Did China steal US F-35 fighter jet design to make J-20, FC-31?
China has long been accused of stealing US defence technology and its weaponry is derided as “copycats” of US equivalents, but the allegation rarely extends beyond superficial supposition.
J-20 is China's answer to US F-22 Raptor and F-35
Chengdu Aerospace Corporation’s J-20 “Weilong” is China’s answer to the United States' fifth-generation stealth aircraft, the F-22 Raptor and F-35 Lightning II.
While the planes are comparable in many ways, their superficial similarity is often judged by defense commentators as proof that Chinese engineers stole the design from Lockheed Martin.
J-20 origins under lens
As J-20s begin to fill squadrons in the People’s Liberation Army and a generalized fear of Chinese firms as dishonest international players is increasingly propagated by Western powers, the attacks on the J-20s origins have only increased.
'Beijing has long stolen foreign technology'
On Saturday, the foreign policy publication "The National Interest" published a piece forwarding the idea once more, reviving a Task & Purpose article from August 2018 and calling it “an outrage,” stating unequivocally the “key point” was that “Beijing has long stolen foreign technology and used it to reverse-engineer its own weapons.”
Harbin’s Z-20 helicopter: Copyhawk
Similar allegations have been made against Harbin’s Z-20 helicopter, derided as a “copyhawk” ripoff of the UH-60 Black Hawk chopper it will replace.
As Sputnik reported, this is also a superficial judgment, as the helicopter differs significantly from Sikorsky’s in its engines, fly-by-wire controls, avionics and other features.
Likewise, Shenyang’s “Sharp Sword” carrier-based drone is said to be a stolen design from Boeing since the Chinese UAV and Boeing’s MQ-25 Stingray both utilize a flying wing shape and fly from carriers.
So what’s the big proof that the J-20 “is the F-35”? Well for one, the J-20 sports a sensor system that “looks awfully similar” to the F-35’s Electro-Optical Targeting System (EOTS) sensor.
What’s that similarity? Well, as Task & Purpose is forced to concede, the two systems “are not identical,” but they are both mounted in similar places under the nose of the aircraft.
That’s different from Russia’s Su-57, in which Sukhoi put an infrared tracking system on the top of instead of underneath the nose.
'Mimic' the F-35
All in all, T&P’s report is measured in its suspicion. By the time this story got to Asia Times, though, the similarities became “striking,” and the stealthy curves don’t just resemble, they “mimic” the F-35.
Fueling the allegations are that in 2007 and again in 2017, Chinese hackers were implicated in the theft of technical documents relating to the F-35 program in the US and Australia.
However, with the J-20 flying for the first time in 2011 and the FC-31 in 2012, the claim that these hacks could’ve been used to affect the design of either jet is shaky at best.
Further, there’s no specific reason to assume that Chinese hackers, whether they were private or state-backed, aimed to supplement Chinese aircraft design.
Just as likely are the possibilities that either the hackers wanted intelligence on US jet capabilities, or even simply to sell the information for a profit.
Superficial similarities between aircraft are as old as the flying machines themselves, making identifying the decade in which a jet was designed a fairly easy task in most cases.
Planes built today don’t look like postwar jets, even though in some cases those planes themselves remain in service.
Shenyang J-15 heavily based on Sukhoi Su-33 prototype
That’s not to say Beijing hasn’t reverse-engineered a plane before, though: Shenyang’s J-15 is heavily based on a Sukhoi Su-33 prototype bought from Ukraine, the T-10K-3, itself a version of the Su-27 modified for carrier use. The J-15 fills the same role for the PLA Navy today.
However, this is an example of legal technology transfer, which the white paper acknowledges is incredibly important to the Chinese economy and highly encouraged.