Another day, another top secret Chinese stealth fighter.
It was just at the beginning of last year that the world learned of China’s efforts to deliver a stealth fighter capable of challenging the world’s elite air squadrons. Since then, photos of the mysterious J-20 have emerged periodically, each time revealing an aircraft that seems to be making rapid progress and raising suspicion that someone has been privy to classified technology. Now, it appears that a second stealth aircraft has emerged as a potential alternative to “Mighty Dragon.” And there’s even suspicion that there’s also a third warplane in the mix.
Whereas the J-20 is being developed by Chengdu, the new J-31 is engineered by rival firm Shenyang. A photo posted over the weekend on the China Defense Blog shows a worker sitting inside the stealth-shaped plane that appears strikingly similar to the the J-20. Like it’s competitor, the new jet features dual engines and the sharp, angular form factor reminiscent of the F-22 Raptor.
The fact that China is having various firms working on a viable design isn’t surprising. The F-22 and F-35 were the result of an open competition that pitted major aerospace firms Northrop, Boeing and Lockheed against one another. In the end, Lockheed won out both times, earning the right to turn their prototypes into combat-ready weapons. David Axe of Wired’s Danger Room blog remarked that China may be taking an approach similar to how the U.S. military built up their current stealth fleet.
It’s unclear whether Beijing intends to compete the J-20 against the J-21 for a single acquisition program. It’s equally possible both jets are meant for production. It’s also conceivable that neither is — that they’re both strictly test vehicles. “Feng,” an analyst writing for Information Dissemination, believes Beijing can only afford to manufacture one of the new planes and will be forced to choose. But that’s conjecture. As with any Chinese weapons initiative, among outsiders there are more questions than answers.
However China is going about it, they have yet to prove that they can take R&D from simply stealthy-looking to something actually capable of radar-evading maneuverability. Most of the design, engineering and testing is being carried out in secret, with little details beyond snapshots that get leaked on the internet every now and then. The best example of how covert this whole stealth business is is this strange photo taken in June of a suspiciously disguised jet being delivered to a Shenyang hanger.
Is this the J-31? Or another fighter that the Chinese military is also trying to keep under the world’s radar?
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