China has rapidly emerged as a formidable global military power, boasting a vast and sophisticated arsenal that includes advanced weaponry, naval capabilities, and a burgeoning space program. While the Chinese military’s prowess is undeniable, a significant proportion of its technological advancements has faced persistent allegations of being reverse-engineered from US, NATO and other countries’ equipment. This controversial aspect of China’s military development has raised undeniable concerns about intellectual property rights, innovation, and the extent to which the country relies on unlicensed and stolen technology from other nations. The debate surrounding the origins of China’s military capabilities underscores the complex dynamics of geopolitical competition and technological rivalry in the 21st century, adding an additional layer of scrutiny to China’s ascendance on the global stage.
So let’s see what the weapon systems/equipment of China are which do come with decent/powerful military specifications and are considered as gamechangers in the Chinese military arsenal yet hold the stamp of reverse-engineered accusations in the background.
Faster at Stealing Technology
On 27 March, 1999, a United States Air Force Lockheed Martin F117 ‘Nighthawk’, world’s first stealth aircraft was shot down in the NATO raid of Yugoslavia during Operation Noble Anvil. The wreckage was reportedly sent to China to study its shape and stealth materials. On May 7, 1999, USAF bombed the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade amid rumours that Washington got hold of their intentions to steal the F117 technology. Soon after the Kosovo war, an exact replica of the F117 was observed at one of China’s radar development establishments.
A similar replica of the F22 Raptor was observed in China at the Neifu Pucheng airport. In the US raid in Abbottabad, Pakistan that killed Osama bin Laden, the country had used two semi-stealth modded Sikorsky UH-60 ‘Black Hawk’ helicopters, a thing was pretty much non-existent before that day, and unfortunately one of those crashlanded in Laden’s base despite 100% mission success.
Allegedly Pakistan provided access to China to study the remains of the stealth modded Black Hawk chopper of the Navy SEALs which later was believed to have been exploited for reverse engineering that later gave birth to the almost similar Harbin Z-20, the Chinese medium-lift utility helicopter.
Chengdu J-20 ‘Mighty Dragon’
Let’s start with the best one, the hottest and most trendy item in the Chinese arsenal – the talk of the town which can rival the F-22, China’s indigenous 5th-generation fighter jet, the J-20, produced by the Chengdu Aerospace Corporation. Since its introduction to the world, from the average defense enthusiast’s online communities to the geopolitical stage, there have been tons of comments and deductions from various defense analysts about how this jet is more of an F-22-F-35 ripoff. Judging how this jet actually looks like a mixup of the two US fighters, this situation was called for.
But even Russia joined this game of accusations as government officials said that the J-20 has copied developments from their MFI/MIG 1.44 project. Dmitry Drozdenko, deputy editor of the Russian military publication “Arsenal of the Fatherland,” told Sputnik that the J-20 “is based” on the ill-fated MiG 1.44: “In my opinion, the machine is based on the Russian MiG 1.44. That plane was created to compete with the PAK FA at the preliminary design stage, and made its maiden flight in 2000.
The Chinese plane is very similar. Although it hasn’t been announced officially, the J-20 uses our AL-31F engine, developed by Salut, which the Chinese bought for half a billion dollars.” Canards weren’t a new thing in jets but he went to mention how the J-20 canards were distinctly similar to the MIG 1.44’s canard design and implementation. Russian Air Force’s Test pilot Mehmet Torboyev, said in an official media interview, “All China’s aviation technology originated from the Soviet Union, and none of the J-20 fighter jets were developed by them themselves.”
In a 2011 Thomson Reuters interview of an undisclosed Russia military personality, he quoted, “It looks like they got access…to documents relating to the Mikoyan – the aircraft that the Ministry of Defense skipped over in its tender to create a stealth fighter.” In yet another interview of a Russian defense analyst, Adil Mukashev by Reuters in 2011, he said, “China bought the technology for parts including the tail of the Mikoyan, for money”. While information regarding this is not open-source throughout the internet, China buying these parts for R&D might be true as Mikoyan then was in a dire financial state as due to their imminent rejection from the MFI project and Sukhoi coming as the frontrunner for the PAK FA (Su-57) programme for their own 5th gen fighter jet.
Russia’s state owned media outlets openly slandered China for allegedly visible copied designs. Russia’s top brass ministry haven’t commented on this but the same country which has been a very helpful ally of China providing numerous jets, SAMs etc. behaving in this way was really uncalled for. Coming to the US counterpart, J-20 has brutal resemblance from F-22 in the fuselage and frontal sections and F-35 in engine intakes. A major ‘credit’ goes to the Su-Bin hack incident (coming later) which led China gain access to multiple classified documents and blueprints from Boeing and Lockheed Martin.
Shenyang FC-31 ‘Gyrfalcon’
The FC-31 is the about-to-be 2nd 5th-gen stealth fighter jet of China, manufactured by Shenyang Aerospace Corporation. Unlike the J-20’s dominance which already has 200+ operational units, the Gyrfalcon is still in the advanced prototype stage and has brought to itself immense criticism due to its distinctly similar design to the F-35, especially the F-35B variant, since both the planes are meant for naval operations. Apart from the fact that F-35 is a single-engine fighter, this twin-engine jet has all other alarmingly similar visual features with the Lightning-II.
From a story in 2013, much before its official debut, the People’s Daily Online, a Chinese govt. media outlet had cited that their upcoming FC-31/J-31 was using the same Diverterless Supersonic Inlet (DSI) and very similar air intake mechanism the F-35 was using. It also has a very similar front opening canopy configuration and shape. The upper part of the fuselage is merged with the rear part of the canopy and also is likely to feature similar cockpit configuration according to defense analysts.
The Gyrfalcon is still an entity in the shadows as nothing of the data available as of now can be labelled as truth or false since it is still in an advanced prototype stage and all we can deduce is the fact that visually it looks like a copy of the F-35 and the jet is also being meant for the similar naval warfare roles.
Xian Y-20 ‘Kunpeng’
China became only the fourth country in the world to indigenously build a >200-ton military heavy airlifter after US, UKraine and Russia, after the debut of the Xian Y-20 ‘Kunpeng’ in 2013. And this one has gained massive flak about how coincidentally similar it looks and has got those shapes yet underperforms to those statistics of the Boeing C-17 Globemaster-III. It has a maximum takeoff weight of 220,000 kilograms and has a range of 7800 km. It can carry upto 2 Type-15 tanks or a single ZTZ-99 (Type-99), the largest tank in the Chinese arsenal. China boasts that it is the first aircraft to have undergone 3D printing.
The Y-20 is a downgrade to the C-17’s empty takeoff, maximum takeoff, range and flight ceiling but visibly has a very equivalent shape and size with 20ft. decrease in length and 5ft in wingspan. The C17 is a definitive example of heavy airlifters able to do Short Takeoff and Landing (STOL). Chinese media also claims that it can perform the same but in reality it might not be that efficient because of its underperforming engines. Staying on its influence’s path, the Y-20 has also been into a tanker variant capable of upto holding 90 tons of fuel,, similar to the Russian Ilyushin Il-78.
There have been allegations on how distinctly lookalike its cargo and tail section seems to the C-17. And yes, the Su-Bin incident (coming later) has got proven grounds that China had stolen designs and other classified technical documents from Boeing (C17’s manufacturer). In a series of cyber-espionage events, C-17 files had one of the most badly hit hacks and an estimated 630,000 classified files related to the C-17 had been passed on to Xian Aircraft Industrial Corporation.
It is still a debate of how much of those data had been illicitly used in the development of the equipment and China has consistently denied these allegations of stealing technological data, but apparently the Y-20 has become a C-17 knockoff, at least on the exterior part.
China currently operates the CASC Rainbow series of UAVs among which the more recent CH-4/5/6/7 are of particular interest. Although there are no leak/hack confirmations or alleged official claims regarding drone technology theft, the coincidental similarity still reigns the shadow of doubt. The CASC CaiHong drones especially the CH4 and CH5 look unmistakably like the MQ-9 Reapers of USA. Moreover the nose mounted cameras, the weapons pylon configuration and the V-tail shape all are identical.
In addition to the same nose and tail config and the streamline shape, both also have 66 ft. wingspan. The CH7 is a stealth UCAV which looks similar to the US’ experimental X-47B made by Northrop Grumman as they are equal in shape with Chinese one being a metre short in length and two metres short in wingspan. However Chinese drone pain is a lot worse. Be it theft or not, despite looking like the MQ-Reapers, Chinese UAVs fall way short in endurance, remote warfare capability, weapons payload, jamming capabilities and obviously engines.
Its a small business advantage due to the fact that Chinese drones have made quite a name in export sector with countries like Pakistan, Nigeria, Congo, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, UAE, Myanmar etc. have got the CH3 and CH4 drones for themselves. Unlike the other mentioned countries, Saudi Arabia have been actually put to test with their drones to the still-ongoing conflict with the Iran-backed Yemeni Houthi forces and they sure are making these Chinese drones sweat.
Three confirmed shoot downs of CH4 in 2018, one in 2019 and another 6 in 2020-21 and who knows maybe more due to the obvious information war that goes on during any battle – Saudi has already lost millions of Chinese Reaper knockoffs.
The KJ-600 is a twin-turbopropeller Airborne Early Warning & Control System (AEW&CS) platform of China, made by Xian Aircraft Industrial Corporation. And once again it looks like an equivalent American platform. This time the prey is Northrop Grumman’s E-2 Hawkeye, US Navy’s carrier-capable AEW&CS platform. The KJ-600 also serves the same role or at least it’s meant to be as a couple of prototypes have been built and have been pictured on their latest Type 003 Fujian aircraft carrier, and moreover they look same shaped and almost same sizes with fractional differences in the wingspan, length and height dimensions.
China has lacked aerial jammers in their navy for a long time and if the specs that they are telling about the KJ proves right, then it would come as a massive maritime surveillance and jamming capability boost in PLAN. While official data tells it is still in prototype stage, there have been pictures wandering around of these jamming platforms and no one is certain about the number of prototypes actually built given China’s fast production rate or if the country has built any operational aircraft. Since Shandong and Liaoning are STOBAR aircraft carriers with ski-jumps, the KJ-600 won’t be able to operate from this and currently will be limited to the Fujian only.
Chengdu J-10 ‘Vigorous Dragon’
Designed and manufactured by the Chengdu Aircraft Industry Group, the J10 is considered as the backbone of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force as there are more than 600 of these single-engine, canard-delta wing, multirole jets standing combat ready. But there has been some disputed origins of this jet whether China indigenously developed it totally or it has been stolen from design documents of the Lockheed Martin F-16 and Israel’s IAI Lavi.
The Lavi was a planned-but-cancelled fourth generation multirole fighter jet programme for Israel and the aircraft comes in this question due to the striking resemblance of the forward fuselage and air intake, a very unique design which was only present in the F-16 and the IAI prototype. Although the frontal part of this jet looks similar to them, Israel had denied a Sunday Times report that China and Israel were working together to make such jet, as did J-10’s lead designer Song Wencong who mentioned that J-10’s main inspiration was the previous Chengdu J-9.
Changze Z-10 ‘Fierce Thunderbolt’
The Changze Z10 is a medium attack helicopter for the People’s Liberation Army Ground Forces primarily meant for anti-tank missions and ground support, and this one takes the cake. Multiple companies have been officially/illicitly involved for truly developing this attack helo amidst various data breaches as this platform looks criminally similar to the US’ AH-64 Apache. Its initial phase began with the cooperation with Russia as designers of Kamov had joined for the project, but the agreement shortly fell through due to unconfirmed disagreements. According to official news, even this early-stage Kamov-tie-up was shrouded in secrecy and nothing concrete developments during this tenure have been particularly deduced. After that China increased its priority status to remove dependency from its Z11 and Z9 utility helicopters while there had also been reports that the project had been wrongly marketed as civilian/private helos. Due to this China was officially able to attract American and European powerhouse companies to assist in its development.
The rotor systems had been consulted from Airbus’ Eurocopter division and transmission systems were made with the help of Augusta Westland. Moreover in a blatantly illegal manner to extend profits, Pratt and Whitney’s Canada segment along with United Technologies Corporation transferred sensitive details of some American classified documents and military integration software related data, and both the companies were proven guilty with a fine of $75 million and $55 million respectively (2012). But the damage had been already done as the whole project’s valuation rose to 4 billion Yuan and probably became the biggest example of China’s military history where this number of American and Western companies were in direct contact for a platform development.
Before these class-action lawsuits actually came to definitive conclusions, China had already built a decent number of Z10s powered with the Pratt and Whitney PT6 turboshaft engine. And this story doesn’t end here. In 2013, pictures had surfaced online of an intact AH-64D Apache getting carried in an open-top trailer in China. The picture drew military enthusiasts into deduction of various theories but according to several defense analysts, the most reasonable would be that either it was an illegally exported Apache from the three dozen downed in the Iraq War.
Mystery still lingers but it is a fact that China got themselves the hands-on-experience on operating the best attack helicopter of the world. Later it had been revealed that China was already reverse engineered the Bushmaster M242 cannon (the one used by Apache) along with cockpit very similar to Honeywell’s M142 Integrated Helmet and Display Sighting System (IHADSS) used on the AH-64 Apache.
Secret Strain between China and Russia?
Russia and China are apparently very good allies at least in terms of the Communist government and the sheer number of military platforms they have in common across jets, missile systems etc. But is this the truth to the heart or getting rotten at the core? A lot of Chinese weapons and weapon platforms have either been licensed or reverse-engineered from Russian prototype buyouts. For example, take Russia’s Su-33, their carrier-based air superiority fighter and Ukraine happened to have a few of these.
China in search of their development for carrier based fighter, purchased an unfinished Su-33 prototype from Ukraine in 2001 and immediately afterwards, extensive study of the airframes and components started along with the commencement of J-15 ‘Flying Shark’ programme, which is now China’s current 4th gen multirole carrier based fighter jet. Irrespective of the faulty engines and lacking off aerial refuelling, the fact that China is actively engaged in this game is saddening, and furthermore, Russia has knowingly accepted this reality.
Another incident is the reverse engineering of the S300 surface-to-air missile defense system. While China was an initial customer for the S300 variants, they moved on to S400 orders while started engaging in the development of their own derivatives known as the HQ-9 and HQ-15, all of which are very similar visually and statistically.
While all of these are known officially, these might be the tip of the iceberg as it seems now that Russia is losing patience. Both India and China are now buyers of the latest S400 SAMs of Russia but unlike the promise received by India, Russia had suspended the S400 supply to China after 2020. Although the COVID outbreak had been listed as the primary reason for these decisions, the true story might run deeper. In February 2020, Valery Mitko, a leading Russian scientist was arrested on charges of allegedly passing classified details to China regarding submarine-detecting technology.
Meanwhile, JSC Rosoboronexport, Russia’s sole state agency for military import/export matters have become furious on China smashing their ethics limits. Since 2019, JSC took the path of openly criticizing China of their reverse engineering and stealing actions. According to Yevgeny Livadny, the Chief of Intellectual Property Projects at JSC, there have been more than 500 severe data breaches and unauthorized copying of Russian weapons by China in the last 17 years including Russia’s engines, deck platforms, Sukhoi’s proprietary data and air defense systems.
Rosoborontexport has now further declared the creation of a consulting group for the protection of intellectual property rights within the framework of military-technical cooperation with other countries which would incorporate officials from the Defense Ministry, federal service for military-technical cooperation, Rostec and Rosatom.
The Su Bin Case
Su Bin, a Chinese businessman and aviation expert, was involved in a high-profile espionage case related to cyber-attacks on United States defense contractors. The events unfolded in 2014, and Su Bin was accused of conspiring with Chinese military hackers to steal sensitive information about U.S. military aircraft and weapons systems. Su Bin was accused of collaborating with Chinese military hackers to infiltrate the computer networks of several U.S. defense contractors, including Boeing. The hackers targeted information related to military aircraft and weapons systems. The stolen data was believed to include details about the F-22 and F-35 fighter jets and the C17 Globemaster III, among other sensitive military technologies.
According to the FBI, he had already spent several years stealing data from Boeing. According to a Boeing spokeswoman, Boeing was first breached in January 2010, and according to emails obtained by the FBI, more than 65 gigabytes of data was stolen over the next two years. The primary focus was Boeing’s C-17 military cargo plane. The documents also indicate that the three men stole a comparatively small amount of information related to Lockheed Martin’s F-22 and F-35 jets. The cyber-attacks involved the use of targeted phishing emails to gain unauthorized access to the computer systems of the defense contractors. Once inside, the hackers sought to exfiltrate valuable information.
He was arrested in Canada in 2014 at the request of U.S. authorities and In July 2016, he agreed to be extradited to the United States to face charges related to the cyber-espionage activities. In 2016, Su Bin pleaded guilty to conspiring with Chinese military hackers to steal sensitive military information. His guilty plea was part of a plea agreement with U.S. prosecutors. The plea deal included cooperation with the authorities and potential assistance in ongoing investigations. The exact details of the plea agreement and any subsequent cooperation with U.S. authorities might not be publicly disclosed due to the sensitive nature of the case.
All things eliminated, it is really a commendable development of how rapidly China has grown to be nuclear superpower of global concern. A rapidly growing navy with the 2nd position in aircraft carriers, 5th generation stealth fighters already crossing the double century mark, largest standing army, and a very fast growing arsenal of conventional and hypersonic missiles – the nation deserves a considerable part of credit, especially the manufacturing industry. But to win a war with your entire inventory standing strong, that requires a different breed of game strategy and China’s sheer leading numbers won’t be able to hold the roots in case of actual emergency for long.
China has a massive quality control issue. Having expertise in one-time manufacturing and consistently making those parts while keeping room for upgrades are two different things and China doesn’t have experience in the latter. That’s the reason Chinese arms exports are going down. Chinese rifles absolutely suck. The nation’s unique bullet standards have made it an odd one out among the conventional 5.56 and 7.62 rounds and moreover there have been many videos of how horribly underperforming are these arms. While the quality issue is better in the Navy and Air Force segments due to the obvious greater investments, researchers are still not convinced. Drones are falling like flies. There haven’t been much buyers of missile systems. Jets are finding it tough to make money. Hardly two people in a platoon have access to rifle optics. Their soldiers are getting punched across LAC. And obviously the engines.
A nation mastering the art of stealing reverse engineering everything to the point of having 2 different 5th gen ‘stealth fighter jets’ in a decade yet struggle to make a decent engine running. Every Chinese weapon or weapon platform are either running on licensed/unlicensed/reverse-engineered Russian engines or those are their own variant. Blade overheating, underachieved thrust, worsening supply chain infrastructure are among the worse bullet points of Chinese engine industry. And there’s a lack of proven companies and skilled expertise who can actually build up a stunning engine model up from scratch to make it worthy of being in a 5th gen jet. China has lacked his ability for decades and unless it is fixed on a priority basis, China will keep losing in the game of service ceiling, thrust, manoeuvrability, dogfighting etc. This very fact will almost make the J10 dusted away by India’s Tejas and its GE F414.