前,我们有必要先来回顾一下巴空军,尤其是巴空军参谋长,Sohail Aman上将关于五代机的表述。在这个问题上主要有两个方面有所侧重:首先,关于这一整套解决方案,Aman着重强调了巴空军将充分展望五代机的性能和作战体系,这句话虽然意义难明, 但是很清楚的一点是Aman是新技术的积极拥护者,尤其是在一些较为先进的层面上;其次,Aman大致勾勒出了一个目标,即立足本土化,这将会是巴空军五代机计划的关键方向。从JF-17(即“枭龙”)的工业技术基础上延展开去,最终对巴基斯坦航空工业的研究发展起到良好的导向作用(即通过自主建造卡姆拉航空城),Aman上将力图使得巴基斯坦“不再需要向少数的几个来源国求购五代机”。第三,对于下一代战斗机的服役,巴空军有着紧迫的需求,尤其是在老旧的F16/JF17需要被替换之时。

The PAF’s desire for indigenization could lead one to believe that an original design is being sought. This is a possible scenario, though it would necessitate considerable time and financial investment, neither of which are plentiful to the PAF. Its oldest F-16s are nearing 8,000 service hours (i.e. the guaranteed lifespan), and currently, there are no service life extension programs (SLEP) in place for Block-15 airframes. The PAF will need a new medium-weight fighter to begin supplanting the F-16A/Bs from the 2030s. The pursuit of an original design, even with collaborative support from China, would not be a factor by the time the PAF’s oldest F-16s need to be replaced. In this respect, the SAC FC-31 could fit within the PAF’s procurement timeline quite well. Although it is unclear if Beijing is now investing in the FC-31 as the sole backer (i.e. negating the previous need for an outside funding partner from the program), the Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC) aims to bring the FC-31 into full operational capability (FOC) status by the mid-2020s.

巴空军力图本土化的愿望或将致使他们去寻找一种可供选择的原始设计(而非成品)。纵使巴空军缺乏必要的资金和时间,但这仍将会是一个可能性极高的方案。此时,老旧的F-16已经服役了将近8000小时,且并没有关于Block-15批次机体的延寿计划。到30年代时,巴空军需要一种全新的中型战斗机去替代F-16A/B。等到了这些最早批次的F-16需要被替换的时候,寻求原始设计,和中国联合生产这些东西恐怕早就不是什么主要的因素了。从这个方面上说,沈飞公司的FC-31恰逢其时,尽管北京方面作为其唯一的资金来源,投资意向尚不明确,但中航工业仍然力求在20年代中叶将FC-31打造成一种全方位作战的机型。

The promise of the FC-31 – which aims to offer prospective users an agile airframe with a small radar cross-section (RCS), advanced electronically-scanned array (AESA) radar, modern electronic warfare (EW) and electronic countermeasures (ECM) suite, helmet-mounted display and sight (HMD/S) system, an infrared search and track (IRST) system, and even integrated electro-optical targeting (EOTS) system – is a significant jump over the F-16A/B Block-15 Mid-Life Update (MLU) variants in use by the PAF. Granted, one might question the extent or quality of sensor fusion on the FC-31 (e.g. binding the AESA radar and active phased-array based EW/ECM arrays to a single software engine), but there are clear generational upgrades in many respects between the F-16 MLU and FC-31. Furthermore, considering Beijing’s extensive investment in electronics, which is evident in its ability to push AESA radar solutions for many naval and airborne applications, the idea of sufficiently useful sensor fusion (not “the best”) is plausible.

FC-31的长期愿景是——一款全新的具备较小雷达散射截面(低RCS),装备有源相控阵雷达(AESA),集成现代电子战(ES)和先进对抗系统(ECM),随后还有下一代头盔瞄准系统(HMD/S),安装有前视红外搜索系统(IRST),甚至可以集成光电瞄准系统(EOTS)的新型多用途战斗机,一种超过了巴空军使用的F-16 Block-15 MLU版的中型战斗机。即便是对于FC-31上各型传感器的整合程度尚不清楚,但是它和F-16 MLU之间仍将会有一个清晰的代差。再者,考虑到北京方面对于电子设备尤其是在海军和空军的应用方面持续而广泛的投资,FC-31的航电整体达到“好用”的级别(而不是“最好”)确实像是真实可行的。

With its ability to carry a payload of 8,000 kg across four internal and six external hardpoints, the FC-31 is a natural bridge from the F-16, retaining the latter’s base air-to-air and air-to-ground capabilities. To put it another way, the FC-31 can enable the PAF to maintain continuity in the roles it currently delegates to the F-16s. The FC-31 can also extend its utility in key areas. For example, unlike the F-16, the PAF is free to integrate the FC-31 with its choice of stand-off range weapons, most notably anti-ship missiles (AShM) and air-launched cruise missiles (ALCM). If the FC-31 fulfills its potential, it would be a qualitative driver.

有着包含四个内挂点和六个外挂点总计八吨的最大挂载使得FC-31比之F-16有着天然的优势,其功能已经包含了后者所拥有的空空/空地性能。换句话说,FC-31可以完全取代F-16目前在巴空军中的地位。FC-31还能在许多关键领域发挥其优越性,比如,不像F-16,巴空军能够自由的将FC-31发射防区外武器尤其是反舰导弹和空射巡航导弹的能力整合到作战体系中。如果FC-31充分挖掘其潜力,它将会引起巴空军作战能力的质变。

When considering the above as well as a known timeline, mature developmental stage, and supplier, the notion of the PAF being a strong contender for procuring the FC-31 is not surprising. In terms of the PAF’s desire for indigenization, procuring the FC-31 need not be mutually exclusive from the indigenization effort. Yes, the PAF would have to depend on China for the supply of the platform and technology, but that could yield a measure of valuable domestic support for the fighter.

考虑到巴空军所拥有的清晰的时间表,成熟的开发平台以及供应商等因素,就不难理解巴空军为何回事FC-31项目最有力的买家了。就算是考虑到巴空军的本土化意愿,采购FC-31也无需与之相排斥。诚然,巴空军将不得不依赖于中国的平台和技术支持,但这些事情都要让位于这些飞机带来的国家利益上的支持。

Critical elements, such as maintenance, repair, and overhaul (MRO), ought to be expected, but the existing production base could be expanded to involve the local production of spare parts and subsystems. Interestingly, Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC), which provides the PAF with MRO support as well as the JF-17 (via a co-production workshare agreement with AVIC), is interested in gas turbine production. If activated, this route could lead PAC into deeper turbofan engine support work.

一些包含不利因素的方面,比如维护,修理,翻新等等,也应当被充分估计到,现有的设施将会被扩展成一个生产包括备用件和子系统在内的本土化生产基地。有趣的是,巴基斯坦航空联合体(为包括JF-17在内的巴空军提供后勤保障的公司),也有意于燃气轮机的生产。如果这条线能够被打通,那么必将使得其对涡轮风扇发动机的技术保障达到新的高度。

Considering the investment made in the JF-17 Thunder, it would be disingenuous to assume that the PAF would walk away from the platform in the foreseeable future. To the contrary, one should expect the PAF to continue backing the development of the JF-17. The presence of another platform, such as the FC-31, removes the pressure of offensive and/or long-endurance operations from the JF-17, freeing the Thunder for its intended purpose as a workhorse fighter for defending the country’s airspace and territory. If put in a defensive role, a fighter with significant local support, low costs, and high operational availability can be an immense asset. This ought to be the JF-17 Thunder’s next step.

考虑到已经在JF-17“雷电”上的投资,我们大可做一个无责任的猜想,那就是在可以预见的将来,巴空军或许会脱离这个平台,而不是像某些人想象的那样依然停留在JF-17的开发上。诸如FC-31这种新平台的出现,能够大大降低JF-17身上背负的进攻/长航时任务的压力,将其从一个肩负国土防空重任的角色中解脱出来。如果将其作为一个防御者的角色,那么一个拥有本地后勤保障,低造价和高可操作性的战机将会是一笔巨大的财富。这才是
JF-17“雷电”下一步应该做的。

This is not a discussion regarding the forthcoming JF-17 Block-III, but a later (and, to be clear, hypothetical) variant. Investment in the FC-31 could be tied to extending its technology to the Thunder. For example, besides a similar onboard electronics suite and munitions inventory, the future JF-17 could utilize the WS-13E turbofan, which – as per some analysts – powers the second FC-31 prototype. Smokeless exhaust and a higher thrust rating would be welcome additions to the JF-17. In parallel, indigenous efforts could be made to improve the airframe, and in the process, gradually build competency in a few critical areas, such as composite aerostructures and flight control. This would be a long-term effort, but it can align with the PAF’s call for indigenization in next-generation aircraft. The future Thunder that could replace the current Thunder in the PAF fleet two decades from now could potentially reflect that effort.

这里并不是在讨论即将到来的JF-17 Block-III批次,却也和它的后续改进有关。在FC-31上的投资将会很大程度上将其衍生的技术应用在“雷电”上。比如说,除了相似的航电系统和火力配备之外,正如一些分析家所言,未来JF-17也会配备FC-31第二台原型机上所装备的涡扇-13E发动机。无烟排气和更高的额定推力使其的它加入到JF-17上将会是一个很好的选择。同时,本土化效应同样会提升机体结构强度,并且在过程中,逐渐建立在一些关键点,诸如机体布局和飞控等领域的制造能力。这种长期效应与巴空军对于本土化的呼吁不谋而合。未来的新“雷电”将会取代其旧有版本并在巴空军继续服役二十年,这也从侧面印证了这种效应的潜在优点。

The SAC FC-31 deserves consideration, but it would be premature, at least today, to argue that the PAF will certainly select the platform. However, as the platform develops, it would be difficult to see another scenario, especially since the FC-31 is among a scarcely few next-generation platforms in development, and among three to be on the market in the 2020s (the others being the F-35 and Sukhoi T-50). Beijing moving to back the program alone would be key to its success, and considering the dearth of options on the market for non-NATO air arms, it would be surprising to see Beijing leave AVIC to develop the fighter on its own or to depend on an external funding source. When options are scarce, the market has shown its willingness to embrace analogous Chinese solutions. This was seen in the armed drone space. The FC-31 could be a defining product for the Chinese aviation industry, one Beijing would be wise to support.

沈飞公司的FC-31理应得到关注,但目前为止,对于巴空军即将选择的五代机平台来说,她还只能算是个早产儿。然而,它依然是一个难寻他处的选择,尤其是在二十年代在公开市场出售的几款机型(其他的则是F-35和苏霍伊T-50)当中,FC-31是不多见的尚待开发的五代机平台。北京方面的推动将会是这个计划成败的关键,考虑到非北约成员国空军市场上稀缺的选项,北京方面能够让中航工业自主或是藉由外部资金开发确实是一个令人惊喜的选择。这种效应已经在军用无人机领域充分展现。而FC-31也将作为中国航空工业的下一款拳头产品,或将获得北京的支持。

注释1——卡姆拉空军基地,坐落在伊斯兰堡西南65千米处的卡姆拉一米哈斯空军基地是巴基斯坦最重要的空军基地之一,负责保卫伊斯兰堡的空域安全。它在印巴军事对峙中起到了关键性作用,也是JF-17"雷电"战斗机的主要生产基地所在地。
注释2——JF-17,即FC-1“枭龙”战斗机,是中巴双方共同投资、中国航空工业集团公司成都飞机工业(集团)有限责任公司、成都飞机设计研究所、中国航空技术进出口公司等单位共同研制,按照市场经济规律运作、巴基斯坦空军参与开发的全天候、单发、单座、多用途轻型战斗机。枭龙战机是世界上第一种投入服役的使用DSI进气道的第四代战斗机。该机首飞后,中方正式命名为“枭龙”/FC-1,巴方命名为“Thunder”/JF-17。
注释3——MLU,Middle-Life Update,即F-16的一个中期改进型号,MLU计划开始于1991年,到1997年升级完全部战机。MLU的改装十分繁琐,由于这些F-16已经服役了10年,机体结构可能出现裂纹,所以首先要进行机身结构探伤,确定隔框没有裂纹。然后探伤合格的飞机被重新组装,更换线材以等待进一步改装。MLU改装的重头是电子设备,雷达换成APN/APG-66(V2),新的模块计算机,APG-111(V1)敌我识别系统、宽视场抬头显示器(HUD)、两个10cmx 10cm彩色液晶显示器、侧杆操控系统、数字地图系统、GPS卫星定位仪等。经过这些现代化改装,F-16MLU的性能达到F-16C/D的水平。
注释4——Block-XX,对于飞机生产批次的一种说法。
注释5——巴基斯坦航空联合体(PAC),巴基斯坦航空联合体是巴基斯坦最重要的航空企业。负责其现役几个主要作战机型的生产和维修,以及航电系统的开发与生产。