Money Pit

06.05.15 9:15 AM ET

Go Ahead, China—Copy Our Crappiest Warplane

Desperate to project power in the South China Sea, Beijing is working on a hovering “jump jet” that looks a lot like the Pentagon’s F-35B. But this bit of espionage will cost them.

China’s been introducing new high-tech weapons at a breakneck pace as it races to catch up to the U.S. military. And the tanks, ships, planes, and other hardware that Beijing can’t invent on its own, it tends to copy from American, Russian, European, or Israeli designs.

Sometimes by legally licensing them. Sometimes by acquiring a few examples on the black market and reverse-engineering them. Frequently by hacking foreign companies’ or governments’ servers and stealing blueprints.

Which is probably why China’s J-10 warplane looks a lot like Israel’s Lavi prototype and why the J-11 is identical to Russia’s Su-27. And why the communist state’s Z-10 attack helicopter is packed with French-designed components. Now China is working on a new warplane clone—a hovering “jump jet” that can take off from and land on small warships or tiny island airstrips.

The early renderings of the J-18 short-takeoff, vertical-landing (STOVL) fighter bear a striking resemblance to America’s own F-35B stealth jump jet. And while the U.S. government loudly complains about China’s data theft and even occasionally prosecutes Chinese spies, in the case of the J-18, the joke’s on Beijing.

Because the F-35B is a dog of a warplane—too complex, too heavy, too slow and sluggish to survive in battle, and so eye-wateringly expensive that the Pentagon is flirting with financial insolvency as it struggles to buy enough copies of the jet to fill out its depleted flying squadrons.

The R&D for the F-35 could set taxpayers back $400 billion. Beyond that, each copy of the plane costs no less than $150 million—and the Pentagon wants 420 F-35Bs plus another 2,000 F-35As and F-35Cs, which take off and land normally. Government auditors estimate that developing, buying, and flying all 2,500 F-35s could cost more than a trillion dollars over the next 50 years.

In cloning the F-35B, China risks committing military-industrial suicide. Go ahead, Beijing—copy our crappiest warplane. If the United States with its $600 billion annual defense budget can barely afford the F-35B, then China—which spends a comparatively paltry $130 billion a year—can’t afford it at all, and could suffer irreparable self-harm in attempting a technological copy-and-paste.

Rumors that Beijing wanted its own STOVL fighter have circulated for years. Richard Fisher, an analyst with the International Assessment and Strategy Center, a think tank in Virginia, claimed he heard whispers about the J-18 as early as 2005.

According to Fisher, the Chinese initially wanted to model the J-18 on the defunct Soviet Yak-141 jump jet. Indeed, there were reports that Beijing had acquired technical data on the Yak-141’s R-79 turbofan engine and was working on a copy.

But the Yak-141 program never got past the prototype stage. Between 2009 and 2013, Chinese hackers grabbed data on the F-35 from the servers of the U.S. contractors that build the radar-evading plane.

So it should come as no surprise that when the PLA Daily, the Chinese military’s official mouthpiece, announced the formal launch of the jump jet program back in March, the unofficial artwork that accompanied the announcement looked almost exactly like an F-35B, with only a few noticeable changes. Which means the J-18 could inherit the F-35’s bulk and cumbersomeness.

In fact, all jump jets are conceptually flawed. Warplanes should be light in order to fly fast and far and carry useful weapons loads. But STOVL aircraft need add-on hardware, sometimes even extra downward-blasting engines, in order to launch and land vertically. They’re inevitably complex and heavy. Complexity adds cost. Heavy means slow. In aerial combat, slow is fatal.

Jump jets were developed as solutions to nearly insoluble problems. They were, in other words, born of desperation. Politics trumped sound design.

In the 1950s, NATO was so worried that the Soviets would nuke all its air bases out of existence that the alliance rushed to develop a plane that didn’t need normal runways—and could survive the initial atomic onslaught long enough to lob its own nuke onto Soviet troop formations.

The Germans tried and failed to produce a STOVL fighter, but the British succeeded...sort of. The result was the Harrier, essentially a tiny fighter wrapped around a huge engine with downward-swiveling nozzles for vertical lift. In theory, airmen could tuck the Harrier into caves or concealed hangars, ride out the atomic bombardment, then launch the diminutive jets from roads or forest clearings.

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Adopted by the British Royal Air Force and Royal Navy, the U.S. Marine Corps, and the navies of Italy, Spain, India, and Thailand, the Harrier fortunately never had to prove its post-apocalyptic chops. Instead, it founds its main niche at sea, flying from the flight decks of amphibious assault ships and helicopter carriers, vessels that are too small for traditional fighters.

But the Harrier is a widowmaker, crashing at a rate much higher than other aircraft. With its rotating nozzles directing thrust in different directions, it’s plain hard to fly. “The Harrier because of its unique nature requires a whole different skill set,” said Lon Nordeen, who worked on the jump jet program at Boeing after that company licensed the design from the U.K. and has written several books about the Harrier.

The U.S. Marines lost a third of their roughly 300 Harriers, and 45 pilots, in just the first three decades of use ending in 2002, as the Los Angeles Times explained in an award-winning investigation. Since then, more Harriers have crashed and more pilots have died—although recent upgrades have reduced the accident rate.

And even when the Harrier isn’t crashing, it suffers serious constraints compared to conventional fighters. The plane’s small dimensions and the weight of its vertical-takeoff gear limit how much fuel and weaponry it can carry. And the Harrier’s huge engine runs extra hot, making the tiny fighter easy prey for heat-seeking missiles.

“The Harrier was based on a complete lie,” said Pierre Sprey, an experienced fighter engineer whose design credits include the nimble F-16 and the tank-killing A-10. The lie he’s referring to is the assertion that a fighter jet can take off and land vertically and also fly and fight like normal warplanes.

Equally desperate, in 1976 the Soviets introduced their own jump jet. Like the Harrier, the Yak-38 had a big engine with rotating nozzles for vertical lift. Unlike the Harrier, the Soviet STOVL jet also packed two smaller supplementary engines blasting downward for takeoff.

Flying from the Soviet navy’s small carriers, the Yak-38 was even more dangerous than the Harrier. As many as half the jump jets crashed before Moscow prudently retired the type in 1991. The same company that designed and built the Yak-38s was working on the new and improved Yak-141 when the Soviet Union collapsed, taking the next-gen STOVL fighter with it.

That left the Harrier as the world’s sole surviving jump jet until, in the early 2000s, Lockheed Martin began developing the F-35B to replace the Harrier. Like the Yaks, the F-35B features an extra, downward-facing engine for vertical ops.

According to the Chinese press, the new J-18 will fly from new assault ships that are in development for the Chinese navy. But it’s the prospect of land-based ops that has really raised eyebrows across the Pacific. Jeffrey Lin, an analyst with the Noetic Corporation, a Washington, D.C., consulting firm, said he imagines J-18s “basing off of small islands as organic air support” during some future conflict.

Since late 2014 China has been busily building artificial islands in the South China Sea, piling dredged sand atop fragile coral reefs, then constructing piers, helipads, and runways—all in an effort to cement its claim on the surrounding mineral-rich waters, which the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Vietnam also claim.

“At least some of the contested islands claimed by China may not be able to support large runways—or even if they did, the runways could become vulnerable to enemy attack,” said Eric Wertheim, an independent naval expert and author of the definitive Combat Fleets of the World. “STOVL capacities could presumably allow Chinese combat aircraft to operate from austere facilities or locations.”

With squadrons of J-18s on their sun-baked tarmacs, China’s manmade islands could be like unsinkable aircraft carriers on permanent patrol in the Western Pacific’s disputed waters.

It’s an intoxicating idea for the Chinese—and it helps explain why Beijing would be so eager to copy a pricey, compromised STOVL warplane. It seems the South China Sea spats are making the Chinese Communist Party desperate.

To be clear, when the PLA announced in March that engineers at the Chengdu Aircraft Industry Group were working on a jump jet, what it really meant was that they were working on an engine for STOVL ops, according to Lin. “It’s just a research project,” he said. He estimated that Chengdu will need 10 to 15 years to assemble a working STOVL plane, for whatever that’s worth.

It won’t be cheap. “How many billions of dollars did it take for us to get to where we are now [with the Harrier]?” Nordeen said.

To understand why China would follow Germany, the U.K., the U.S., and the Soviet Union down the expensive, often fatal path toward a vertical-takeoff fighter—which even under the best of circumstances is much less capable than a normal jet—you have to look past atomic warfare and small aircraft carriers to the South China Sea islands.

“You’ve got to start thinking in terms of power projection and influence,” Nordeen explained. You have to assume, like Nordeen says he does, that Beijing doesn’t mind spending a lot of money and sacrificing a bunch of pilots for a warplane that, like every jump jet that came before it, simply doesn’t work very well.