Looks Like China’s Sending a Stealth Fighter to Sea

Written by David Axe

A full-scale model of China’s J-31 stealth fighter prototype has appeared on the flight deck of the Chinese navy’s aircraft carrier mock-up, fueling speculation that the radar-evading jet could become part of China’s carrier air wing.

If so, China would enter the race alongside the United States to be the first to deploy a stealth jet on a flattop. The U.S. Navy is struggling to develop the F-35C stealth fighter to fly from the American fleet’s 10 large carriers starting no earlier than late 2018.

China often builds mock-ups of its new warships on land before constructing prototype vessels. In the spring of 2014, Chinese naval architects began assembling a model of a huge new missile cruiser on the campus of a technical institute in Wuhan.

The cruiser model joined an older mock-up of China’s first aircraft carrierLiaoning—actually a refurbished Soviet flattop. Before placing Liaoning intolimited service in 2012, the Chinese navy tested the rebuilt carrier’s systems on the model at Wuhan.

And now a photographer has spotted a model of the J-31 fighter on the mock-up carrier’s deck. Chinese engineers could be testing the plane to see whether it can safely maneuver on Liaoning’s 1,000-foot-long flight deck.Liaoning lacks catapults and instead launches planes by way of a bow ramp.

The Chinese carrier is considerably smaller than American flattops.

The twin-engine, twin-tail J-31 first appeared in September 2012 at the Shenyang Aircraft Company’s airfield in northeastern China and took off for its debut flight the following month.

The J-31 is similar in layout to the American F-35 and is apparently smaller than China’s other stealth fighter prototype, the J-20, which seems to be around the same size as the U.S. F-22—still the only radar-evading air-to-air fighter in front-line service anywhere in the world.

The U.S., China, Russia and Japan are all working on new stealth planes. But only the United States and China have shown any interest in adapting their new radar-dodging jets for use aboard a full-size carrier at sea—although the U.K., Italy and other countries plan to flying vertical-landing F-35Bs from medium carriers or amphibious assault ships.

In any event, the ocean is hard on stealth. Saltwater and hard deck landings could wreak havoc on a radar-evading plane’s sensitive coatings.

There were early indications that the J-31 might head to sea. For starters, its nose landing gear has two side-by-side wheels, a standard feature on many carrier planes. The extra wheel helps soften the impact of a deck landing.

And to be sure, China needs new carrier planes. Liaoning’s air wing includes up to two dozen J-15 fighters—unlicensed Chinese copies of Russia’s Su-33—plus a dozen helicopters.

By contrast, American carrier air wings boast more than 40 F/A-18 fighters plus EA-18G radar-jammers, E-2 radar early-warning planes, C-2 airlifters and helicopters—more than 60 aircraft, in all.

Liaoning would need “extensive land-based support to oppose a U.S. Navy carrier battle group,” Richard Fisher, a fellow with the International Assessment and Strategy Center, told Defense News.

But the limitations of Liaoning’s air wing are largely a consequence of the Chinese flattop’s comparatively modest size and lack of catapults. Beijing has begun design work—and possibly even early construction—on a new class of larger carriers, presumably with catapults.

The new flattops could accommodate more, bigger and better planes, including new fighters and fixed-wing radar planes like the E-2. The model J-31’s appearance on the carrier mock-up at Wuhan could be a preview of the Chinese carrier air wing of the future.

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