The F-35 Lightning II is the world’s most advanced fifth-generation stealth fighter. The F-35 and its three variants allow the U.S. Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps with a multirole platform capable of undertaking a wide range of air-to-air and air-to-ground missions and of boosting the combat capability and situational awareness of friendly forces in the air, at sea, and on the ground. Given the advanced technology that has been incorporated into the F-35 program, the Department of Defense and the contractors involved in the program have been understandably tight-lipped when it comes to discussing that technology and some of the F-35’s capabilities. Detailed and specific information regarding the F-35’s electronic warfare capabilities, for example, is relatively hard to come by.
Despite the secrecy surrounding some elements of the F-35 program, DOD has not been entirely successful with regards to preventing the spread of classified information about the F-35’s capabilities and associated technology. China has been accused of stealing information about the F-35, and that information is believed to have gone into the development of China’s own advanced fifth-generation stealth fighter.
While China had long been suspected of having stolen information about the F-35, the first hint of a public confirmation that such theft had indeed taken place came in 2015 following the release of documents to a German publication by former U.S. National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden. These documents revealed the full scope of the Chinese hacking efforts, which proved to be quite extensive.
Chinese hackers are believed to have stolen many terabytes worth of data related to the F-35 program, including information on the F-35’s radar design – such as the number and types of modules used by the system – and its engine, including the method used for cooling gases, leading and trailing edge treatments, and aft deck heating contour maps. Chinese hackers also appear to have stolen information about both the U.S. Air Force’s F-22 Raptor and B-2 stealth bomber, space-based lasers, missile navigation and tracking systems, and designs related to nuclear submarines and anti-air missiles.
These thefts, including those of information related to the F-35, are believed to have been part of the major Chinese hacking campaign to which U.S. officials have given the label “Byzantine Hades.” This campaign may have been in effect as far back as 2006, and has been attributed to Technical Reconnaissance Bureaus that operated as part of the People’s Liberation Army’s Third Department. Chinese hackers appear to have favored “spear-phishing” techniques as a means to access classified information, which involved the compromising of email accounts and passwords in order to breach secure networks.
Information related to the F-35 stolen by Chinese hackers has likely been incorporated into China’s own efforts to develop advanced fighter aircraft, including both the J-20 and in particular the J-31. Indeed, released photos of the J-31 – as well as Chinese media reporting about the aircraft – suggest some areas of similarity exist between the two aircraft.
The Shenyang J-31 is a fifth-generation stealth fighter, and is the second stealth fighter China has indigenously produced. The J-31 is being designed as a multirole fighter – somewhat akin to the F-35 – and will be capable of performing a range of missions including close air support (CAS) and air interdiction operations along with suppression of enemy air defenses, and may also be capable of being operated as a carrier-based fighter. The J-31 is powered by a pair of Russian-designed RD-93 turbofan engines, and operates with a maximum speed of 2,200 km/h and a range of more than 2,000 km. The aircraft can be outfitted with a range of state-of-the-art avionics including multifunctional displays, a helmet-mounted sight, an electro-optical targeting system (EOTS), an altitude director indicator (ADI), and advanced sensor and communication systems. Armaments on the J-31 include an internal cannon and two internal weapons bays capable of carrying two missiles each, along with three hardpoints for mounting weapons on each of its wings.