Is This China’s First Stealth Fighter?

By David Axe
December 27, 2010
Translation by Autumnson Blog

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.
它們可能是中國政府歪曲宣傳的產品,它們可能是由中國航空粉絲的聰明Photoshop工作,或者,它們可能是真東西:第一件傳聞已久成都殲- 20的確鑿證據,即中國的第一架隱形戰機原型。
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. A noted skeptic in the sometimes enthusiastic world of fast-jet journalism, Sweetman 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.
夢幻的Photoshop藝術是中國軍事主題網站的一種標誌,試看巨大、飛行的“直升機航母“或潛艇航母- 兩者都是過度興奮的中國人Photoshoppers的創作。
But there are hints that the J-20 photos are 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.
但有暗示殲20的照片是真的 - 而在某處有更清晰的鏡頭存在, “有傳言更好的拍攝已放作短暫露面在中文網站,在它們被傳給審查之前,“斯威特曼寫道。那些傳言的照片被猛拉或許本身證明,北京確實有一種新的戰鬥機。 “在中國的軍事迷網絡文化,審查的迅速干預永遠會是提高海報的可信性,“航空記者里克斯費舍爾告訴威特曼。
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 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 United States 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 United States 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 wait for China’s first stealth fighter to make its true debut.

Update, 7:28 EST: There’s another photo up — the clearest yet. “The impression here is of a big, long aircraft, 70+ feet from nose to tail, which would make sense for a number of reasons,” Sweetman wrote in reaction. He speculated the J-20 might have “lower supercruise performance and agility than an F-22, but with larger weapon bays and more fuel.”

“Why would China need or want a short-range stealth aircraft?” he continued. “Any targets with defenses that call for that capability are a long way from the mainland. Also, the bigger that the aircraft is, the more likely it is that it is a bomber as much as, if not more than, a fighter.”

Photo: via Aviation Week

解放軍無人攻擊機亮相航展 挂“地獄火”導彈