China's new stealth fighter soars, but is it a threat?

New photos and exclusive footage of the mysterious J-31's test flight shows that China may have made a "huge leap" in military capability.

It lasted less than 11 minutes, but the mysterious J-31 stealth fighter's maiden flight on Wednesday nonetheless looked to be an impressive demonstration of how close the Chinese military has come to building a truly formidable air force.

A series of photos and exclusive footage show the pitch-black aircraft nicknamed " Falcon Eagle " circling above Shenyang Aircraft Company airfield in northeastern China, with its landing gear down, shortly before coming in for a landing. Afterward, Chinese officials declared the test a success, yet another sign that engineers are on a rapid pace towards delivering an aircraft capable of going toe-to-toe with supreme fighter jets such as the U.S. Air Force's F-35 and the F-22 Raptor.

The fifth generation prototype, initially spotted as recently as September, is slightly smaller than China's first stealth model, the J-20 "Mighty Dragon," which itself has already undergone a re-design in a span of less than two years. To give you an idea of the kind of astonishing strides the military has made in a relatively short period of time, the People's Republic stealth program is now right behind the U.S., which has three versions of the F-35 in development. Meanwhile, Russia is still working on the Sukhoi T-50 warplane and Japan has yet to assemble its F-3 combat prototype.

Yet despite the latest developments, some aviation experts suspect that China is still a long ways off from putting out a battle-ready fleet. The AFP reports:

The J-31 appears to be more mobile than the J-20, with its landing gear suggesting it is designed to be launched from an aircraft carrier, military expert Andrei Chang told AFP.

He said the J-31 appeared similar to the latest "fifth" generation of U.S.-designed stealth fighters, but with a less powerful engine and a lower proportion of sophisticated radar-blocking composite materials.

"In terms of design it appears the J-31 is inferior to the latest U.S. planes," said Chang, head of the Kanwa Information Centre which monitors China's military.

"The layout is similar, but the material and quality are inferior."

Test-flying a working prototype is one thing, but breaking through with a production-ready fighter jet equipped with superior radar-eluding abilities and close-range combat maneuverability is going to be the real challenge. For instance, Wired's Danger Room reported that the J-31 looks to be relying on an underpowered Klimov RD-93 twin engine system supplied to them by the Russians. By resorting to an insufficient, 70's era technology, not only is combat performance compromised, but safety as well. And Chinese officials, reportedly fully aware of such deficiencies, are planning to invest $1.5 billion into developing an equivalent to the F-22's powerful F119 engine, called the WS-15.

Realistically speaking, experts estimate that a production model won't be ready for at least another decade.

It also isn't clear whether the two prototypes, built by separate firms, are competing designs or are concurrent efforts to bolster the nation's defense program, though Greg Waldron of Flightglobal magazine in Singapore believes it's more likely that both will have a role in military operations. The smaller and nimbler J-31 appeared intended for a fighter-interceptor role similar to the U.S. Joint Strike Fighter, while the heavier J-20 would target airfields, warships and other ground targets, he told the Associated Press.

For now, though, the prototypes probably won't have much of a role beyond boosting a nation's confidence.

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