Staff Writer (Updated: 5/11/2016):
The J-10 is thought to be a highly-developed Israeli IAI Lavi fighter with Russian-inspired turbofan engines - hence the correlation in many-a-publication of direct (and indirect) Israeli and Russian involvement in the J-10 program. Unlike the Lavi, however, the J-10 does not make use of wingtip pylons for air-to-air missiles.
With funding in place several years before actual development of the aircraft began, the official call from above came in the form of Project 8610 - the requirement for an indigenous Chinese air superiority fighter to combat similar fourth generation systems in Russia and the West. The J-10 program gathered steam in 1986 under the guise of the Chengdu Aircraft Design Institute. While the J-10 was indeed developed as the required air superiority fighter, the close of the Cold War saw to it that she be revised more in the form of a multirole performer - capable of tangling with air-to-air targets as well as engaging land-based targets without much loss in overall performance.
The Israeli Lavi was developed as a multirole fighter for the Israeli Air Force in the 1980's. Though the program was ultimately cancelled, the constructed prototypes went on to see a serviceable life as technology demonstrators for various other flight programs to test avionics and applicable flight systems. It is believed that Israeli involvement in the Chinese program culminated in a similar-looking airframe with multirole capability in the J-10.
Project 8610 is believed to have begun sometime in the mid-1980's. Six prototypes were ultimately constructed and first flown on March 22nd/23rd (depending on the source) 1998 by test pilot Lei Quiang. The flight lasted all but 20 minutes. One prototype was lost in a fly-by-wire incident to which the Chinese government initially denied had happened. Development of the J-10 constituted several phases including aerodynamic testing and live-fire exercises. The J-10 flew as advertized and was actually proven to be a more capable airframe that at first realized. Six production examples soon followed the prototypes. From there, after some 18 years of total development time, the J-10 culminated in an official clearance for operational service and was delivered to the PLAAF in 2004 after spending some time as part of a test regiment squadron during 2003. The aircraft was officially introduced in 2005, unveiling nearly two decades of secrecy and denials by the Chinese government, and solidified the Chinese nation as a premier developer of air arms for the foreseeable future. Some 100 production examples were delivered to the People's Liberation Army Air Force from 2004 into 2006 and current totals of this aircraft in the Chinese inventory range from 120 to 160 examples with some 300 believed to be required. Production has been handled by the Chengdu Aircraft Industry Corporation (CAIC), overseers of the firm that designed the J-10.
The J-10 was originally designed around an indigenous Chinese powerplant designated as the WP-15, a turbojet type engine. Support for the engine project was eventually dropped so the Chinese found a solution in the Russian-made Salyut AL-31F turbofan as a comparable replacement. China had long established a history of arms dealings with the Soviets (and now Russians) and had grown a legacy of purchasing systems and subsystems and re-engineering others to suit their liking. The Russian engine featured a thrust output of up to 27,557 with full afterburning and was essentially a specially-modified version of the AL-31F series that has powered the successful line of Sukhoi Flanker family multirole and air-superiority fighters (beginning with the Su-27 "Flanker") so it came as an already- proven powerplant system for the J-10 program.
While the Russian engine selection has proven successful for early J-10s, the Chinese have once-again taken to develop their own in-house engine with the WS-10A. Though a little larger and lower-rated than the Russian AL-31 series, the 24,729lb thrust (with full afterburn) is a capable propulsion system that makes marketing the J-10 to foreign air forces that much easier for the Chinese (as opposed to receiving clearance from the Russians in re-selling the J-10 with Russian technology). Fiscally and production-wise, it makes complete sense.
The J-10 is rated as a Mach 2.2-capable fighter platform when at altitude putting it on par with Western types. The airframe can sustain up to 9 positive and -3 Gs. Maximum range is limited to an impressive 2,113 miles, this without droptanks or in-flight refueling (accomplished via a probe) while a service ceiling of 65,600 feet is reported.
The J-10 makes use of a "tail-less" delta wing configuration (with forward situated canards) meaning that the planform does away with the conventional horizontal stabilizers common on other aircraft. The delta wings are low-mounted monoplanes with gradual sweep back that run along more than half the length of the fuselage sides. Ventral strake-type fins are added at the main wing bases to the extreme end of the fuselage. The fuselage itself is quite tubular in appearance when view in forward profile and comes complete with a conical nose (housing the radar array) assembly fitted just forward and below the high-mounted cockpit.
The cockpit offers excellent vision at all degrees (with the possible exception of the "six" area due to the semi-raised fuselage spine - made worse in the two-seat trainer model) and features a two-piece curved canopy hinged at the rear. Entry to the cockpit is standardized from the portside via a ground-based step ladder. In the two-seat J-10, an instructor occupies a raised rear cockpit position seeing over and past the student's forward cockpit position. The entire cockpit area is therefore lengthened and both crew sit under a longer, two-piece canopy hinged at rear with a heightened dorsal spine for the additional avionics needed in the second cockpit. The pilot controls the J-10 through a conventional HOTAS (Hands-On Throttle and Stick) arrangement and sits in a "zero-zero" ejection seat - allowing for powered ejections at "zero" speeds and at "zero" altitudes for ultimate safety. The cockpit is dominated by three large liquid crystal multi-function displays (MFD) that help de-cluster the instrument panel while aiding in the pilot's workload.
Canards (smallish wing-type implements) are fitted to either side, aft and below the cockpit- and add forward stability. The forward fuselage elegantly contours into the base of the single large-area vertical tail fin adorning the empennage. The lack of horizontal planes on the tail mean that the main wing assemblies straddle either side of the engine exhaust at rear. A static fuel probe is situated to the forward starboard side of the fuselage. Construction of the fuselage includes use of composite materials throughout.
One of the more distinct design elements of the J-10 is the rectangular under-fuselage intake opening feeding the single engine (ala the General Dynamics F-16, an aircraft the Israelis have much experience in working with). The intake forces the forward fuselage to be elevated to some extent, giving the J-10 its unique "raised" profile when at rest. The undercarriage is of a conventional tricycle arrangement made up of two single-wheeled main legs and a two-wheeled nose leg. The nose landing gear is fitted under and aft of the intake opening and retracts backwards in a housing. The main landing gear legs retract in a forward fashion along the sides of the fuselage at about amidships.
Due to the nature of the J-10s unique wing layout and fuselage design, she remains an inherently unstable airframe, relying largely on fast-processing digital computers through fly-by-wire technology. This supplies system redundancy and assistance to the pilot in the form of stabilizing an unruly airframe through a given maneuver while preventing the aircraft from entering into potentially fatalspins or stalls. As in late-generation aircraft of other global air forces, the J-10 features an extensive fly-by-wire suite allowing for quick-response agility. The system is said to be of Chinese origin but may have had influence from an Israeli design.