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COVID, Hacking, and Spying Helped China Develop a New Stealth Fighter in Record Time

In the West, the pandemic put the defense industry on hold. In China, the military used the time to make big advances.
June 23, 2021
COVID, Hacking, and Spying Helped China Develop a New Stealth Fighter in Record Time

China’s navy now has a carrier-capable stealthy aircraft. Designated the J-35 and built by the Shenyang Aircraft Corporation (SAC), this new aircraft could fulfill China’s ambitions to make People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) the world’s second-largest operator of aircraft carriers.

Which is one more step in China’s march to being able to project force and influence across the globe.

The fighter wing of the Chinese Navy has long been a weak point. Before now, they have relied on the J-15 fighter (also built by SAC more than 20 years ago). Not only is the J-15 an older fourth-generation fighter, but it’s not even a Chinese design: The J-15 is nothing but a reverse-engineered copy of Russia’s Sukhoi Su-33. In addition to its other flaws, the J-15 can take off and “trap”—naval aviation parlance for an arrested landing back aboard the carrier deck—but is too heavy to take off with a complete loadout of weapons if it also has a full fuel load. This is a big problem.

A NATO intelligence officer explains: “If the aircraft takes off with half-empty fuel tanks, then it can carry more weapons, but the engines consume so much aviation petrol that now it does not have the range to complete the mission. A tradeoff where there is no happy medium.”

And then there’s the lack of stealthiness. Here’s the NATO officer again: “The [J-15] also has a large radar cross section, which puts it within range of U.S. carrier aircraft and air defense systems a long time before it is within firing range of its own targets.”

The new J-35 resolves both of these dilemmas. It’s a much lighter aircraft composed of advanced, nonmetallic materials and powered by smaller and more fuel-efficient engines. And it’s configured to be a stealth fighter that can evade many modern U.S. radar and other detection systems.

Initially, the J-35 was known alternatively as the FC-31 or J-31.

The first public performance of the original FC-31 was at the 2014 Air Show China in the Guangdong Province city of Zhuhai and was deeply unimpressive. The aircraft was underpowered, configured at the time with two Russian-made engines originally designed for another type of a fighter. The result was that the pilot had to fight to keep the nose pointed up. “Flies like an iron,” commented one of the Russian aerospace firm executives who stood next to me during this flight display.

In 2018 a redesigned second prototype variant appeared. It featured a fuselage which was between 20 and 30 inches longer, to correct the previous aircraft’s aerodynamic and radar cross-section deficiencies. But this second version was also three metric tons heavier, which required the Chinese to junk the Russian engines and develop their own high-thrust engine.

And then, a few weeks ago, handheld imagery on unofficial Chinese aviation internet websites showed a third, further-developed variant parked on the “deck” of the PLAN’s naval aviation research center in Wuhan. The facility is built in the shape and size of the Liaoning CV-16 aircraft carrier and supports the PLAN’s carrier operations.

The appearance of this J-35 design is striking. How did the Chinese got this far—this fast—with a fifth-generation fighter without anyone being aware of it?

During the COVID-19 pandemic most U.S. and European defense firms saw greatly diminished progress with weapons-development programs. In contrast, the PRC’s defense sector seems to have pushed forward at an almost frantic pace.

“[The J-35 program] is the poster child for military opportunism the PRC has displayed during the COVID epidemic,” the NATO intel officer told me. “Increased building up of their man-made islands in the South China Sea, escalation of bomber and fighter flights almost daily harassing the Republic of China [on Taiwan], wolf-warrior diplomacy, etc. It is all part of their game of ‘how much can we get away with while you are locked at home and not paying attention.’”

Several PRC publications in the aerospace sector have bragged in a deprecating manner about having caught the United States and others “sleeping” while they designed the J-35. One of the 2020 photo postings from SAC of their design team declared that they had working around the clock on the J-35.

One of the most experienced and alarmed observers of this development is retired U.S. Navy Captain James Fanell, formerly the senior intelligence officer for the PRC at the Office of Naval Intelligence, chief of intelligence for CTF-70, 7th Fleet, and the U.S. Pacific Fleet. Here’s what Fanell told me:

The PLAN in a period of ten years has reached a level of naval aviation development comparable to what took the USN 100 years of design, manufacturing, testing and evaluation to achieve. The PLAN accomplished this largely by trawling through reams of openly-available carrier design materials, aggressive hacking U.S. military databases, and through HUMINT.

About that hacking: Notice how the J-35 looks distinctly like a two-engined version of the F-35, which is being acquired not only by America’s armed forces, but also by the PRC’s neighbors Japan, South Korea, Singapore, and Australia. In 2014 a Chinese national was arrested in Canada who had been the head of one of the most successful cyber-espionage operations ever targeted against America. He revealed that he and his associates had gained access to hundreds of thousands of classified documents, many of which contained details on the F-35 (and F-22) designs. They had stolen a virtual DIY kit on how to build a stealth fighter. All of the material was translated into Chinese and passed on to Beijing. Some of it appears to have ended up in the J-35’s project office at SAC.

“This is the kind of relentless drive the PRC is on to pass the United States and become the dominant power in the Pacific,” says Fanell, “and this program is just the tip of the iceberg. For almost a decade the PLAN has built and continues to build new warships at a rate of four-to-one compared to the U.S. Navy. This challenge should be the top priority of the Pentagon and the services. . . . China is trying to be push us out of the Pacific. If we do not push back soon it may be too late.”

Reuben Johnson

Reuben F. Johnson is a defense technology analyst and correspondent for Breaking Defense and was based in Kyiv for two decades prior to the Russian invasion. He is currently based in Warsaw.