In what might easily be seen as an overt, or rather transparent effort to compete with the U.S. Navy’s F-35C stealth fighter jet, Chinese aircraft builders are making reference to modifications and improvements to their FC-31 stealth fighter jet (also called the J-31).
A report in the Chinese government backed Global Times newspaper quotes expert sources familiar with the Chinese military saying the country is preparing its Navy for a new carrier-launched variant of the J-31. Existing versions of the J-31 do not appear to be engineered with an F-35B-like vertical take-off capability, something which might restrict the plane’s usefulness. While the J-31 is referred to as a fifth-generation aircraft by the U.S. military and the media, China seems to equate its use of the term “fourth generation” with how the U.S. refers to its fifth-generation. The Chinese paper refers to the new J-31 variant as being “comparable” to the U.S. F-22 and Russian Su-57 stealth fighter jets.
“A fourth-generation fighter jet, in the Chinese context, is a stealth fighter jet comparable to the likes of J-20, F-22 and Su-57,” the Global Times report writes.
However, even if the new carrier-launched J-31 does come to fruition in the next several years, there are several limiting factors. Without a Short Take Off Vertical Landing type of aircraft such as U.S. F-35B stealth fighter jet, a Chinese maritime J-31 variant may only be able to operate from one of China’s few aircraft carriers. Should amphibious assault ship-launched U.S. F-35Bs 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.
An expeditionary fifth-generation stealth fighter able to operate from Chinese amphibious ships and aircraft carriers does bring new attack possibilities for maritime commanders seeking to project power. The possibility certainly does align with China’s well-known work to build its own indigenous fleet of aircraft carriers.
While there has been much discussion about the extent to which China’s J-31 fighter jet clearly seems to replicate the U.S. F-35 fighter jet in terms of external configuration, many of its internal components may simply not be fully known. Despite what appears to be a transparent attempt to possibly “rip off” F-35 design, it is not at all clear if an FC-31 would in fact rival a Navy F-35C.
How well the J-31 would compare depends upon sensor technology, weapons range and onboard computing. After all, those areas encompass many of the attributes unique to the F-35 fighter jet. 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.
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.