China rapidly grows air force- by ripping off other countries

A Chinese J-20 aircraft (left and a USAF F-35 Lighting II.

If there is one thing the Chinese haven’t been known for in a long time, it’s originality.

In a race to the world stage as a global superpower, The People’s Republic of China has had to make a few shortcuts- primarily in making knock-off products, which has researchers and developers in other countries footing the bill in terms of doing all the heavy lifting to create a product.

If one were to look for a prime example of such “copycat” techniques, they need not look any further than China’s air power.

While China’s Air Force is impressive, its long-standing issue with modernization forced it to cut corners, using stolen enemy technology to leapfrog ahead and often making up for inferior quality with superior numbers.

For example, the Chinese J-10 is the result of the Israelis selling information to China that was once used in a joint US-Israeli project to improve the F-16, a lightweight multi-role fighter that makes up a large part of the USAF’s Active, Reserve and Air Guard combat fleet.

According to Popular Mechanics, the Chinese were largely flying in 1960s-era aircraft prior to the 1980s, when the J-10 began entering service. The moment it left the factory and took to the sky, observers could tell that his lightweight fighter -which, like the F-16, has been upgraded multiple times over the past few decades- was an obvious copycat job.

Another obvious copy of American work is the J-20, which bears more than a passing resemblance to the plane it is supposed to shoot down, the F-22. Officially the first 5th-generation fighter in China’s inventory, the J-20 is the result of espionage by Chinese national Su Bin, who spent 46 months in federal prison for passing on F-22 data.

Fortunately for the Americans, China’s skill at ripping off other countries is only surpassed by their ability to create poor-quality clones of things they copy. The J-20 is believed to have a much larger radar signature and lower performance than the F-22, rendering all those sleek lines useless in a practical sense.

Still, with only around 200 F-22s ever built before the project was canceled and funds were tied up over the F-35 (which has its own copy in the form of the J-31), China may be able to outproduce the US in numbers of sleek new warplanes- even if we can see them from 100 miles away.

The US isn’t the only country China frequently copies- in fact, the Russians receive far more attention from the Chinese in terms of desirable product. Often cheaper to make and much easier to obtain/copy, Russia has been the source of Chinese copycatting since the beginning of the Cold War. From Type 56 clones of AK rifles to high-performance aircraft, it seems that Russia can’t even design a new product without China paying attention.

In the field of aircraft, the two most obvious copies are planes like the J-15 are direct rip-offs of the Russian Su-33, the carrier-friendly version of the Su-27.

The J-15 is what happens when a cash-strapped Ukraine (who also sold a carrier to China) parts with an Su-33 prototype in order to make a quick buck, allowing China to reverse-engineer it from the ground up.

Like the J-15, the J-11 and J-16 are in themselves copies of the Su-27, and make up a large chunk of China’s top-tier airpower. Seeing opportunity in crisis, the Chinese bought the production line from a collapsing Soviet Union, who at the time were effectively struggling to “keep the lights on” as a country.

Other aircraft -ranging from drones that look like Reaper drones and copies of Vietnam-era MiG 21s, also line China’s arsenal, making the People’s Liberation Army Air Force the most unoriginal organic air force in the world.


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