Social media is abuzz with the first high-resolution image of what looks to be a prototype naval variant of the Chinese Shenyang J-35 stealth fighter, also known as the FC-31.
Since its initial, poor-quality images started to surface last year, the aircraft’s development has garnered media attention. At the time, EurAsian described how Beijing could outfit its expanding fleet of aircraft carriers with stealth aircraft.
The new pictures show the FC-31 stealth aircraft with the serial number 35003 and a gray tactical paint job. It also has toned down national insignia and other markings that can be seen in the pictures.
The aircraft in question is reportedly the second flying prototype and third in all. On the top of the aircraft’s tail fin is a “flying shark” emblem resembling those on PLAN J-15 carrier-based fighter jets.
J-35 number 350003 … a few details! pic.twitter.com/Yp3JqIWvu4
— @Rupprecht_A (@RupprechtDeino) July 22, 2022
This confirmed its planned naval role and indicated that it has been advancing steadily over the last few months. The latest image also shows that the aircraft has taken some design cues from the American stealth fighter.
The aircraft’s canopy is a front-opening, internally bowed with an integral bulkhead at the back, just like the F-35’s. A and C variants of Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter have rear canopy arrangements that are broadly comparable.
The J-35’s engines are particularly noticeable in the latest images of the aircraft. Experts believe this could be the first glimpse of the new WS-21 engines that power this aircraft.
The WS-21, sometimes known as the WS-13X, is an enhanced version of the WS-13E. The WS-13E was a more potent afterburning variant of that domestic design.
WS-13Es are reportedly used in place of the Russian-made RD-93s found on the first FC-31 prototype. The WS-13 series resembles the RD-93 in terms of both appearance and functionality.
The images also show some Chinese ground staff relaxing under the aircraft. According to defense analysts, this Chinese fighter will need a few more years to reach a mature stage.
The J-35 fitted with WS-21 engines was reported to be making a formal appearance at this year’s Zhuhai Air Show, which is scheduled for November, according to a report from the Chinese state-run CCTV television network in June.
If I'm not mistaken, then this CCTV report gives hope for a few surprises for the Zhuhai Air Show 2022:😯
-Y-20B & WS-20 … maybe Y-20BU?
– J-35 (?) "Falcon" carrier aircraft & WS-21
– Rainbow prototypes: CH-7 stealth UCAV
– first flight videos (stealth naval helicopter ?)
— @Rupprecht_A (@RupprechtDeino) June 2, 2022
Experts argue that it is currently difficult to determine how stealthy this design is. However, the continuous development of the aircraft shows Beijing’s intention to deploy a fifth-generation aircraft on its aircraft carriers shortly.
In the new image, an air data probe, often installed on aircraft undergoing various flight testing, is also seen mounted on the J-35.
A Crucial Point For China’s Growing Naval Power?
The PLA Navy (PLAN) and the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) had previously rejected the Shenyang Aircraft Corporation (SAC)-built FC-31. The project, however, was believed to be resurrected as tensions with the US in the western Pacific increased under former US President Donald Trump.
Even during the pandemic, it is said that China made significant progress on this program. “[The J-35 program] is the poster child for military opportunism the PRC has displayed during the COVID epidemic,” a NATO intel officer previously told the Bulwark.
“Increased building up of their man-made islands in the South China Sea, escalation of bomber and fighter flights almost daily harassing the Republic of China [on Taiwan], wolf-warrior diplomacy, etc. It is all part of their game of ‘how much can we get away with while you are locked at home and not paying attention,'” NATO intel officer added.
The J-35’s appearance in July 2021 had “caught the attention of US defense policymakers,” according to a Breaking Defense report.
A retired US naval intelligence officer, Capt. James Fanell told Breaking Defense that the J-35 could be another critical turning point in China’s long-term quest for a blue-water carrier-based naval aviation capability.
“We are seeing the goals of [now retired] Admiral Wu Shengli coming to fruition as the PLAN continues its transformation into the most powerful navy on the planet,” he said.
Fanell further argues that the lack of transparency on the part of the Chinese government is why we keep being “surprised” by developments like the J-35.
The naval forces of Beijing are expanding quickly. The FC-31 is also anticipated to take off and land on Type 004, China’s planned fourth aircraft carrier, as previously reported by the EurAsian Times. This Type 004 aircraft carrier could be a nuclear-powered ship and would signal its entry as a true maritime power rivaling the United States.
All in all, the latest images demonstrate the tenacity of China’s aerospace industry and provide much more information about the aircraft than was previously known.