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There is the old saying that "imitation is the sincerest form of flattery" – and whether that is true or not, in the world of military hardware there have certainly been a lot of imitations, particularly in aircraft. The People's Republic of China has been among the nations that have arguably been most "sincere" in terms of military flattery in that case.
Of course the Chinese learned a key lesson from the Soviet Union, which didn't develop its best early Cold War bomber – Boeing did.
The reason that the Tupolev Tu-4 looked so much like the United States' Boeing B-29 Superfortress was that the Soviet airplane was completely reverse-engineered from one of three repairable B-29 aircraft that were forced to crash land in Soviet territory at the end of the Second World War.
The Chinese have taken this further and it's hard not to see the "influence" of the Lockheed Martin F-22 in the Chinese Chengdu J-20, or the Russian Sukhoi Su-33 in the Chinese Shenyang J-15 – but now it is quite obvious that Beijing's fifth-generation J-31 is essentially little more than a Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter stamped "Made in China."
As Kris Osborn wrote this week for FoxNews, "Virtually all photos and renderings of the J-31, since first unveiled, revealed a striking resemblance to the U.S. F-35. This does not come to the surprise of many in the U.S., given China's well-known and documented cyberespionage efforts."
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It is likely Beijing stole much of the data to make the J-31 from the United States, but that doesn't mean this copy can actually compete with the F-35. While Chinese officials have compared the J-31 to the F-35, it isn't clear if the Chinese aircraft will have the same stealth abilities of the American fifth-generation fighter.
The J-31 has a stealth aerodynamic design and likely has stealth coating – but there are other factors to consider including radar-absorbent coating materials and the use of internal weapons bays.
It is also likely too early to tell if the J-31 can actually go toe-to-toe with the American and allied F-35s and it has been reported that the Chinese fighter has received largely negative reviews when it has been seen at air shows.
That said it could still likely challenge America's fourth-generation non-stealth fighters, but the issue is how it will perform with the F-35 that truly matters.
Even less clear at this point is if the J-31 will be inducted as a carrier-based naval fighter – and if so if it could operate from the People's Liberation Army Navy's (PLAN's) two carriers, which both utilize a ski-jump flight deck – or if it is intended for foreign customers to compete with the F-35.
In the latter case that could be where this look-a-like aircraft could be the biggest threat as it could be offered to countries that can't buy the real deal F-35 or simply may desire a slightly more affordable version for their arsenals.
-- This Story First Appeared in The National Interest --
Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He is the author of several books on military headgear includingA Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.