The new Shenyang stealth fighter joins a crowded stable of warplanes under development in China. Credit: Full Afterburner.

This week, billionaire SpaceX founder Elon Musk told a crowd of USAF bigwigs in Florida that “the era of the fighter jet was over,” that it was all about drones now.

Park the dinosaurs and bring in the new.

Well, it appears no one bothered to tell the Chinese. Sources say the PLAAF is determined to build a better, sixth generation stealth fighter — one that will match or outgun US airpower — and this one has the Pentagon reportedly worried.

The new warplane, under development by the Shenyang Aircraft Design and Research Institute, could be a clean-sheet design — not a copy of a foreign stealth fighter — but a revolutionary new design.

Or it might be a development of the company’s older FC-31, an export-optimized stealth fighter that has yet to secure a single order, according to a special report by David Axe, Defense Editor of the National Interest and author of War FixWar Is Boring and Machete Squad.

Shenyang and the military department of the AVIC Manufacturing Technology Institute in 2018 jointly established a team codenamed “J.J.” with the goal of developing the new type fighter, Global Times reported, citing an article that the companies published on social media platform WeChat.

“The joint-development project was first planned in June 2018 and commenced with an opening ceremony in September 2018,” Global Times reported. “The J.J. team submitted an illustration of a test piece in November 2019, according to the article.”

The joint team reportedly is focusing on developing a curved, S-shape engine inlet. Curved inlets can block an engine’s turbines from view, thus reducing a plane’s radar signature. But the S-shape inlets are difficult to design and integrate, the National Interest reported.

China’s first operational stealth fighter, the twin-engine J-20, entered service in 2019.

Around 15 are in service with a single front-line regiment, according to unofficial tallies. Whereas Beijing specifically commissioned the J-20 from manufacturer Chengdu, the later FC-31 was a strictly private project that Shenyang hoped would lead to domestic or foreign orders, the National Interest reported.

But the twin-engine FC-31 remains unsold. There were rumors that the type might evolve into a sea-based fighter for China’s future, large aircraft carriers, but now it appears a version of the J-20 will fill that role.

In developing a new stealth fighter, Shenyang might be admitting that the comparatively lightweight FC-31 is a failure, the National Interest reported.

The new Shenyang stealth fighter joins a crowded stable of warplanes under development in China. There are rumors of a J-18 vertical-landing fighter that could fly from the Chinese navy’s new big-deck amphibious assault ships.

Chinese industry is also working on a stealthy fighter-bomber and a radar-evading heavy bomber called the H-20, the National Interest reported.

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