Beijing flying high with new fighter jets

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 15 February, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 15 February, 2011, 12:00am

Last month's successful test flight of China's J-20 prototype stealth fighter jet surprised the world, with many asking how it could develop a sophisticated plane so secretly and efficiently.

Photographs posted on the internet by mainland military enthusiasts show the J-20 prototype has a canard delta layout similar to its sister fighter jets, the J-10 and FC-1 Xiaolong, but with moving vertical stabilisers like Russia's new, fifth-generation T-50 fighter. With smaller, canted ventral fins, its stealth body shape is similar to the American F-22 and F-35 and there is a hint of the Russian Su-27 in its turbofan engines.

Some Western media said China used Russian and US technologies on the J-20 prototype, with some saying China gleaned clues from the wreckage of an American F-117 Nighthawk shot down in 1999 during Nato's aerial bombing of Serbia in the Kosovo war.

That speculation was immediately denied by Chinese state media, while Pentagon officials said they were not sure what China had learned from the F-117 debris.

The special shape of the F-117, developed in great secrecy in the 1970s, and its radar-absorbent coating made detection difficult. Military experts say the J-20 prototype has a similar shape.

Antony Wong Dong, president of the International Military Association in Macau, said the J-20's stealth capability would be more advanced than the F-117, which was retired in 2008. 'There is no doubt that China studied technologies from the wreckage of the F-117, as did Russia. But the stealth coating and other related materials on the J-20 prototype are more advanced than the F-117's,' he said.

'The J-20 is capable of challenging the US's F-22 stealth fighter jet and could even compare with the new Russian fifth-generation T-50 fighter one day.'

Andrei Chang, editor-in-chief of the Canadian-based Kanwa Asian Defence Monthly, said he believed China spent a long time studying the wreckage of the F-117.

'But I still insist that the J-20 is an indigenous, new-generation stealth fighter jet fully designed by China itself as its core technologies, such as its double engines, are home-made ones,' Chang said, adding that satellite pictures showed China had produced an F-117 mock-up.

'Of course, the appearance of the US F-117 mock-up in Luoyang [in Henan province] showed that China might achieve some technological breakthroughs in coatings and stealth materials after taking some references from the F117.'

Many state media reports indicate that China has studied the debris of US military aircraft closely since the early 1960s.

From September 1962 to September 1967, the People's Liberation Army shot down five U-2 high-attitude spy planes, which the US had provided to Taiwan, according to the People's Daily. Four of the U-2 wrecks are parked at the Beijing Military Museum. On July 20, 1971, an American D-21 reconnaissance drone was shot down by the PLA Air Force.

In 1999, during the Kosovo war, China sent agents to Serbia to buy F-117 wreckage from farmers after it was shot down, according to Serbian officials.

Studying those aircraft helped China acquire cutting-edge technology for its new-generation fighter jets, which are expected to feature full stealth capabilities, a supersonic cruising speed and advanced manoeuvrability.

Military observers said China had spent a long time boosting its military capabilities, with stealth fighter jets being one of the projects.

But Western countries had never taken it seriously, or had underestimated China's capabilities and determination.

Wong said: 'Actually, even the J-10 has some trace of stealth capability, and now China is developing another more powerful fighter, the H-10 bomber, which will be more mobile and flexible than the J-20.'

Song Xiaojun, a Beijing-based military analyst, said Western countries' shock over the J-20 test flight reflected a long-history of 'discrimination mentality'.

'They've never looked up to China and have refused to recognise Chinese successes,' he said. 'For example, in 1964, when China successfully tested our first atomic bomb, then-US president Lyndon Johnson made an announcement the next day saying our bomb was just an 'inferior one' among the five nuclear powers.

'However, their scientists later proved that our bomb was made with uranium, which meant our technology was as good as that of the US and other nuclear countries.'

Shanghai-based PLA expert Professor Ni Lexiong said it was unfair to accuse one side of copying or stealing military technology.

'The J-20 is just a story about how a developing country has been pulling out all the stops to learn advanced military technologies from developed countries, which is very common in the world,' Ni said.

'Military technologies are very difficult to keep secret as war has been a good channel for countries to exchange technologies and culture since ancient times.'

Ni cited the example of gunpowder, one of the four great inventions of ancient China, which still plays a key role in today's military weapons.