China’s Fujian aircraft carrier

China’s Fujian air wing is slowly taking shape, possibly making it the first carrier worldwide capable of launching 5th-generation stealth fighters from its decks

This month, CCP bullhorn the South China Morning Post (SCMP) reported that China might be preparing to deploy a new stealth fighter or perhaps a stealth drone from its Fujian aircraft carrier, incrementally building the combat capabilities of its third carrier and flagship naval vessel.

Chinese media house SCMP mentions a recruitment video for People’s Liberation Army–Navy (PLA-N) showing a pilot walking towards the figure of an unidentified stealth aircraft or drone, which could be the J-31/FC-31 stealth fighter or an FH-97A Loyal Wingman drone.

The report notes that the J-31/ FC-31 will complement the J-15, China’s only carrier-based fighter. It also mentions that the J-31 will be used for air supremacy missions due to its stealth characteristics, while the J-15 will be limited to ground and sea attacks.

However, the report notes that both the J-31/FC-31 and the Fujian are still not combat-ready, with the J-31/FC-31 still undergoing ground tests and the Fujian expected to perform sea trials later this year.

Given the J-31/FC-31’s design history, Aviacionline notes in a January 2023 article that the aircraft was the product of China’s espionage campaign 12 years ago, which managed to steal several terabytes of confidential information about US systems including blueprints and other relevant data about the F-22 and F-35 stealth fighters.

The report says that the J-31 builds on this captured information and takes clear design cues from the F-35, with a one-piece cockpit, infrared search and track (IRST), electro-optical targeting system (EOTS) and crew boarding ladder.

Aviacionline notes that China’s J-31/FC-31 has a 2,000-kilometer estimated range, maximum take-off weight of 28 tons, an operational ceiling of 15 kilometers and a top speed of Mach 1.8 or 2,205 kilometers per hour.

The J-31/ FC-31 has an internal weapons bay with a 2,268-kilogram capacity for six air-to-air missiles or air-to-ground armaments, with the option to carry additional weapons on six external hardpoints.

Moreover, Aviacionline reports that a naval version of the J-31/FC-31 is under development and has been designated the J-35. According to the report, the J-35 appears to be a larger J-31/FC-31, with greater fuel capacity, refined stealth shaping and the necessary equipment for carrier operations such as a tail arresting hook, folding wings and reinforced landing gear.

In a November 2022 article, Aviacionline notes that the FH-97A Loyal Wingman drone is an AI-powered unmanned stealth aircraft designed to complement the J-20 stealth fighter. Unlike other loyal wingman drones, the stealthy FH-97A has a 1,000-kilometer range with a six-hour maximum flight time, the article says.

Aviacionline says that the FH-97A is designed for air-to-air operations, noting that it has a front-mounted EOTS and internal weapons bay for six infrared air-to-air missiles. Apart from air-to-air roles, the report mentions that it can perform secondary missions such as surveillance, suppression of enemy air defenses (SEAD) and electronic warfare.

The source also says that considerations are being made to develop a carrier-based FH-97A variant featuring in-flight refuelling capability.

These developments underscore the increasing importance of aircraft carriers in China’s overall naval strategy, addressing the capability gap between “near seas defence” and “far seas protection.”

Jennifer Rice and Erik Robb note in a February 2021 article for the US Naval War College that China’s near seas defence strategy, which was first advocated in the 1980s by then-PLA-N Commander in Chief Liu Huaqing, is concerned with defending territorial sovereignty, maritime rights and interests and aims to win “informationised” local wars in the Yellow Sea, East China Sea, South China Sea and within the First Island Chain.

However, Rice and Robb note the limitations of China’s near seas defense strategy, stating that it keeps China hemmed inside the First Island Chain, needs to be revised to address US rebalancing to Asia and is not in line with China’s expanding global economic interests.

The writers say that in 2019 China expanded its naval strategy to include far seas protection, noting that China’s growing global interests such as its Maritime Silk Road (MSR) require a navy with global force projection capabilities.

In addition, they note China’s current far seas operations are in the Indian Ocean and Western Pacific, and that it is developing new operational concepts to operate in those areas. They also suggest that deploying the PLA-N on far seas deployments is essential to maintaining China’s image as a great power.

China understands the strategic value of aircraft carriers and their firepower in implementing its naval strategies. However, China’s aircraft carrier ambitions face significant challenges ahead.

As Edward Sing Yue Chan noted in a July 2022 article for The China Story, the PLA-N lacks relevant modern combat experience, with its last engagement being the 1988 Johnston Reef skirmish against Vietnam. Chan also notes that while the PLA-N has exceeded the US Navy in ship numbers, it still lags and needs to compete in terms of operational experience, technology and capability.

Chan highlights China’s geopolitical challenges, noting that it is blocked by Japan, Taiwan the Philippines, India, and the US from power projection beyond the near seas and that its territorial disputes in the East and South China Seas make regional states view its naval modernization program as a threat.