Photos: China’s Carrier-Based Stealth Fighter, Based on FC-31, Makes First Appearance

© Sputnik ScreenshotA photo of an aircraft closely based on the Shenyang FC-31 that has been modified for carrier flight ops. The FC-31 has long been speculated to be the basis for China's forthcoming fifth-generation carrier-based fighter.
A photo of an aircraft closely based on the Shenyang FC-31 that has been modified for carrier flight ops. The FC-31 has long been speculated to be the basis for China's forthcoming fifth-generation carrier-based fighter. - Sputnik International, 1920, 30.10.2021
New photos circulating on social media bear a close resemblance to Shenyang’s FC-31 test aircraft, but a number of clues point to the jet photographed being something new: could it be the long-rumored aircraft carrier adaptation that fans call the J-35?
Is it a bird? No, it’s a plane! And it seems to be China’s forthcoming carrier-borne stealth fighter.
The photos of a fluorescent green fighter jet with a J-11 chaseplane circulating on social media seem to pretty definitely show an aircraft based on the FC-31 that’s been adapted for carrier operations. A close-up image clearly shows a catapult launch bar and wing fold lines, neither of which land-borne aircraft have any use for.
Observers have also noted a chin-mounted EOIRST, or infrared sensor turret, and what seems to be a slightly remodeled canopy profile, which could indicate a larger avionics package stored in the fuselage behind the cockpit.
According to Naval News, the flight took place at Harbin Aircraft Industry Group test facility in the northern Heilongjiang Province.
Little is known about the aircraft, which has been provisionally called the J-35 by observers. It’s unclear how it got that name, but it seems likely it’s because of accusations that China stole information about Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. While the FC-31 and its newer derivative seem superficially similar, in reality they are very different aircraft, as Sputnik has reported.
It seems more likely the new jet will be named J-21, since the newest Chinese fighter in service is the J-20, China’s other fifth-generation aircraft.
Shenyang built two FC-31s in 2012 and 2016 to serve as test beds without a specific military demand, and for years Beijing remained unsure about what to use the jet for, if at all. For many reasons, the FC-31 is better suited to carrier flight operations than the J-20, but as of yet, the People’s Liberation Army Navy hasn’t had a way to make good use of such a jet, since both its aircraft carriers launch their J-15 fighters using bow ramps.
However, the forthcoming Type 003 aircraft carrier, a much larger flattop with electromagnetic aircraft catapults, will be able to fling aircraft off the flight deck with much greater speed, allowing it to launch heavier and slower aircraft than its predecessors.
In July 2020, the Chinese Aeronautical Establishment, the research and development branch of the Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC), reported it intended to begin testing a “new type of aircraft” for naval use in conjunction with Shenyang. Then a few months later, a photo emerged of an FC-31 in a new paint job bearing the AVIC logo on its tail, further exciting observers’ minds that the two were related.
However, the FC-31 was notably absent a tailhook, which aircraft use to land safely on aircraft carriers, meaning at least that jet at that time was not testing its ability to fly from a ship.
Another hint came this past March, when Shenyang’s WeChat teased that it would be boosting research and testing on a new stealth aircraft and its related technologies this year. While it again declined to name the aircraft, the post included a photo of an FC-31.
Further teasers have come from a naval research and testing facility in Wuhan that has a building made to look like an aircraft carrier’s command tower. A mockup of an aircraft closely resembling an FC-31 was spotted at the facility in June.
What appeared to be photos of a two-seater variant of the J-20 also appeared earlier this week. Observers remain skeptical, but if the photos are legitimate, it would be the first two-seat version of any fifth-generation fighter. A second pilot could have a number of uses, from dedicated weapons officers to piloting instructors, or even managers of drone swarms.
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