China’s fifth-generation fighter jet, J-20, had generated quite a buzz when it was introduced for the first time. Now, there is speculation that Chinese FC-31 ‘Gyrfalcon’ could pose a bigger threat to its arch-rival India.
The two Asian neighbors have been locked in a protracted border standoff in the Ladakh region, with reports of the Chinese PLA amassing advanced weapons on the Tibetan plateau emerging on a regular basis.
With an uncanny similarity to America’s stealth F-35 Lightning II fighter jet, the FC-31 ‘Gyrfalcon’ is a twin-engine mid-size fifth-generation aircraft being developed by Shenyang, a state-owned aircraft manufacturer.
The jet reportedly possesses extraordinary maneuverability, stealth features, and has two internal weapons that can carry two medium-range missiles. It has superior avionics, sensors providing enhanced situational awareness, improved radar tracking & targeting capabilities, and integrated electronic-warfare systems.
According to reports, the J-31 is considered China’s most ambitious export-quality fighter jet as it offers a cheaper multi-role platform with strike capabilities and stealth features.
Interestingly, the development of this fighter jet is not being funded by the PLA. Hence, this aircraft is not designated as J-31 as speculated by aviation enthusiasts. The J-xx nomenclatures is exclusively reserved for programs launched and financed by the Chinese military.
Nevertheless, the aircraft’s resemblance to the twin-engine F-35 had raised suspicion that it might be another Chinese copy of the US fighter jet.
Over the years, China has been accused of industrial espionage on a large scale and many of its equipment strikingly look similar to western designs.
The suspicion was fuelled by a 2014 Wall Street Journal report claiming that Chinese cyber spies had managed to access the database of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program and got hold of terabytes of classified information.
It was suspected that the Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC) had later incorporated the data into the FC-31.
This design similarity wasn’t just restricted to the airframe alone. “The similarity includes the use of two tracking mirrors and a flat-facetted optical window, with bottom fuselage placement just aft the radar radome,” Jane’s Defence Weekly said.
The FC-31 is being built as an alternative to the American F-35 offering, providing a low-cost option to countries that are financially weaker or are not in the good books of Washington. Reportedly, Pakistan and Iran have shown interest in the Chinese jet.
Also, the FC-31 has been spotted with a dual nose wheel, raising speculation that it might be intended to become a deck-based fighter. Nonetheless, twin nose wheels are also found on Chinese types such as the Chengdu J-10, which has no apparent carrier role.
Vladimir Barkovsky of the Russian Aircraft Corporation MiG has stated that, despite some design flaws, the FC-31 “looks like a good machine”. Although it contains features already in use on the US fifth-generation fighter designs, it is “not a copy but a well done indigenous design”.
But, the US military and industry officials believe that once the FC-31 enters service, it will likely be more than a match for existing fourth-generation fighters like the F-15 Eagle, F-16 Fighting Falcon, and F/A-18E/F Super Hornet.
They suggest that the capability of the FC-31 against the newest fighters, such as the F-22 and F-35, would depend on factors such as numbers of platforms, quality of pilots, and capabilities of radars and other sensors.
Whether it is a threat to America or not is debatable, but one thing is for sure that its development will force India, its arch-rival in Asia, to ramp up its own fifth-generation fighter program named AMCA (Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft).