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A Chinese FC031 stealth fighter pictured during a test flight in November 2014. Photo: Xinhua

John Bolton accuses China of stealing F-35 technology to make a stealth fighter. Is this what he was talking about?

  • US National Security Adviser recently said an unnamed Chinese fighter ‘looks a lot like the F-35 … because it is the F-35’
  • The PLA’s only active stealth fighter the J-20 looks rather different to its US counterpart, but the FC-31 prototype may be closer to the mark

US National Security Adviser John Bolton recently accused China of stealing US technology to make a stealth fighter, a charge Beijing has denied.

On a visit to Ukraine last week, Bolton said an unnamed fifth-generation aircraft “looks a lot like the F-35, that’s because it is the F-35. They just stole it”.

At present China’s only active stealth fighter, the J-20 or Mighty Dragon, looks very different to the F-35 because it has two nose canards – which are not found on any modern US fighters – and it is larger and around 50 per cent heavier.

However, Bolton might have had another fighter in mind – the Shenyang FC-31 Gyrfalcon, which is still in the prototype phase.

John Bolton said China “just stole” the F-35 for its own fighter. Photo: EPA-EFE

The FC-31 is made by the Shenyang Aircraft Design and Research Institute, a branch of the state-owned Aviation Industry Corporation of China.

The aircraft, which made its maiden flight in 2012, has broadly similar specifications to the F-35 although it does have twin engines rather than the American jet’s single engine.

The Chinese fighter has a maximum take off weight of 25 tonnes, a combat range of 1,200km (746 miles) and a top speed of Mach 1.8, or 2,205km/h (1,370mph), whereas the US fighter’s take-off weight varies between 27 and 32 tonnes, has a top speed of Mach 1.6 and a range of up to 2,200km (1,367 miles).

The FC-31 has a weapons payload of 8 tonnes, compared with 6.8 to 8.1 tonnes for the different varieties of F-35, and a service life of up to 30 years.

Graphic: SCMP

Lockheed Martin, which makes the American stealth fighter, has produced three different varieties – the land-based f-35A and two for use on ships: the vertical jump F-35B and catapult-assisted F-35C.

While the Chinese jet was primarily designed for the use of the air force, its light weight also means it could be adapted for use on carriers.

It was reported to have been in the running to be used on China’s next-generation aircraft carriers, but military sources recently said it would lose out to the J-20 because of its slow pace of development and reports of technological problems.

The US currently restricts sales of the F-35 to its closest allies: Photo: EPA-EFE/ USAF

However, the Chinese manufacturer is already actively marketing the fighter to other countries and a model of the plane appeared at the Paris Air Show in June.

One official from the Aviation Industry Corporation of China who attended the Air Show told state media that the firm hoped to “seize some share in the military aircraft market of developed nations”.

One area where the plane does have a definite advantage over its American counterpart is price. The price of a single FC-31 is expected to be about US$70 million, significantly less than the F-35 which has a price tag of around US$100 million per unit.

The US also restricts sales of the fighter to its allies, leaving a potential gap in the market for China to exploit when the fighter is ready for use.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Spot the difference after fighters claim