China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) might just have a new stealth fighter—and it’s carrier-capable.
A slew of photos posted to social media shed light on the PLAN’s newest and likely carrier-capable jet. The airplane, tentatively a Shenyang J-31 derivative (also known as the FC-31), appears broadly similar to its parent, though with several carrier-specific characteristics.
Anticipation prior to the new airplane’s debut ran high, with reports about the airplane circulating and the original J-31 circulating online.
The Chinese stealth fighter differs substantially from its larger and perhaps better-known counterpart, China’s Chengdu J-20. For starters, the J-31 is a considerably smaller aircraft, with a more conventional airframe, lacking the forward canards that the J-20 has.
It is suspected that the J-31 was initially intended for export, with the advantage of offering customers some lower-end fifth-generation fighter qualities without costing as much as premier fifth-generation platforms like the United States’ Joint Strike Fighter.
The J-31 bears more than a passing resemblance to the American Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II stealth fighter. Indeed, some reports have pointed to the Chinese plane’s similarities as evidence for Chinese F-35 program technology theft. Both aircraft feature a similar forward fuselage section, including a stealthily-contoured nose chine and engine intakes.
Since the original J-31 debuted at the 2012 China International Aviation & Aerospace Exhibition, at least one other plane variant has been produced. This second variant featured smoother lines, redesigned wing-tail configuration.
This latest J-31 variant, known from photographs, differs substantially from the previous two J-31 variants. However, two crucial points indicate that it is carrier-capable. First, it has a larger, more robust pair of wheels to support the stresses of carrier operations. In addition, its catapult launch bar is also evidence of carrier landing capabilities. And last but not least, the newest J-31 appears to have folding wingtips and tail tips, giving the airplane a smaller footprint for carrier operations.
The People’s Liberation Army Navy’s (PLAN’s) newest stealth fighter variant roughly coincides with the PLAN’s Type 003 aircraft carrier, which is expected to launch by 2022 and enter service around 2024. The carrier will be China’s third and most advanced, roughly the same size as the U.S. Navy’s enormous Gerald R. Ford-class carriers.
Though much remains unknown about the newest J-31 variant, the airplane is notable as just the second carrier-capable stealth aircraft and the first in Asia. The new aircraft may end up flying alongside the J-15, a Chinese-made copy of Russia’s Sukhoi Flanker, thought to be an unreliable and accident-prone flyer.
Coupled with a new and domestically built aircraft carrier, China’s power projection capabilities are expanding.
Caleb Larson is a multimedia journalist and Defense Writer with The National Interest. He lives in Berlin and covers the intersection of conflict, security, and technology, focusing on American foreign policy, European security, and German society.