Defense Media Network

Washington Debates the Meaning of China’s Chengdu J-20 Superfighter

Pentagon officials acknowledge that the appearance of China’s Chengdu J-20 stealth fighter – an advanced stealth fighter in the category of the F-22 Raptor – is cause for concern. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates told reporters that that the Chinese “may be somewhat farther along” than previously believed in developing advanced air combat systems. China is believed to have built at least two prototypes of the J-20, also called the Black Eagle.

The J-20 made its first flight on Jan. 11, 2011, during a visit to China by Gates. Did officials purposely schedule the superfighter’s initial flight to embarrass the secretary? Chinese leaders assured Gates the timing was coincidence. Others said the timing pointed to flawed coordination between China’s military and civilian leadership. But foreign affairs analysts said that there are no coincidences in China. “Their military and civilian bosses are in lockstep,” said Blaine Porter, a former China analyst for the State Department‘s Bureau of Intelligence and Research. “Our first reaction is the right one. The timing of the flight was a poke in the eye.”

Shortly after Gates’ visit, Chinese President Hu Jintao traveled to Washington and met with President Barack Obama. Economist Robert J. Samuelson wrote in his newspaper column that President Barack Obama and Hu “exchanged largely meaningless pledges of  ‘cooperation.'” Others noticed that China, the beneficiary of a trade imbalance with the United States, seems today to be less dependent on overseas investment and technology when developing aircraft.

Some analysts downplayed the J-20 with the argument that the Chinese superfighter is using hijacked American technology. China, they wrote, gained access to the U.S. F-117 Nighthawk stealth fighter, callsign Vega 31, that was shot down in Serbia during fighting over Kosovo on May 27, 1999. A senior Serbian military official told the Associated Press that pieces of the wreckage were removed by souvenir collectors, and that some ended up “in the hands of foreign military attaches.”

But the F-117, which has since been retired, had an entirely different kind of stealth technology than the J-20 and F-22. An U.S. Air Force official said the claim of technology theft probably wasn’t true and retired Lt. Col. Dale Zelko, the pilot of Vega 31, said in a telephone interview that he was skeptical, too. House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon (R-Calif.) said the Chinese copied foreign technology, but from Russia, not the United States.

Officials in Washington say that former B-2 Spirit engineer Noshir Gowadia probably did nothing to help China’s J-20 program. Gowadia was sentenced to 32 years in prison on Jan. 26, 2011, for selling military information to China.

“Wishful thinking” is what one analyst called the idea that China lacks the technological skills to develop its own stealth fighter. Americans engaged in the same kind of thinking when Japanese aircraft engineer Jiro Horikoshi created the formidable Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighter in the 1930s. Early in World War II, the Zero – fully homegrown – outperformed even the best U.S. fighters. A Communist Party newspaper in China asserted that the J-20 is an indigenous design and quoted test pilot Xu Yongling as calling the aircraft “a masterpiece of China’s technological innovation.”

“The first flight of the J-20 should be a wake-up call to challenge the strategic complacency of those in the United States,” said Lt. Gen. David Deptula, who was the top Air Force intelligence officer until he retired in late 2010, speaking in a telephone interview.

“We had over a quarter century of stealth supremacy – from 1983 to today. Now other nations are now catching up.” Deptula also noted that, “while stealth in their hands renders our current plans for theater operations untenable, we must also be careful not to cast the Chinese as being ten feet tall. The J-20 still has several years of development and test ahead before it appears in operational numbers.”

Once dependent on outside help in commercial aerospace, China is now developing its own jetliner. The Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China, or COMAC C919 will compete with the Boeing 737 and Airbus A320/321. COMAC says it has orders to sell 100 C919s to domestic carriers and plans to offer the C919 overseas soon.

“China’s grand ambitions extend literally to the moon,” wrote Keith Richburg in the Washington Post on Jan. 23. During Hu’s Washington trip – again, say observers, not by coincidence – Chinese media reported a new program to train astronauts, or so-called taikonauts, for missions to an orbiting Chinese space station planned for 2015. China is also working toward its first manned lunar exploration mission.


Robert F. Dorr is an author, U.S. Air Force veteran, and retired American diplomat who...