Last week, an image circulated online showing a variant of China’s Shenyang FC-31 – also sometimes referred to as J-35. This is believed to be the first high-resolution photo of the “navalised derivative prototype” of the fifth-generation stealth aircraft. The photo featured the aircraft with tactical gray paint and discreet national insignia, along with the identification number 35003.
“J-35 Prototype 350003 & Prototype 350001,” captioned David Wang (@Nickatgreat1220), who regularly reports on Chinese military hardware.
It was last October that the modified naval variant, which had been dubbed the J-35, made its maiden flight. It has been reported that the naval variant is intended to operate from the recently launched aircraft carrier Fujian (Type 003) via an electromagnetic aircraft launch system (ALS). This navalized variant is based on the second FC-31 prototype and features a catapult launch bar and wing folding mechanism.
Very detailed view
What makes last week’s photo of the J-35 particularly noteworthy is that it’s the highest resolution – and therefore most detailed – image of the plane ever posted online. Although images of the plane, including in flight, have been circulated, most were low resolution and did not allow observers to see crucial details.
As TheDrive first reported, the images show the front opening, along with an internally curving canopy similar in design to the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II – and suggest the Chinese aircraft was certainly at least influenced by the design of the American-made Stealth Fighter. While the Chinese do not appear to be developing a short takeoff and vertical landing (STOVL) variant – similar to the F-35B – the J-35 still uses a canopy design similar to the Lightning II, which was designed to accommodate the fan of lift used in the STOVL model.
A good facsimile… of the F-35
China has long copied – or at least reverse-engineered – all manner of Western products, so it’s no surprise to believe that it has copied a host of American design cues for its own fifth-generation fighter. However, Chinese hackers also allegedly stole several terabytes of data related to the F-35 program, including information about the Lightning II’s radar design – the number and types of modules used by the system – as well as its engine, including including method used for throttle cooling, leading and trailing edge treatments and aft deck heater contour maps.
Moreover, it was shortly after the discovery of the hack that the FC-31 was first unveiled to the world, as a quarter scale model, at the International Aviation Exhibition. and China Aerospace in 2012. A full-size airframe was officially introduced. at the Zhuhai Airshow in November 2014.
J-35 Prototype 350003 & Prototype 350001 pic.twitter.com/3mhcXWRoKN
—David Wang (@Nickatgreat1220) July 22, 2022
The recent image posted online also shows that the J-35 could have received the new domestically produced WS-21 engines, an improved variant or a derivative of the WS-13E. Whether these engines can actually deliver the expected performance remains the big question. Of course, any aircraft can look good on the ground – especially in a high resolution photo – but seeing it in flight will determine whether the J-35 lives up to the hype.
An editor since 1945, Peter Suciu is a Michigan writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He writes regularly on military hardware, the history of firearms, cybersecurity and international affairs. Peter is also a contributing writer for Forbes. You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu.