At Saudi Arabia’s World Defense Show, held in Riyadh earlier this month, visitors would have been forgiven if they thought they saw a Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II on display. There is certainly more than a passing similarity between the emerging Chinese Shenyang FC-31 Gyrfalcon (also known as the J-31) and the Lightning II.
Whether the old saying, “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery” holds true remains a matter of debate, but there is little denying that Beijing has “borrowed” heavily in developing its combat aircraft. This isn’t exactly new however, and throughout military history, successful designs are copied – and when possible – even improved upon.
That led to a naval arms race after the UK’s Royal Navy introduced HMS Dreadnought, a modern battleship that essentially rendered all previous battleships obsolete. In the world of military aviation, another old saying comes to mind, “good artists copy, great artists steal.”
That explains why the Soviet Air Force’s Tupolev Tu-4 looked exactly like the United States Army Air Corps’ Boeing B-29 Superfortress. The plane was literally reverse-engineered from one of three damaged, but repairable B-29 bombers, that were forced to crash land in Soviet territory at the end of World War II.
Chinese Learned to Copy
Today, all sorts of western consumer goods have been similarly reverse-engineered in China. But its military has gone to extremes. It is hard not 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.
The single-seat, twin-engine, medium-sized, multi-role FC-31 has taken this even further that some military analysts have suggested that it is little more than an F-35 that is stamped “Made in China” on the airframe. It has even been reported that the plane’s similarities is evidence that the Chinese stole U.S. technology.
Chinese hackers were believed to have stolen multiple terabytes worth of data related to the F-35 program, including information on the Lightning II’s radar design – including the number and types of modules used by the system – as well as its engine, including the method used for cooling gases, leading and trailing edge treatments, and aft deck heating contour maps.
It was soon after the hack had been discovered that the FC-31 was first unveiled – as a one quarter scale model – at the China International Aviation & Aerospace Exhibition in 2012, while the airframe was officially introduced at the Zhuhai Airshow in November 2014.
Looking for Buyers
It isn’t just the design of the aircraft that could be similar to the F-35; China is actively trying to promote the FC-31 as an F-35 alternative to foreign buyers. In addition to touting its stealth, situational awareness, high maneuverability, and highly integrated logistic capabilities, Beijing has stated that the aircraft would be reasonably priced to attract foreign customers.
Last month, China even established an office dedicated to promoting the FC-31 on the international market. In addition, the newly appointed deputy general manager of the Shenyang Aircraft Company (SAC), part of the state-owned Aviation Industry Corporation of China, Zhan Qiang said that the aircraft would make the rounds at air shows, which would allow its technical advantages to be on full display.
By contrast, the Lockheed Martin F-35 has mainly been offered to U.S. allies and partners, and it has been widely adopted by NATO members – with Germany announcing this month that it could acquire upwards of 35 of the fifth-generation multi-role fighters. Moreover, even “neutral” nations in Europe, including Switzerland and Finland recently announced plans to adopt the F-35.
Multiple Variants of the Multi-Role F-35
China is reportedly developing a carrier-version of the FC-31, but it is worth noting that the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program was developed from the ground-up to serve in multiple capacities.
That included the F-35A, the standard takeoff and landing version; the F-35B, a short takeoff/vertical landing (STOVL) variant that is employed on various nation’s aircraft carriers as well as the United States Navy’s amphibious assault ships; and the F-35C carrier variant, which is operated by the U.S. Navy and United States Marine Corps.
If an FC-31 variant is developed to operate on the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) aircraft carriers, the question is whether it would be designed to utilize a ski-jump flight deck, or would be designed for the PLAN’s still-under-construction third carrier, which will be equipped with electromagnetic catapults.
It is unlikely a single aircraft design could effectively operate from both types of carriers.
How Do They Compare?
Looks aside, it has been reported that the FC-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. That latter feature allows the F-35 to operate in so-called “stealth mode,” where it employs a “First Day of War” loadout that could consist of four AIM-120 AMRAAM missiles for air-to-air missions, or a mixture of four AIM-120s/GBU-31 JDAM “smart bombs,” for air-to-ground missions.
As the name implies, stealth loadouts are designed to minimize radar cross-section and to maintain low observability (LO) when the enemy’s anti-air systems are operating at full capacity. However, as an adversary’s hostile anti-air systems – including sensors, air defense missiles, gun systems, and even enemy aircraft – are eliminated, and the conflict enters into the “Third Day of War,” the loadout could change accordingly.
When it is determined that the F-35 no longer needs to rely on its stealth and LO for survivability, the “beast mode” would come into play as the F-35 then deploys externally-mounted weapons with a larger radar footprint. The weapons loadout is significantly larger.
In stealth mode, the F-35 can carry 5,700 lbs internally, while in “beast mode” it can carry a full 22,000 lbs, of both air-to-air and air-to-ground munitions. Clearly, beast mode can do a lot more damage though with more visibility.
At this point, it is simply too early to tell if the FC-31 can actually go toe-to-toe with the American and allied F-35s, but it has been reported that the Chinese fighter has received largely negative reviews when it has been seen at air shows. Yet, it could still likely challenge America’s fourth-generation non-stealth fighters, while the most important issue remains how it will perform against the F-35.