China might be developing a new stealth fighter, if an announcement from the Chinese Aeronautical Establishment—a government research organization—is any indication.
For those keeping count, the new plane could be the sixth manned, radar-evading warplane in service or in development in China.
To put that in context, the world’s leading operator of stealth aircraft, the United States, has fielded six different manned stealth aircraft types, five of which remain in service—the F-117, the B-2, the F-22 and the three highly distinctive variants of the F-35.
The U.S. armed services meanwhile are developing three new manned stealth warplanes—two fighters and a bomber. That’s nine against China’s six.
All that is to say, don’t get too excited for this Chinese mystery-plane. It’s not about to change the world.
Aviation blog Alert 5 was among the first to note the Chinese Aeronautical Establishment’s announcement after the notice appeared on a Chinese social-media platform in late June.
The Chinese Aeronautical Establishment sent personnel to the Shenyang Aircraft Design Institute and the 29th Research Institute of the China Electronics Technology Group in order to support a “new-generation” fighter that is slated to fly in 2021, according to the post.
As Alert 5 pointed out, the fighter could be a variant of one of China’s existing stealth types. It also could be a new design. Either way, the announcement underscores the intensity of China’s aviation-modernization efforts. Beijing is second only to Washington in the variety and sophistication of the new warplane types it’s funding.
To be clear, the Shenyang project isn’t exactly a secret. State media revealed its existence back in 2018, in a story about Shenyang’s work on advanced composite materials and radar-blocking S-shape engine inlets.
State media at the time was circumspect about the project’s exact nature. “Some military observers have speculated that the new fighter jet could be an upgraded, domestic version of the FC-31, while others predict it could be an entirely different aircraft,” Global Times explained.
Unlike the military-sponsored J-20—China’s first and so far only in-service stealth warplane—Shenyang’s twin-engine FC-31 is a private venture.
Shenyang has yet to find a buyer for the type, which is similar in shape to, but smaller than, the U.S. Air Force’s F-22. There are persistent rumors that Shenyang hopes to sell a variant of the FC-31 to the Chinese navy for operations from the fleet’s new aircraft carriers.
The new fighter the Chinese Aeronautical Establishment mentioned in its social-media post could be this naval FC-31. It also could be the stealthy JH-XX fighter-bomber that the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency hinted at in a 2019 report.
Of course, it might also be the conceptual J-18 stealth jump jet that has been a popular topic of speculation in Chinese media since at least 2011.
Or it’s a brand-new, radar-evading design—potentially China’s sixth after the J-20, FC-31, J-18, JH-XX and H-20 stealth bomber.
But don’t panic. As impressive as China’s inventory of real and theoretical stealth warplanes might seem, America’s own inventory of stealth types is bigger and more real.
China after all actually operates at most just a few dozen J-20s. Everything else exists only on paper or in a laboratory. By contrast, the Pentagon’s hundreds of radar-evading planes crowd tarmacs all over the world.
The U.S. Air Force retired its 52 1980s-vintage F-117s back in 2008, although a few of the wedge-shape attack planes still fly in support of secretive military trials. Twenty ‘90s-vintage B-2 stealth bombers remain in service with the U.S. Air Force, which also possesses 185 F-22s.
The Air Force, U.S. Marine Corps and U.S. Navy together fly around 400 F-35s against a requirement for 2,300 of the type. The first of the Air Force’s new B-21 stealth bombers is under construction and could fly in 2021. The service wants at least 100 B-21s.
The Air Force and Navy meanwhile are spending billions of dollars each designing new stealth fighters to follow the F-35.
So yes, China might have a new stealth fighter design. But no, this is neither terribly surprising nor deeply meaningful to the world’s balance of power.