If these pictures are real, then China has flown two new types of stealth fighters in less than two years. You're looking at what's supposedly the newly unveiled Shenyang Aircraft Corporation's J-31 jet flying in the skies over China on Oct. 31.
Chinese military blogs claim these extremely grainy photos (above and below) show the jet taking a 10-minute test flight accompanied by a J-11 fighter (a reverse engineered version of the Russian Sukhoi Su-27).
The first photos of the Shenyang J-31 emerged on the Chinese Internet forums last month.
It should be noted that unlike China's first stealth jet, the Chengdu J-20, we have not seen many photos of the J-31 sitting on the ground or conducting high speed taxi runs in the lead up to a flight test. The J-20 was revealed by amateur plane spotters allowed to sit just outside the airbase where it was being tested, who took dozens, if not hundreds, of decent-quality photos of the jet. Only a few, mostly grainy, photos of the J-31 have emerged so far.
Some speculate that the J-31 could play the role of a light strike or carrier-based fighter to compliment the much larger J-20, which is speculated to be either a high-speed interceptor like the Soviet MiG-25 Foxbat or a stealthy tactical bomber designed to take out enemy bases and ships.
Earlier this year, the Internet was rife with speculation that China would unveil a new stealth fighter after photos appeared online showing a mystery jet covered in a tarp being transported on China's highways. The silhouette of the mystery plane roughly matched the contours of a model jet -- strongly resembling the U.S.-made F-22 Raptor and F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) -- that Shenyang Aircraft Corporation displayed at an air show several years ago. That model appears to have evolved into the J-31.
While there is no proof that China's latest stealth fighter stole design specifications from American stealth fighter projects, the rear portions of aircraft blatantly copy the design of Lockheed Martin's F-22 while forward sections of the jet look an awful lot like an F-35. Keep in mind that the F-35 program suffered a large cyber intrusion several years ago where loads of data about the aircraft were stolen from the contractors working on it -- an incident that may have contributed to redesigns that have helped drive up costs and delay the fielding of the F-35. (In September, a senior JSF official revealed that the jet's computer-based maintenance system that will contain a host of critical data about the plane needed to be revised to prevent it from being hacked by spies.)
Still, as Killer Apps has pointed out before, having a stealthy shape does not mean the Chinese planes are truly stealth jets. Modern stealth aircraft feature new radar absorbent coatings, along with technology that masks their heat signatures and electronics that cannot be detected when in use. Don't forget, China has yet to master the development of high-performance jet engines, leaving its military largely reliant on Russian engines, for now. It remains to be seen just what capabilities China's new crop of stealth jets will feature.
John Reed reports on the frontiers of cyber war and the latest in military technology for Killer Apps.