Although China continues to lag approximately two decades behind the world’s most sophisticated air forces in terms of its ability to develop and produce fighter aircraft and other complex aerospace systems, it has moved over time from absolute reliance on other countries for military aviation technology to a position where a more diverse array of strategies can be pursued.

In its ever-expanding push for military superiority, China has set its sights on a next-generation stealth fighter on par or greater than America’s F-35, that it hopes to field by 2035, says the chief designer of the Chengdu J-20 reported


China has finally accepted that its stealth fighter jet J-20 is a copy of America’s F-35. Yang Wei, chief designer at the Chengdu Aircraft Design Institute, China’s state-run aircraft manufacturer, said his J-10 fighter jet was a copy of the US F-35, not Russia’s stealth fighter. It is believed that after this confession by China, tensions between America and China may increase to unprecedented levels.

According to the South China Morning Post a news website headquartered in Hong Kong, Chinese military aircraft manufacturers are vying to build fighter jets operating from aircraft carriers amid increased tension with the US. The first of these is the Chengdu Aircraft Design Institute (CADI), a government company that is working on a revised version of its J-20. The other government company is the Shenyang Aircraft Design Institute, which is manufacturing the FC-31 jet. In a recent article published in the Chinese magazine Acta Aeronautica et Astronautica Sinica, Yang Wei, chief designer of the Chengdu Aircraft Design Institute, stated that his aircraft is based on the principle of American air combat and jet design.

Chinese military experts said that Yang Wei’s openly admitting that his plane was based on American design is part of the institution’s thought-provoking strategy. Yang is trying to promote his modified J-20 as his rival aircraft FC-31 is based on Russia’s old design. In his article Yang Wei further stated that the US Navy started production in less than 6 years by developing its best fighter jets. If the Chinese leadership prefers the FC-31, excluding their fighter jet, it will take about 10 years to deploy. During this time the US will develop a new jet.

Steal - A Philosophy

A developing country can use surreptitious means to steal design and technology information on aircraft and aircraft components that it lacks the knowledge to design and produce domestically. This can be accomplished using covert procurement (often through third countries), traditional espionage methods, or computer network intrusion methods to exfiltrate the desired information. Individuals with access to information on classified weapons systems are prime targets of foreign intelligence organizations. Cyber espionage attacks against U.S. targets including military/government organizations and defence contractors have reportedly been successful in obtaining sensitive, though not classified, data. The “steal” option can be used to gain blueprints or examples of weapons to use in reverse engineering a subsystem or to develop countermeasures that make a threat aircraft less effective in combat wrote Phillip C Saunders and Joshua K Wiseman of the Institute for National Strategic Studies (INSS) in a report elucidating China’s quest for advanced military aviation technologies.

The principal advantage of the “steal” option is the potential to acquire advanced systems or technologies that other countries are unwilling to sell. In some cases, espionage can allow a country to acquire advanced technology without spending funds on its own research and development. The disadvantages include a developing country’s limited ability to absorb or replicate stolen systems and technologies without technological support from the manufacturer, the haphazard and potentially incomplete access to systems and technologies through clandestine or surreptitious means, and the potential for espionage to send a country’s aviation industry down a blind alley. In discussing the degree to which China has employed the “steal” option, we should differentiate its comprehensive efforts to collect and assimilate open source defence information (for example, through the China Defence Science and Technology Information Centre) from its efforts to obtain restricted technologies covertly, by way of either traditional or cyber espionage.

Exploiting the volumes of technical open source information produced in developed countries is an effective, legitimate, and predictable way to acquire knowledge. Of these three main avenues to technology procurement, the “build” option is the only one with the potential to stimulate innovation and create a broad-based domestic aviation industry from a low initial starting point. The United States and Russia produce the world’s most complex fighter aircraft and, although they gained the ability in the midst of different economic and political circumstances, both were only able to reach this status through the ability to develop new technologies. Simply buying fighter aircraft from another country, with no plans to reverse engineer or coproduce, does not help a developing country move toward self-reliance. The steal option can have benefits if a developing country is able to obtain the information it needs without having to expend the necessary resources on R&D. However, simply possessing a blueprint does not guarantee success in reproducing the design, especially for a developing country with a limited aerospace production capacity. Other hybrid approaches are reverse engineering, coproduction, and co-development.

While much has been discussed regarding the stealthy exterior of China’s fifth-generation aircraft with respect to it appearing as a transparent or deliberate F-35 rip-off, less has been known about the internal technical specifics of advanced Chinese fighters.

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