New Stealth Fighters, Aircraft Carriers And UCAVs: Dissecting The Real State Of China’s Naval Aviation

In this image the main differences between the FC-31 and the J-35. (Image via Andreas Rupprecht.

We interviewed Chinese military aviation expert Andreas Rupprecht to learn more about the progress of the PLAN (People’s Liberation Army Navy) Naval Aviation.

Last week we reported about the the existence of two new stealth fighters in China. The first one is a two-seater variant of the J-20 (J-20B or J-20S) that carried out a taxi test in yellow primer at Chengdu Aerospace Corporation plant on Oct. 27, 2021. Then, two days later, images started circulating online of a “navalized” stealth fighter (possibly designated J-35), a carrier capable variant of the land based FC-31, in green primer, during what might have been the type’s first flight.

Therefore, in a matter of a few days, China has shown the world that along with being the first ever to operate a two-seater stealth fighter, it will also be the first nation outside of the U.S. to develop a fully domestic carrier capable stealth fighter (with some pretty significant things in common with the F-35C…).

In order to learn more about the progress of the most interesting Chinese programs and assess the status of the emerging PLAN Naval Aviation  we asked expert analyst Andreas Rupprecht who edits the Modern Chinese Warplanes page on Facebook, has published a series of authoritative reference guides about Chinese military aircraft (and many others), and, above all, is considered an authority when it deals with Chinese military aviation.

Here are his responses to our questions.

Q. Hi Andreas, first of all thank you for your time. Then, I would ask you what we know about this aircraft, what does the existence of 4 stealth jets in China (J-20A, B, FC-31 and J-35) mean in terms of progress in this field?

First, we know it is under development since several years and has its roots in the two SAC stealth technology demonstrators FC-31 no. 01 and 02 (aka 31001 & 31003). As such I expect a shorter overall time of flight testing even if the most interesting part of that story will be the cat-test and carrier qualifications up to operational readiness. Consequently, I think it is safe to assume that stealth technology is no longer a stranger in China – just look in parallel to the J-20B twin-seater and the just recently unveiled “strange thing” at CAC, which eventually could be a configuration related to the 6th generation fighter – , the only question is how stealthy are these new fighters, how capable and integrated is their sensor system and to what extent they are indeed capable of network-centric warfare?

Also unknown is how mature is their sensor fusion and to what extent the term joint is really joint within the PLA? And finally, since the J-35 – or whatever its designation may be – is still relaying on interim engines, there remains the engine issue. And concerning stealth and China, the true mystery still remains the H-20 bomber.

Q. What will be the impact of the new J-35 on the Chinese naval aviation ambitions?

I think here it is safe to say, a new chapter begins. The cat-capable J-35 together with the J-15T and KJ-600 AEW and the Type 003 carrier will finally provide the PLAN with true carrier-borne naval aviation. However, I don’t think that the PLAN has the same global strategic ambitions, at least for some time to come. One important aspect however besides stealth is, the J-35 is a bit smaller and lighter than the J-15, so even if it may have mot the same range and weapons load capabilities, it offers a smaller footprint on the carrier, enables as such more aircraft to be carried and in mind of the catapult launch capability the PLAN can eventually even achieve a higher mission rate (put more aircraft in the air in a comparable time).

Q. What kind of weapons do you think the J-35 will carry?

Concerning its air-to air loadout we can surely similar systems like the J-20: this is for sure the PL-10 short range IR-guided AAM and the PL-15 long range active AESA-guided AAM. As for the naval strike role there are several options all – at least interim-wise – around the well known YJ-83K AShM and its modernized forms, the KD-88 AGM and eventually smaller missiles like the YJ-9. However I expect in the longer term a new stealthy AShM and also some sort of small-diameter bombs like the FT-7/-9/-10 series.

Q. While the future of the J-35 is pretty clear, what’s next for the land-based FC-31?

That’s in fact a good question … By the way, we still don’t know its exact designation. In fact we only know some rumours but actually I have more the feeling, J-35 is more a number used to mock the US-fan-boys since it would mimic their own F-35 or it is based as on a combination of J-15 (naval fighter) meets J-20 (stealth capabilities) and so 15+20 = 35!

F-35C and J-35
An image we created to show the similarities between the J-35 and the F-35C.

In reality a designation within the J-2Xs range – maybe indeed J-21 for the carrier version and J-22 – for an eventual PLAAF version, if there will ever be one is more likely. And only the 6th generation fighter will have a J-30-number to denote the next generation. But to your question: I think there are still too many venerable 3rd generation (J-8D/F) and early 4th generation fighters (J-11A, Su-30MKK, J-10A) that need a replacement and given the reports, that the PLAAF was more than satisfied by the overwhelming success of the J-20 against these earlier generation types during exercises at Dingxin, it can be expected, that a smaller, less expensive and eventually more multi-role focused type makes a lot of sense.

If that however will be a FC-31/J-35 derivate, I don’t know – even if I expect this to happen – and if then a dedicated export variant based on the FC-31’s original intent will be on offer, is yet another question. Maybe the chances are in fact slimmer/smaller now since it is now de fact a PLA project.

Q. Can you provide an update on the Type-003 progress? What will be the main features of the new carrier? And, are there plans for a fourth carrier for PLAN?

Yes for sure, in short: It provides the PLAN for the first time with a true blue-water navy capability. The Liaoning and Shandong both had their limitations alone due to their design based on a former Soviet doctrine and the lack of a catapult. This was not an issue even if especially in the West some still try to compare the 001 & 002 vs the US CVNs, in fact a lame comparison, since both types have vastly different roles: the USN super carriers are a strategic tool, whereas the Liaoning and Shandong were to gain experience, to train crews, pilots and to test the operational procedures.

This finally can be corrected now so that a USN-like air wing combining air defensive, offensive strike by fighter and AEW-assets to operate and act together can be fulfilled. So in summary – and again even if I don’t think the PLAN has the same global military ambitions like the USN – the new Type 003 carrier combined with low-observable fighters and a modern AEW asset will provide the PLAN with a significantly improved capability to match its power-projection and area denial ambitions. For this I see at first the northern and southern Pacific as the most important areas of operations, but surely the PLAN will expand this well into the Indian Ocean to safeguard their own interests up to the Gulf region and African east coast. As such, there are interesting times ahead.

Q. What about the J-15D and T model? What do we know about them? Are they making any progress?

Both will play still a major role for several years to come. When the 003 carrier enters service – I don’t expect this to happen before 2025, so maybe in 2026 – the J-35’s development will surely not be concluded. Service entry of the vessel therefore fits carrier qualification tests and later OPEVAL for the J-35, but I don’t expect the J-35 to enter service off the 003 anytime before 2027-2028, or at least 6-7 years from now. Until then the carrier needs an air asset, crews and especially pilots must be qualified for carrier operations. This is the role the J-15T – I expect a service designation J-15B in fact – and its EW-variant J-15D will fulfill in exactly the same way, the USN still uses F/A-E/F multirole fighters along EA-18G Growlers.

Q. Anything else worth adding about PLAN Naval Aviation that I’ve not already asked?

In fact I would add the complement of UAVs and UCAVs.

We know, there are already several flying, in test or at least under consideration for carrier use and as such it is interesting to follow, what’s next? What type will be deployed first? Will it be a true offensive UCAV like the GJ-11 or more a multirole, surveillance suited type like the Wind Cloud / Wind Shadow (WL-10), which was indeed tested already at the catapult test-site and NAS Huangdicun.

And this even further will lead to the question on the Type 075 LHD’s aerial assets. When will the PLAN Marines get their own helicopter units in numbers, when will they introduce the Z-20? Will they get Z-19 and Z-10 combat helicopters or even a new type? And finally what’s about the rumoured Type 076 LAH, which is said to be under development with similar capabilities like the US LHD/LAHs carrying F-35B STOVL fighters, but without a dedicated VSTOL fighter.

So again, there are most interesting times ahead.

About David Cenciotti
David Cenciotti is a journalist based in Rome, Italy. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviationist”, one of the world’s most famous and read military aviation blogs. Since 1996, he has written for major worldwide magazines, including Air Forces Monthly, Combat Aircraft, and many others, covering aviation, defense, war, industry, intelligence, crime and cyberwar. He has reported from the U.S., Europe, Australia and Syria, and flown several combat planes with different air forces. He is a former 2nd Lt. of the Italian Air Force, a private pilot and a graduate in Computer Engineering. He has written five books and contributed to many more ones.