New images leaked on January 2 show that the carrier-capable stealth fighter is getting close to being ready for mass production. Originally called the FC-31 and J-31, China now prefers to call it the J-35, implying that the jet doesn’t just look like a copy of the F-35, but also has the same capabilities.
Following in the wake of the PLA Air Force’s first stealth fighter, the J-20, the PLA Navy’s first carrier-based stealth fighter is starting to get closer to completion. Whereas the J-20 first appeared in 2011 and is currently maturing into a tried and tested fighter, the J-35 is a very different-looking jet that is still in its prototype phase. Where the J-20 looks like an F-22 with small canard wings added at the front, the J-35 looks like a two-engine F-35 with a wide and flat “shoulder-to-shoulder” hump behind the cockpit.
The PLA would sometimes leak low-resolution images of the new prototype to show that development is coming along nicely. The latest leak happened on January 2 and the images show that the J-35 still closely resembles a two-engine version of the U.S.’ one-engine F-35, but it retains the wide hump inserted behind its cockpit — a new development that was first revealed in July 2022.
The J-35 was originally designated the FC-31 when it was being developed under the Shenyang Aircraft Corporation’s FC-31 Gyrfalcon project. To add to the confusion, some pundits still call it the FC-31, while others call it the J-31, and still others call it the J-XY. Since last year, leaked photos of the prototypes have shown the number “35” on the top of each vertical stabilizer, leading observers to assume that China wants everyone to think of it as a worthy rival of the F-35. Chinese pundits now call it the J-35, but its final and official name is still to be revealed.
All indications are that the J-35 is being developed with the ability to be catapulted off China’s third and latest aircraft carrier, the Fujian. This carrier will be much larger and much more modern than China’s two active carriers. While the two active carriers are based on the limping old Soviet carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, the Fujian is much larger and much more modern — it is almost an exact outward copy of the newest U.S. supercarrier, the Gerald R. Ford. The big difference is that the Fujian has a limited range because it does not have nuclear reactors to power its engines. The Fujian also has three electromagnetic catapults compared to the Ford’s four electromagnetic catapults, making the Fujian only the second carrier to feature these cutting-edge catapults.
Currently, China’s only carrier-capable jet is the J-15, which is based on Russia’s Sukhoi Su-33. This is the only plane that can take off from China’s current Kuznetsov-class carriers, as these carriers lack catapult systems and have to rely on launch ramps. These launch ramps can only be used safely by jets with a high power-to-weight ratio, like fighter jets, and even then the jets can only take off with reduced fuel and weapon loads. Currently the aging J-15 is the only jet China has that features the folding wings, strengthened undercarriage, tailhook and other features required to safely take off and land on a bucking carrier on the open sea.
The Fujian is currently getting ready to start sea trials, putting it on schedule to be ready for war by October 2024. Once it’s ready, the carrier will be able to launch and catch modified J-15s and heavy radar planes like the KJ-600, which is an outward copy of the U.S. Navy’s very powerful and very expensive E-2 Hawkeye radar plane. The JK-600 should give the Fujian a much larger radar umbrella than the makeshift radar helicopters on board China’s first two carriers currently can.
Analysts believe the J-35 will systematically replace the J-15, giving the Fujian a low-observable fighter to work with its almost-ready new radar plane. Images of J-35 prototypes featuring the “launch bars” needed to connect the front carriage with a carrier’s catapult have previously been leaked. So also images of prototypes with what looks like a seam in each wing, resembling the seam where a folding wing would fold upwards. To change the original lightweight FC-31 into a strengthened and sturdy carrier jet, its designers would have to add components that would increase weight and complexity.
Also, once the final format has been completed, the J-35 will first have to prove it can reliably take off with a catapult and land by catching arrestor wires with its tailhook. After that it will have to be tested on an actual carrier lying in a harbor, before being tested on the carrier as it moves farther and farther away from the shore. The ultimate test of a carrier is whether it can launch and catch its air wing’s planes in locations so far away from its home shores that it would be impossible for any of its planes to return to shore if the carrier’s deck becomes unavailable — so-called “blue water operations.” In other words, a carrier group’s commander has to be incredibly confident in the carrier personnel’s abilities to put multiple fighter and radar planes in the air, without experiencing an on-board accident that would force all the expensive warplanes in the air to ditch in the ocean.
It took the U.S. Navy many decades and thousands of lives to achieve its current ability to operate its 11 supercarriers and their air wings with a relatively low loss ratio. This remarkable capability is the result of lessons learned from many mistakes that led to many disasters. Only time will tell how long it will take China to safely operate its almost-ready J-35 stealth fighters and JK-600 radar planes from the decks of its almost-ready Fujian carrier.
Image: Weibo @飞扬军事铁背心