Unverified Photo Reportedly Shows China's Stealth Fighter Rival to American F-35

Images purportedly showing China's new stealth fighter jet have appeared on social media, and though unverified, may offer the best look to date at the plane Beijing hopes will go toe-to-toe with America's F-35 aircraft.

The South China Morning Post reported Monday that a photo of the FC-31 Gyrfalcon—built by the state-backed Shenyang Aircraft Corporation—was uploaded to Chinese social media site Weibo, purportedly from a recent test flight. The photo could not be immediately verified.

The FC-31 is China's second fifth-generation aircraft, following the Chengdu J-20. It first flew in October 2012. Reports from China have suggested the FC-31 could be used as China's go-to ship-borne fighter for its aircraft carriers, several of which are currently under production.

Earlier prototypes showed an airspeed measurement device on the nose of the stealth fighter, but this appears to be missing from the latest version. This might indicate the jet now has fitted avionics, the Post noted. The newspaper also said the canopy over the FC-31's cockpit now appears more similar to the J-20, plus changes to improve the jet's wind resistance.

But the FC-31 still appears to be fitted with WS-13 twin turbofan engines, as with previous prototypes. Based on a 1970s Soviet design, this could be a limitation that means the FC-31 is not yet at the same level as the American F-35; widely considered the leading fifth-generation fighter.

The FC-31 has appeared at multiple air shows since its maiden 2012 flight, but the Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC) is yet to receive any offers for the aircraft. The Chinese air force has also not yet placed any FC-31 orders.

AVIC is reportedly hoping that the FC-31 will be a good fit for China's new aircraft carriers, which will launch planes with a catapult launch system rather than the ski jump take off system on its two existing carriers; the Liaoning and the Shandong.

The FC-31 is smaller and lighter than the J-20, making it better suited for naval operations. Catapult launch systems require a more advanced fighters than the Chinese J-15, currently the only naval-dedicated fighter in service.

AVIC has said it hopes to begin testing a new aircraft—reportedly a naval-oriented version of the FC-31—next year.

AVIC has designed the FC-31 to match up with the F-35, and its key specifications are largely similar. The FC-31 has a top take-off weight of 27 tons, a combat range of 746 miles, and a top speed of Mach 1.8, or 1,370 miles per hour.

The F-35 has a maximum take-off weight of 29 to 35 tons, range of 1,367 miles, and a top speed of Mach 1.6, or around 1,227 miles per hour. The FC-31 can be armed with almost 9 tons of weapons, compared with anywhere between 7.4 and 9 tons for the F-35.

China, fighter jet, F-35, FC-31, J-20
This file photo shows China's J-20 jet at the Zhuhai Air Show in Zhuhai, Guangdong on November 1, 2016. STR/AFP via Getty Images/Getty