The Shenyang J-35 is China’s first carrier-capable stealth aircraft. The aircraft’s development represents a major leap in China’s domestic aerospace program; with it, the nation is on track to become the world’s second-largest aircraft carrier operator. This goal has long been an aspiration of China’s defense establishment, reflecting the country’s increasing ambitions at sea.
Prior to the introduction of the J-35, the backbone of China’s air force was the J-15 fighter. The J-15 is a reverse-engineered Chinese copy of the Russian Sukhoi Su-33, a fourth-generation fighter which has been thoroughly surpassed by U.S. planes such as the F-22 and F-35. The J-15 is restricted at sea, because while it can land on China’s aircraft carriers, it cannot take off with both a full fuel tank and a complete weapons loadout. There is no good solution to this problem; if the plane sacrifices fuel for armaments, the extra weight consumes additional fuel, restricting its range. The J-15 is also easy to spot with modern radars, further limiting its effectiveness.
Therefore, the development of the J-35 has marked a major change in China’s ability to fight a carrier battle. While it has the configuration of a stealth fighter, it also travels much faster and lacks the J-15’s limitations at sea, making it a serious threat for U.S. and allied defense planners to reckon with.
The plane’s success is all the more surprising because the process has been conducted in fits and starts. The first J-35 prototype—then called the FC-31—was put on display at China’s 2014 Air Show, and performed poorly. Some of its flaws were corrected in a second 2018 prototype, but the increased weight required the development of domestic engines.
Finally, several weeks ago, footage has emerged of a newly-improved J-35 jet landing on an “aircraft carrier deck,” which was actually a runway on land mocked up to resemble the deck of one of China’s two aircraft carriers. This runway is used for practice takeoffs and landings.
One suspicion about the sudden advance in China’s aerospace program has been a predictable one: China cheated. One retired U.S. Navy captain described Beijing as having achieved in a decade a level of technical prowess it took the Navy a century to achieve and cited the country’s ability to use both open-source and stolen data to improve its programs.
China has been caught engaging in such operations before. In 2014, a Chinese national was arrested in Canada on suspicion of engaging in cyberattacks; two years later, he pled guilty to stealing data on the design of the F-22 and F-35 jets.
China has certainly made domestic advances in aerospace design, too. Between this and illicitly acquired data, however, there is a striking and probably non-coincidental similarity between the most recent iteration of the J-35 jet and America’s F-35 jet. It remains to be seen, however, if the J-35 jet can perform at the level of its American counterpart.
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