Early last week, we reported on what appeared to be a copy of China’s most advanced fighter, the Chengdu J-20, parked on an airstrip in Savannah, Georgia, of all places. The aircraft certainly bore a striking resemblance in the sole photo that surfaced on the internet by way of The Aviationist, prompting a wave of theories that ranged from the logical to the downright outlandish. Here at Fighter Sweep, our best guess was that the aircraft was a prop built for “Top Gun: Maverick,” which is currently filming. Soon, however, most of us were proven wrong when the Air Force came forward with a statement that answered at least some of our questions.

“It is a full-scale replica and remained at the Air Dominance Center for a short period during the week of 4-6 Dec. The USMC is funding and directing the training objectives of this device,” Col. Emmanuel Haldopoulos, Commander of the Savannah Air Dominance Center, explained.

Real J-20 (Top) and the image taken last week in Georgia (Bottom).

Armed with a newfound understanding of who built the J-20 mock-up, the internet was still left with a slew of questions regarding why. Some wondered if the Marine Corps was purpose-building aggressor aircraft to fly against new Marine Corps F-35Bs or the Air Force’s fleet of F-22s, but most reasonable assessments quickly dismissed the idea that the aircraft in the image was an operational flier. It would cost a fortune to develop a J-20 aggressor that could actually replicate the real fighter’s flight characteristics — and because the J-20 was largely based on stolen plans for the F-22, simply using that as an aggressor plane in training would be a far more cost-effective solution.

Now, the Marine Corps Training and Education Command, or TECOM, has shed more light on the J-20 mock-up spotted in Georgia.

“TECOM has contracted with the Army Threat Systems Management Office (TSMO) to provide full scale, realistic aircraft and vehicle mock-ups for multiple Marine Corps Bases, Range Training Systems Program (RTSP) requests from 2018,” TECOM said in a statement.

“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 prototype was built by a contractor in LaGrange, GA and was moved to Air Dominance Center (ADC) Savannah, Georgia to evaluate the assembly and dis-assembly process, heat and light signatures, and prepare for movement to the chosen training area in North Carolina,” TECOM said.

The story gets more interesting from there — the Marine Corps is also looking to source a Russian Mi-24 HIND gunship helicopter or Mi-17 HIP transport helicopter for similar purposes — though they’re hoping to get operational versions of each, to allow Marines to train against aircraft they would likely encounter if war with Russia were ever to actually take place.

“The attack helicopter will act as an aggressor to interfere with the exercises forces conducting offensive, defensive and stability operations,” the Marine Corps request read. “This will include potential use during friendly aviation operations in order to force decision making.”