Is This China’s First Stealth Fighter?
By David Axe December 27, 2010
They could be the products of a Chinese government misinformation campaign. They could be clever Photoshop jobs by Chinese aviation fanboys. Or they could be the real thing: the first hard evidence of the long-rumored Chengdu J-20, China’s first stealth-fighter prototype.
The above photo and several others surfaced over the Christmas weekend on Chinese Internet forums, catching the eye of Aviation Week fighter guru Bill Sweetman. Sweetman, a noted skeptic in the sometimes enthusiastic world of fast-jet journalism, stressed that the pics might be fakes. Fantastical Photoshop art is a hallmark of Chinese military-themed Websites. See the giant, flying “heli-carrier,” or the submarine flattop — both creations of over-excited Chinese Photoshoppers. But there are hints that the J-20 photos are for real — and that much clearer shots exist, somewhere.
“Rumor has it that better shots have put in transient appearances on Chinese Websites before being zapped by the censor,” Sweetman wrote. That those rumored photos were yanked is itself perhaps proof that Beijing really does have a new fighter.
“In China’s military fan Web culture, the rapid intervention of the censors is always a boost for the credibility of the poster,” aviation journalist Rick Fisher told Sweetman.
Most convincingly, the airplane depicted in the snapshots apparently has many of the right characteristics for a fifth-generation stealth-fighter prototype: a chiseled front-section, triangular wings, all-moving tailplanes. In fact, the supposed J-20 seems to combine the front fuselage of the U.S. Air Force’s F-22 with the back half of Russia’s T-50 stealth prototype, which appeared a little less than a year ago. If it’s real — and that’s a big if — the J-20’s appearance could signal a big step forward for the Chinese air force, which to date relies mostly on airplanes bought from Russia or reverse-engineered from Russian or Israeli designs.
Panicky Western air-power advocates, who a year ago claimed America would be “less safe” if the Pentagon pressed forward with plans to end production of the F-22 stealth fighter at 187 copies, might just announce the end of America’s 50-year dominance of the skies. Alarmists made similar claims when the Russia’s new T-50 fighter first flew, despite that plane’s many non-stealthy attributes and dubious production prospects. The Pentagon hasn’t had a chance to comment on the J-20 photos, but is likely to remain sanguine. In deliberations over the F-22, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates acknowledged that the Chinese were working on a stealth fighter, but insisted the Communist country would have “no fifth-generation aircraft by 2020,” while the U.S. would have more than a thousand F-22s and F-35s.
In the year-and-a-half since Gates made that claim, the Pentagon has delayed F-35 production and China has apparently accelerated its own stealth development — alleged J-20 photos aside — but the spirit of Gates’ assertion remains valid. Even if the photos are real and the J-20 exists as more than blueprints, there’s probably no cause for alarm. The U.S. flew its first stealth prototypes — the YF-22 and rival YF-23 — in 1990; the J-20 hasn’t even flown yet. It took 15 years for the F-22 to enter front-line service; considering China’s quality-control problems with high technology, it could take a decade or more for the J-20 to appear in numbers that make any difference in the Pacific balance of power. Gates might have been slightly off in his assessment of the Chinese air force, but probably not by much. And that’s all assuming Beijing’s Christmas stealth-fighter surprise isn’t all just Photoshop magic. With so little good information on military hardware coming out of China, fighter fakery is a real prospect. In which case, we’ll keep waiting for China’s first stealth fighter to make its true debut.