A new fighter plane built by China is drawing more snickers than raves from aviation experts, and the People's Army is now saying the jet was really ticketed for export all along.
The J-31 "Falcon Hawk," likely designed by reverse-engineering a downed U.S. stealth fighter, was supposed “to become China’s next generation of carrier-based aircraft” and take its place next to the U.S.-made F-35 Lightning II as the gold standard in air force weaponry, according to a report last month in People’s Daily. But now it looks like China, which has exactly one aircraft carrier, has scaled back the hype and will peddle the aircraft to second-tier air forces like Brazil, Pakistan and some Middle East countries.
“It’s probably likely that the technology was not originally created for export but built for their own use and it did not work out too well,” Stephen Biddle, a political science professor at George Washington University and senior defense policy fellow at the Council for Foreign Relations told FoxNews.com.
Even the Chinese press has been critical of the jets manufactured by the country, with Bejing-based Sina Military Network calling another fighter, the J-15, a “flopping fish,” and claiming that the plane could not take off from a carrier with heavy ammunitions which could cripple its attack range as well as firepower.
Aviation experts say that based on the limited information publicly available of the J-31, it appears to be little more than a cheap copy of an American fighter jet.
"The J-31 is sort of a copy of the F-22, the most advanced (and troubled), U.S. multi-role fighter jet," David Cenciotti, a former pilot for the Italian Air Force who blogs at theaviationist.com, told FoxNews.com. "Same nose section, same twin tails and trapezoidal wings along with the distinctive lines of the stealth design."
But Cenciotti said the aircraft doesn’t appear to have thrust vectoring capabilities that give fighter planes superior maneuverability. He suspects it was based on American warplanes, and not just the F-117 stealth jet downed in 1999 by a Serbian anti-aircraft missile.
"Considering all the cyber attacks targeting Lockheed Martin stealth projects in the last years, one could believe Chinese hackers were able to put their hands on some useful technical drawings of the Raptor or F-35," he said.
No amount of espionage or copying of U.S. technology can duplicate American air power, according to Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Il.) an Air Force veteran who still serves as a pilot in the Air National Guard.
“America has always produced and flown the top aviation machines in the world," Kinzinger told FoxNews.com. "While China’s claims about the capabilities of the J-31 have raised some eyebrows, consider me a skeptic until I see the proof.”
James Hardy, Asia-Pacific Editor of Jane’s Defence Weekly, said there is no way to compare the J-31 to other fighter planes, given the secrecy still surrounding it.
“Because we have only limited data on the J-31, it impossible to say whether it is inferior to the F-35,” Hardy said. "Qualitatively there's no way to compare unless we know its fire-control radar, subsystems, avionics, and what it is made of. Its planform [silhouette] certainly makes it look like a fifth generation fighter, but what materials it is made of and all kinds of other questions mean judging its radar cross section - and so its stealthiness - is hard to do.”
Hardy adds that lack of strong information about the fighter --and the fact that it is going straight to export--might make it a hard sell on the international market.
“One key point is that if the People's Liberation Army air forces aren’t going to field it, that might deter other countries," he said. "The thinking may go: if it's not good enough for China, why should we buy it?”
Perry Chiaramonte is a reporter for FoxNews.com. Follow him on Twitter at @perrych