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28 Aug, 2019 20:18

Bolton says China stole F-35 because their jet ‘looks like it’ – are plane-snatchers everywhere?

Bolton says China stole F-35 because their jet ‘looks like it’ – are plane-snatchers everywhere?

US National Security Advisor John Bolton accused China of “stealing” plans for the F-35 fighter, claiming the newest Chinese aircraft looks exactly the same. But if looks are to be judged, Beijing is, by far, not the only culprit.

“The fifth-generation Chinese fighter aircraft looks a lot like the F-35, that's because it is the F-35, they just stole it,” Bolton said during a press conference in Kiev on Wednesday.

He did not specify which Chinese aircraft he had in mind – but it would take a lot of squinting for anyone looking at the J-20, the only Chinese 5th-gen fighter in service, to say it looks like the F-35. It’s significantly larger, has two engines instead of one, features prominent nose canards, etc. Basically, the only thing the two have in common is that the machines are modern stealth fighter jets.

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Bolton could have been showing a deeper knowledge of the Chinese aircraft industry and had the Shenyang FC-31 fighter in mind.


This one does look similar to the F-35. However, only a couple of prototypes have been built over the past decade, and they've barely ever been seen flying. According to media reports, the plane is riddled with technical issues – which suddenly makes the likeness to the American jet both more evident and more ironic.

Catch them all?

For years, China has been the US’ prime target for accusations of technological espionage – including in regard to the F-35. Still, Bolton should probably look out for others plotting to ‘snatch’ the precious jet from America. A whole lot of recently unveiled plane prototypes are suspiciously similar to the machine – in looks, anyway, if that's what counts to the national advisor.

Many actually belong to Washington’s allies. The mockup of the British BAE Systems Tempest 6th-gen fighter – expected to be operational in the mid-2030s – looks exactly the same as an F-35.


Other Europeans are out for a slice of the jet pie too. The New Generation Fighter project, pompously unveiled by France and Germany this June, has strikingly similar features as well.


Turkey is also a prime suspect with its TAI TF-X (Turkish Fighter – Experimental) project.


Seriously though, the very concept of stealth – i.e. making an aircraft less visible to radars – demands certain airframe shapes, and might thus be pushing plane designers into a somewhat similar direction – and basing accusations of industrial espionage on aircraft looks is at least questionable. Moreover, modern aircraft are all about their internal systems, not their airframes – those have mostly settled into a uniform set of features decades ago – like having a cockpit, wings, jet intakes and engines.

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