(Washington, D.C.) Can the fast emerging, carrier-launched Chinese J-31 5th-generation stealthy aircraft truly rival the U.S. F-35C or F-35B? The actual answer to this question may remain unknown or even somewhat mysterious, however there do appear to be some unanswered questions which may answer or at least shed light upon this.
First to Detect and Destroy
It would seem that any margin of difference is likely to reside in the realm of sensing, AI-enabled computing, weapons applications and, simply put, range. Whichever aircraft is able to see, detect and destroy the other first with longer-range, high-fidelity sensors and longer range, precision guided weapons is likely to prevail.
Certainly a similarity between the external configuration or stealth characteristics is noticeable by simply looking at the design, which does look like an F-35, what about heat signature, sensor ranges, data organization or weapons reach? Answers to these unknown questions are likely to provide the answer.
Detecting, tracking and destroying enemy aircraft at much farther standoff ranges, before it is detected itself, is a fundamental part of F-35 capacity. It is an ability which has thus far already proved extremely significant in wargames.
FC-31 Vertical Take-Off and Landing
As a platform intended to launch from Chinese carriers, the FC-31 jet does not appear to operate with any kind of F-35B-like vertical take-off-and-landing, and any ability to parallel, replicate or in any way “match” the computing, sensing and weapons capabilities of an F-35 jet, may be unknown.
Should amphibious assault ship-launched U.S. F-35B jets attack the Chinese Navy or defend Taiwan, Chinese surface assets may not be able to respond or match the threat without having one of its two aircraft carriers armed with the planes immediately available in the vicinity. Not having a vertical take off ability could certainly limit a J-31’s operational reach and effectiveness.
FC-31 Sensing and Computing
While stealthy, the F-35 likely achieves its superiority as much through sensing, computing, data analysis and software-enabled weapons attacks as it does with a stealthy exterior. To what extent might an FC-31 jet replicate this? That is perhaps unknown to a large degree, yet it might be a deciding or crucial factor when it comes to assessing the seriousness of the actual threat posed by the aircraft.
There are many more aspects to stealth than external configuration or contours, as an ability to elude radar relies greatly on an ability to reduce or manage heat emissions, deliver or carry weapons and incorporate radar absorbent materials.
FC-31 To Be Taken Seriously
However, completely apart from the question of just how the J-31 might compare specifically to the F-35, the existence of a Chinese stealthy, 5th-Generation carrier-launched fighter is likely a threat the pentagon will doubtless take seriously.
A J-31 will certainly increase power projection and attack capacity both regionally in places like the South China Sea as well as globally, given the pace at which China is adding new aircraft carriers. Photos printed in a Chinese newspaper show images of the country’s emerging FC-31 stealthy, 5th-Generation carrier-launched aircraft preparing to integrate with the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s new 003 aircraft carrier.
The China Times News shows photos of the prototype at an aircraft carrier building in Wuhan. The FC-31, also referred to as a variant of the Chinese J-31, has been in development for many years as the PLA maneuvers to rival the U.S. Navy and, more specifically, possibly attempt to outmatch the U.S. F-35.
Stealing from the F-35
Overt and well documented Chinese efforts to copy, steal or replicate U.S. weapons designs has been going back many years, and certainly renderings of the J-31 do reveal visible similarities with the F-35.
While the J-31’s dual-engine configuration mirrors an F-22 type of configuration, given that the F-35 is a single engine plane, much if not all of it seems to parallel F-35 designs.
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Many photos of the J-31 do show clear similarities to the F-35, a development noticed as far back as 2014 in a Congressional report detailing Chinese military progress called the “U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission.”
The report at the time cites a Defense Science Board finding that Chinese cyber attacks led to the theft of U.S. weapons specs, and a Washington Post news report said one of the weapon’s systems stolen was the F-35.
The possibility and well-documented pattern of Chinese cyber espionage related to 5th Generation aircraft has long been on the Pentagon’s radar. A news report from 2018 cites that the Chinese J-20 design was likely the result of espionage.
The J-20, if slightly elongated, does appear to mirror elements of both the F-35 and the F-22 with its blended-wing-body configuration, yet a look at the J-31 reveals an even closer resemblance to the F-35.
Interestingly, the Chinese media itself has cited similarities between the J-31 and the F-35. A 2013 report from the Chinese government’s “People’s Daily Online” writes “J-31 and F-35 use the same DSI inlet (non-boundary layer-separated lane supersonic inlet).”
The only major difference, the paper notes, is that the U.S. has an F-35B Short Take Off and Landing variant and that the J-31 uses two engines compared to the F-35’s single engine propulsion configuration.
A “non-boundary layer separated lane” for airflow, (as cited by the article) which does not break up or radically change airflow trajectory, could be intended to not only ensure smoother flight at high speeds but also help manage temperature.
Air flow fluctuations, particularly those that can become more turbulent, can result in the shifting of particles in the air surrounding the aircraft, thereby complicated heat management, scientists with the Air Force Research lab told me. While this is being looked at in the case of maintaining thermal management and flight trajectory for hypersonic weapons, it would certainly seem to have applications for stealth aircraft as well.
Smoother wing-body melded external designs, absent hard or protruding edges, clearly bring the added advantage of a smoother and cooler air flow boundary layer. Along these lines, a 2019 Global Times report details a few design changes to the 2019 J-31 which, according to the photographs, show a smoother, less-jagged exterior behind the cockpit as opposed to earlier models.
Regardless of the specific margins of its capability, an FC-31 carrier variant would likely give the Chinese Navy new attack or maritime combat options.
A carrier-launched fifth-generation stealth fighter would massively expand China’s ability to project power internationally, especially in places such as the South China Sea where it may be difficult to build runways for a fixed-wing attack.
A sea-based fighter could surveil or target island areas without needing to take off and land from one of the islands themselves, thereby making themselves less vulnerable to ground or runway strikes against their air operations. It also goes without saying that fifth-generation air support would change the threat equation for Taiwan should it face an amphibious attack.
Having fourth-generation aircraft able to launch from carriers, such as an equivalent to the U.S. F/A-18 jets, perhaps the J-10 jet, may limit an ability to conduct operations over areas with extremely advanced air defenses.
A stealthy fighter, however, while still at risk against some emerging air defenses, enables global power projection in a substantially different way. It takes little imagination to envision China’s grand ambitions for expanded global influence, as having attack-power projection fortifies their current efforts to expand into many areas of Africa, the Middle East and of course Southeast Asia.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Master’s Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.