Ed Timperlake on the Chinese J-31


2014-11-17 A recent article by Wendell Minnck of Defense News focused on the entrance of the J-31 as seen over the skies of Airshow China in Zhuhai last week.

As Minnck noted:

The J-31 export revelation occurred in the AVIC Exhibition Hall after personnel unwrapped its 1:2 model of the aircraft during the preshow media tour. The placard for the model said “FC-31.” Chinese fighters are designated with a “J” for fighter and “FC” for export.

This was the first time the J-31 has been referred to as the FC-31.

Larry Wortzel, a commissioner of the US congressionally appointed US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, said the first public demonstration flight of the J-31 and the unveiling of the FC-31 coincides with the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in Beijing and the visit of US President Obama.

It reminded Wortzel of the same greeting that former US Defense Secretary Robert Gates got with the surprise first flight of the CAC-built J-20 stealth fighter during his visit to China in January 2011. The incident was interpreted by many in Washington as a political signal to the US delegation, though Chinese officials denied there was a connection. Regarding the coincidence of Obama’s visit to China and the appearance of the J-31 at Zhuhai, Wortzel said, “at least this time there is some advance notice.”

Export Ambitions: A Chinese J-31 stealth fighter performs at the Airshow China 2014 in Zhuhai on Nov. 11. (JOHANNES EISELE/ / AFP/Getty Images)
Export Ambitions: A Chinese J-31 stealth fighter performs at the Airshow China 2014 in Zhuhai on Nov. 11. (JOHANNES EISELE/ / AFP/Getty Images)

Second Line of Defense’s Ed Timperlake was quoted with regard to the J-31 considered as an advanced fighter.

“Chinese officials have not explained the J-31’s striking resemblance to the F-35, but espionage is the most likely explanation.”

“I have argued you always get a double bounce from [Chinese] espionage — they get the system for the [military] and also sell it,” said Edward Timperlake, former Pentagon director of technology assessment, international technology security. “The bad news/ good news is if the collectors [aka spies] were successful in getting the F-35, hopefully they did it mid-software design, so they really do not have the logic of the software as the US constantly improves the coding — much like successfully stealing a calculus midterm without being present in class — being proud of an A and then failing to steal the final…..”

The physical resemblance between the J-31 and the F-35 — despite the difference in relative size — indicates an effort by China to reproduce the F-35s stealthy external design, Timperlake said.

“If it is a success in being physically stealthy and they build a lot it could be a problem” for our allies in the region, he said.

However, stealth is simply a survivability feature and analysts must learn more about the internal systems. The real combat engagement operational and tactical question is the F-35 fusion cockpit and whether the Chinese actually have anything close to it, Timperlake said.

“Fusion will make all the difference in looking at the J-31 as a real competitor or just a linear generational development aircraft with perhaps enhanced survivability that will still need a hub spoke battle management [concept of operations] — [airborne warning and control system] or [ground-controlled interception] being essential for them,” he said.