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Stealth Fighter Showdown: China’s FC-31 vs. America’s F-35 (Who Wins?)

FC-31. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

The FC-31 looks like the F-22 and F-35, but looks can be deceiving – At the Saudi Arabian World Defense Show, which was held in Riyadh in March, visitors could have been forgiven if they thought they saw a Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II on display. The American defense contractor wasn’t actually present at the show, of course, but the Chinese Shenyang FC-31 Gyrfalcon (also known as the J-31) was on display and it certainly has more than a passing resemblance to the Lightning II.

China has long copied – or reverse-engineered – all sorts of western products, so it isn’t surprising to believe that it copied an American design for its fifth-generation fighter. And it wouldn’t be the first time. It is hard not to see the influence of the Lockheed Martin F-22 in the Chinese Chengdu J-20, or the Russian Sukhoi Su-33 in the Chinese Shenyang J-15.

However, the single-seat, twin-engine, medium-sized, multi-role FC-31 has taken this even further – so much so that some military analysts have suggested that it is little more than an F-35 that is stamped “Made in China” on the airframe. It has even been reported that the plane’s similarities are evidence that the Chinese stole U.S. technology.

Chinese hackers were believed to have stolen multiple terabytes worth of data related to the F-35 program, including information on the Lightning II’s radar design – the number and types of modules used by the system – as well as its engine, including the method used for cooling gases, leading and trailing edge treatments, and aft deck heating contour maps.

It was soon after the hack had been discovered that the FC-31 was first unveiled to the world, as a one-quarter scale model, at the China International Aviation & Aerospace Exhibition in 2012. A full-size airframe was officially introduced at the Zhuhai Airshow in November 2014.

How Do They Compare?

Looks aside, it has been reported that the FC-31 has a stealth aerodynamic design as well as stealth coating – but there are other factors to consider including radar-absorbent coating materials and the use of internal weapons bays. That latter feature allows the F-35 to operate in so-called “stealth mode,” where it employs a “First Day of War” loadout that could consist of four AIM-120 AMRAAM missiles for air-to-air missions, or a mixture of four AIM-120s/GBU-31 JDAM “smart bombs,” for air-to-ground missions.

As the name implies, stealth loadouts are designed to minimize radar cross-section and to maintain low observability (LO) when the enemy’s anti-air systems are operating at full capacity. However, as an adversary’s hostile anti-air systems – including sensors, air defense missiles, gun systems, and even enemy aircraft – are eliminated, and the conflict enters into the “Third Day of War,” the loadout could change accordingly. When it is determined that the F-35 no longer needs to rely on its stealth and LO for survivability the “beast mode” comes into play as the F-35 then deploys externally-mounted weapons with a larger radar footprint.

The weapons loadout is significantly larger. In stealth mode, the F-35 can carry 5,700 lbs internally, while in “beast mode” it can carry a full 22,000 lbs, of both air-to-air and air-to-ground munitions. Clearly, beast mode can do a lot more damage though with more visibility.

At this point, it is simply too early to tell if the FC-31 can actually go toe-to-toe with the American and allied F-35s, but it has been reported that the Chinese fighter has received largely negative reviews when it has been seen at air shows. Yet, it could still likely challenge America’s fourth-generation non-stealth fighters, while the most important issue remains how it will perform against the F-35.

Now a Senior Editor for 1945, Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He regularly writes about military hardware, and is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes.

Written By

Expert Biography: A Senior Editor for 1945, Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers, and websites with over 3,000 published pieces over a twenty-year career in journalism. He regularly writes about military hardware, firearms history, cybersecurity, and international affairs. Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes. You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu.



  1. Andrew M Winter

    April 24, 2022 at 10:37 am

    The F-35 wins. Why the question? The FC-31 doesn’t really exist yet as anything but a Chinese fantasy prototype.

    By the time that thing gets into production it’s enemy won’t BE the F-35. It will be something else.

    • Bernard Bernstein

      April 25, 2022 at 8:09 am

      All these replies shouldn’t dismiss what China and Russia pursue in the tech realm. For instance, their advantage in hypersonic missiles. We apparently can’t currently beat them at that. True, other tech applications the U.S. holds are more advanced, but only so far as we know. It’s not all or everything.

      • Aaron

        April 26, 2022 at 6:29 am

        They do not have an edge in Hypersonic cruise missiles; note all ICBM’s are be nature Hypersonic. In actuality what they have have tested are Hypersonic glide missiles. These launch like an ICBM then plunge down at their target at Hypersonic speed, a much less technological effort. Only the US has actually developed and tested true Hypersonic Scramjet posted missiles.

  2. Timbo

    April 24, 2022 at 11:05 am

    I get a kick out of these online commentaries and comparisons.
    The US knows adversaries, such as China and Russia, are attempting to pirate tech.
    However, they rarely succeed do to the US compartmentalization protocols.
    Why is it China and Russia boast constantly of their ‘achievements’, yet the US virtually stays silent?…
    The truth be known, the US is light years ahead of everyone and their failure percentages are stunningly low, comparatively speaking.
    What the US truly has in their arsenal is incredibly alarming.
    Forget the present hypersonic propaganda- guaranteed, the US has that arena, and beyond, covered, too… as well as actual ICBM defense.
    So, Putin’s rattling over Satan II is just that- a rattling noise.
    And then there’s ionosphere dominance and space.
    The US doesn’t need to bark- we know who the big dog is, and known defense budgets, not including the ‘black’ aspect, are indicative of such.

    • Francisco Gines

      April 24, 2022 at 2:22 pm

      100% agreed with you.

  3. Ollie

    April 24, 2022 at 12:11 pm

    America have the technology needed to eliminate ballistic missiles as they are launched , this technology was used during the experimental faze of the North Korean intercontinental missile tests , president Trump was quite amused , calling Kim , rocket man , the Chinese may have reverse engineered the F35 , but the Americans have the knowledge of how to destroy them and the stolen “ Stealth “

  4. Alexander

    April 24, 2022 at 1:22 pm

    The Russian 35 got shot down by a Ukraine missile. Probably the Chinese version will be subject to the same fate.

  5. JSmith

    April 24, 2022 at 1:23 pm

    All things being equal, I’ve seen the way they drive

    The US has nothing to worry about…

  6. Pleiades

    April 24, 2022 at 7:57 pm

    All these comments prove, yet again, is that most Yanks are abject imbeciles. The fact that the FC-31 is dual engined is a slight giveaway that’s it’s not an exact copy LMAO.

    The one thing Americans are best at is over-blown bluster. Noone else in the world comes close that’s for sure.

    China is laughing at them – but also grateful for the stupendous complacency.

  7. Mr. Clark

    April 24, 2022 at 9:10 pm

    They can duplicate by reverse engineering, steal technology by spying or hacking! There are some things they can’t duplicate and that would be the people that fly these machines!!! The pilots of the USN and USAF. Second to none. No air force on the planet has more experience in wartime combat missions.

  8. Vince Pascual

    April 24, 2022 at 9:41 pm

    You gotta love it. The Russians have bragged about their stuff being better than the U.S. but have never been battle tested. Now here comes the Chinese, who have practically STOLEN all sorts of technology, even from the Russians by reverse engineering the Sukhoi Su-27 series, and STILL not as good as the Russian design!
    Even though the F-22 Raptor has late 90s avionics technology, it still more advanced than the Chinese J-20, even more so, the F-35, with its constant software updates, is leaps and bounds ahead of that Chinese junk J-31. Not to mention the U.S. constantly and consistently training ALL their F-35 pilots, you have a recipe for “Kick your ass any time, any where”. That’s the U.S. Armed forces.

  9. HR

    April 25, 2022 at 2:48 pm

    We will fill the skies with Thousands of Panthers Pete.
    We dont have to engage.
    Our allies have more than enough…

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