This image is proof the United States military is taking China's growing military threat seriously.

The US has built a full-size replica of a Chinese fighter jet for use as a training aid, according to official US military sources, a move analysts said reflects Washington's growing concern over the fighting strength of its Asian rival.

The mock-up of a Chengdu J-20 Mighty Dragon was spotted at a military facility on the perimeter of Savannah-Hilton Head Airport in Georgia, which is home to the US Air Dominance Centre (ADC), and photographs of it, said to have been taken on December 5, were published two days later by the website TheAviationist.com.

While sceptics initially questioned the authenticity of the images, the military blog site quoted Colonel Emmanuel Haldopoulos, the commander of the ADC, as saying the mock-up plane "is a full-scale replica and remained at the Air Dominance Centre for a short period" from December 4-6.

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The US Marine Corps was "funding and directing the training objectives of this device", he said, adding that the replica would be used for ground training.

On Friday, the Marine Corps Training and Education Command (TECOM) was quoted in a statement published by military newspaper Marine Corps Times as saying it was "contracted with the Army Threat Systems Management Office to provide full-scale, realistic aircraft and vehicle mock-ups for multiple Marine Corps bases", and that "the prototype was built by a contractor in LaGrange".

"The initial aircraft mock-up identified was a J-20 fighter to develop as a proof of concept, with a plan to develop additional threat aircraft and vehicles in the future."

The J-20 is China's fifth-generation stealth aircraft that was first unveiled in 2011. It is generally seen as a direct competitor to the United States' F-35 stealth fighter.

TECOM said the replica jet had been involved in various experiments and military training while at the Savannah base.

"[It] was moved to ADC Savannah, Georgia to evaluate the assembly and disassembly process, heat and light signatures, and prepare for movement to the chosen training area in North Carolina," the statement said.

Stealth fighter aircraft J-20 of People's Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) performs during a six-minute training session before the Airshow China 2018 on November 3, 2018. Photo / Getty Images
Stealth fighter aircraft J-20 of People's Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) performs during a six-minute training session before the Airshow China 2018 on November 3, 2018. Photo / Getty Images

However, the prototype had not been designed for flight training, such as a dogfight, it said.

The J-20 mock-up is not the first replica foreign jet to have been built by the US military for training, but it is unusual for images of them to be so freely available.

Also, in the past, military trainers often used aircraft from their own fleets that had similar capabilities to enemy models to simulate combat. In the Soviet era, the US Navy Fighter Weapons School used the A-4 Skyhawk to simulate various Soviet fighters, while the F-5E stood in for the MiG-21.

Washington has growing concerns over the fighting strength of China. Photo / Getty Images
Washington has growing concerns over the fighting strength of China. Photo / Getty Images

The introduction of a full-size replica also suggested the US military now saw China's air force, and especially the J-20, as a substantial threat, experts said.

A report titled "Military and Security Developments Involving the People's Republic of China 2018" that was submitted to the US Congress by the defence secretary's office in May said that with its new jets China was closing the gap with the US Air Force across a spectrum of capabilities, and eroding its technical advantage.

"The J-20 may have begun active service in small numbers, possibly with a test and training unit ... Chinese engineers report successful testing of a solid-fuel ramjet missile engine and suggest this will enable the J-20 to carry future Mach 5, 300km [186-mile] range air-to-air missiles," it said, adding that China's ongoing upgrades to its bomber fleet would give it the capability to carry even longer-range cruise missiles.

The Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70) in the South China Sea. Photo / Getty Images
The Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70) in the South China Sea. Photo / Getty Images

Sean King, a former US diplomat who is now senior vice-president of political strategy firm Park Strategies, said it was no longer a secret that China was the United States' primary strategic competitor, saying Washington's strategic priority had shifted from Moscow to Beijing.

"The mock-up speaks to the fact that mainland China is a major US strategic rival. I would go so far as to say Beijing's our primary state actor rival," he said.

"Conflict is by no means inevitable, but it's always better to be prepared. I can bet you the [People's Liberation Army is] gaming out every possible angle against [the US]."

- South China Morning Post