BEIJING ---- US military forces have traditionally relied on air superiority, but Western observers say that China's stealth fighters seem to be offsetting the US advantage, according to a report on the Chinese website of BBC News on January 2.
While the report said China's newest stealth fighter was having the first flight, American defense reporter Davis Axe said that China may export its stealth fighter jets.
The debut of FC-31 number two brings China closer to being an exporter of radar-evading warplanes—and draws the United States closer to, perhaps someday, facing China-made stealth fighters in combat, said Axe.
Davis Axe wrote on the website of The Daily Beast that the export of Chinese stealth fighter jets could negate one of America's main advantages in aerial combat—its lopsided technological superiority over most of the foreign air arms it faces in wartime.
Chinese military websites began circulating grainy videos and images of the FC-31 in flight apparently over the city of Shenyang in northeastern China on Dec. 23. Beijing takes advantage of China's thriving military blogging community to unofficially announce new weapons
The report said that the twin-engine fighter, a product of the state-owned Shenyang Aircraft Corporation, is apparently getting stealthier and closer to being war-ready. The first copy of the single-seat jet featured wide, trapezoid-shape tail fins. The second copy clearly boasts fins whose angles more closely match each other—a quality that helps to minimize radar signature, said the analysis.
The analysis said that the first FC-31 trailed thick plumes of smoke from its apparently Russian-made engines when it first flew two years ago. Smokey engines are a huge liability for fighter pilots hoping to avoid visual detection in close aerial combat. The new FC-31, by contrast, appears to boast new, smoke-free engines—that is, if the scant video evidence is any indication.
Davis Axe believes that the FC-31’s quick progress parallels China’s similarly determined efforts to get its first stealth fighter, the J-20, ready for wartime use. The Chinese air force apparently began equipping the first frontline squadron with the twin-engine J-20s in late 2016, seven years after the fighter—which is much larger than the FC-31—first flew.
By comparison, the U.S. Air Force's F-22 stealth fighter took 15 years to go from initial prototype in 1990 to combat-ready warplane in 2005. The smaller F-35, the prototype of which first flew in 2000, also needed 15 years of work before it was ready to deploy to war, said Axe.
The U.S. Defense Department, in the 2016 edition of its annual report to Congress on Chinese military capabilities, claimed that the FC-31 includes some of the same technology that the J-20 does. The report did not specify which technologies the two planes share.
Chinese media reported that Beijing had banned any export of the J-20. The reported ban could have put pressure on the state aircraft industry to produce a stealth fighter that is sufficiently advanced to attract foreign customers, but not so advanced that Beijing might prohibit selling it abroad.
China's aviation industry is actively marketing the FC-31 as an export fifth-generation multirole fighter to compete with the F-35 for foreign sales, the Pentagon reported.
Chinese drones and non-stealthy warplanes have slowly become more popular on the global market, mostly in the Middle East and Africa. The US is still, by far, the world's leading arms-exporter, said the report.
The Defense Department of the US claimed in its 2016 China report that the makers of the FC-31 are lobbying Beijing to eventually acquire the plane for the Chinese air force. If those efforts fail, the FC-31 could become the world's first stealth fighter that is strictly a commercial commodity.
By comparison, the F-35 is a hot item on the global arms market—but the controversial jet is foremost a U.S. government-funded project for U.S. government use. At present, the Pentagon plans to buy around two thirds of all the roughly 3,500 F-35s that most analysts believe builder Lockheed Martin could ultimately sell, according to the report.
If the FC-31 succeeds as an export commodity, then it could greatly multiply the risk to U.S. forces in future wars, said the report. American fighter pilots patrolling conflict zones over, say, the Middle East and Africa could find themselves going head to head with Chinese-made stealth fighters, according to the report.