Experts spot ‘dummy’ J-35 fighter on China’s Liaoning carrier

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Amid February 2024, chatter began stirring on social media about notable advances in China’s J-35 carrier-capable fighter program. Images were shared, depicting what appeared to be a J-35 mockup performing tests on the Liaoning aircraft carrier during a routine refurbishment session. 

The presence of the J-35 mockup on China’s pioneering aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, speaks volumes about the progress made in integrating the J-35 into China’s naval fleet. 

This leads to speculation about whether the fighter could be deployed on China’s current carriers which, interestingly, are not equipped with catapult launch systems, but instead utilize ‘ski jump’ ramps. 

New direction

Initially, we expected to see the J-35 operating from China’s soon-to-be operational Type 003 Fujian aircraft carrier, using China’s own Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System. However, these recent developments suggest a new direction for the fighter initiative. 

Both of China’s aircraft carriers, the Liaoning and its sister ship, the Shandong, operate under the Short Take-off but Arrested Recovery [STOBAR] principle, which relies on ski-jump ramps for take-off and arrester wires for landings. The Liaoning, originally sourced from Ukraine, forms the cornerstone of China’s ambition for carrier aviation, and the Shandong was designed to closely mimic it. 

Photo credit: Twitter

Up until now, both carriers, the Liaoning and the Shandong, have been using only J-15s for their fighter operations. These are Chinese adaptations of the Russian Su-33 Flanker carrier fighter, refined incrementally with local modifications in engines, avionics, and armaments. 

The anticipated arrival of Fujian

However, things are set to change with the anticipated arrival of China’s Type 003 Fujian [CV-18] aircraft carrier. This carrier innovates by utilizing Catapult-assisted Takeoff but Arrested Recovery [CATOBAR] operations, with a sophisticated Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System [EMALS]. 

Although the authenticity of the shared images cannot be definitively confirmed, they do provide sufficient detail to identify the mockup as a life-size representation of the J-35. This is a practice typical for carrying out carrier compatibility assessments. 

Photo credit: Twitter

The sharing of these photos caught the attention of Naval Defense Analyst Alex Luck, who commented on Twitter: “J-35 mockup on Liaoning. Not conclusive, but it’s a logical inference considering it’s unlikely that both Kuznetsov carriers would be retired before a considerable number of CATOBAR CVs have been put into service.” 

Furthermore, Luck believes that in the end, the J-35 stands a good chance of becoming the primary manned fighter for carrier operations, as he sees the lifespan of the J-15 series as being limited. Luck emphasizes that having more decks available for take-off will not only streamline operations but also alleviate the pressure on associated crew training pipelines. This would be particularly beneficial in preparing for the introduction of the Fujian aircraft carrier.

J-35 Stealth Fighter

The J-35, commonly known as the naval modification for the FC-31 or J-31 Gyrfalcon, is China’s very own fifth-generation aircraft. This impressive machine was developed by the Shenyang Aircraft Corporation, a government enterprise, specifically for the People’s Liberation Army. 

According to the Pentagon’s final report on the PLA in 2023, the inaugural flight of the J-35 occurred in 2021. This aircraft, designed specifically for naval operations, boasts improvements such as a significantly restructured F-35B-style canopy and cockpit layout with limited rear visibility, reinforced landing gear, and a catapult launch bar. 

What’s more, it has incorporated retractable outer-wing panels that are designed to reduce space usage while the aircraft is parked or moving on the carrier deck. 

Photo credit: Reddit

J-35 cutting-edge avionics

Equipped with a cutting-edge active electronically scanned array [AESA] radar, the J-35 is finely tuned to deploy a series of Chinese-made air-to-air and air-to-ground munitions. 

In December of 2023, a probable mockup of the J-35 was seen on the deck of the Fujian – the latest aircraft carrier in the Chinese Navy. This fighter jet employs stealth technology, putting it on par with Lockheed Martin’s advanced fifth-generation fighter, the F-35. 

The jet was recently featured at the World Defense Show in Saudi Arabia. The manufacturers envision this aircraft as potential competition to the widely popular fifth-generation US jets, which are highly esteemed by many nations in the region. 

J-35 data

Although the F-35 has a slower maximum speed than the FC-31—1.6 Mach compared to 1.8 Mach—it is lauded for its extended combat range. The F-35 covers 1,240km [770 miles], surpassing the Chinese jet, which only achieves 1,207km [750 miles]. 

Moving to future applications, Pakistan’s Air Chief Marshal Zaheer Ahmed Baber Sidhu announced in January 2024 that Pakistan has plans to acquire the FC-31 to modernize its air force. Unfortunately, no additional specifics regarding the procurement process were revealed. 

However, considering the J-35 mockup was presented on the Liaoning, it strongly implies that the People’s Liberation Army Navy [PLAN] is considering the possibilities of deploying this stealth jet not only on the Type 003 carrier and its future successors but also on the current fleet of aircraft carriers.


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