Is China’s J-35 Just an F-35 Clone? Beijing showed off a number of its advanced aircraft at this month’s Airshow China 2022 – also known as the China International Aviation & Aerospace Exhibition. Held even years since its 1996 debut (with 2020’s event taking place last year due to the global novel coronavirus pandemic), it is the largest aviation and aerospace trade exhibition.
Attendees at this year’s event in Zhuhai, Guangdong – which concluded on Sunday – saw a ground display of the Chengdu J-20 stealth fighter and a concept of China’s sixth-generation fighter aircraft.
What wasn’t seen might be as notable.
What Is the J-35?
The J-35 – a reported third variant of the Shenyang FC-31 – was a no-show, despite some early speculation that the carrier-based aircraft could make an appearance.
It is reportedly being developed for the People’s Liberation Army Navy Air Force (PLANAF) and the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF).
The first media confirmation of the J-35 first circulated in June 2020 – which claimed that it was a “production-ready” version that featured smoother lines, had a larger radome for bigger radar, and a closer alignment of control surfaces to reduce its radar signature.
The twin-engine fighter was developed to be operated by the PLANAF from China’s future Type 003 Fujian-class aircraft carriers. It would be capable of operating with the carrier’s electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System (ALS). Given that the carrier was launched this summer, and is expected to begin sea trials by the end of next year, it would seem that Beijing would begin highlighting the aircraft sooner than later.
Yet, the J-35 had only made its maiden flight last year.
J-35: Images on Social Media
It was this past July that images of the future carrier-borne stealth fighter circulated on the Chinese social media app Weibo. The high-resolution photos were the most detailed ones of the aircraft yet published online.
It was hard not to see the influence the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II may have played in the development of the J-35 – beyond its “moniker.”
Though the Chinese do not appear to be developing a short takeoff and vertical landing (STOVL) variant, the J-35 still utilizes a canopy design similar to the Lightning II, which was designed to accommodate the lift fan used in the STOVL model.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise, as China has long copied – or reverse-engineered/stolen – all sorts of foreign aircraft designs. Chinese hackers were famously 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.
J-35 Or Something Else?
The official designation of the new twin-engine stealth fighter aircraft isn’t actually known, even as most open sources have called it “J-35” or “J-XY.” At the same time, some simply describe it as a carrier-based variant of the FC-31. A full-size model of the stealth plane first appeared in June 2021 at a Chinese land-based testing facility.
At this point, it may be accurate – but whether it is ready for carrier operations is anyone’s guess.
F-35 Photo Essay
A Senior Editor for 19FortyFive, Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer. He 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 and Clearance Jobs. You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu.