It was an audacious debut, even by the dramatic standards of Chinese weapons systems. For months, Western reporters and analysts had heard rumours of photos surfacing, and quickly disappearing, on China’s heavily censored Internet of an advanced jet fighter similar in shape and dimension to the latest US and Russian designs.
On Christmas Day, another photo appeared. And this time, it stayed on-line long enough for foreign observers to catch it.
Bill Sweetman, a long-time aviation reporter currently editing the Washington DC trade journal Defense Technology International, was one of the first outside of China to comment in a widely-read forum, namely the magazine’s Ares blog. The picture, apparently snapped from a car driving past the Chengdu flight-test facility in Western China, ‘allegedly shows China's next-generation Chengdu J-20 fighter—the first known Chinese stealth aircraft—undergoing high-speed taxi trials, with rumours of a first flight within weeks,’ Sweetman wrote.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Sweetman immediately grasped the military, political and industrial implications of the J-20’s apparent debut. ‘Is China about to give airpower hawks their best Christmas present ever?’ he wrote.
The United States, France, Sweden, Russia and an alliance composed of Britain, Spain, Italy and Germany all design and build advanced fighter aircraft. Some of the United States’ and Russia’s designs qualify as fully radar-evading ‘fifth-generation’ or ‘stealth’ aircraft, namely the US F-22 Raptor and the F-35, and the Russian T-50. Until the J-20 appeared, China had been building less sophisticated fighters, most of them copies of a previous generation of Russian planes.
While it should perhaps come as no surprise that the world’s second-largest economy would eventually produce an advanced fighter aircraft, for some foreign observers—including a small but vocal community of airpower apologists in Washington—a Chinese stealth fighter represents a unique threat to the existing world order.
Sweetman warned in his initial reporting on the J-20 that the photo that was the only real evidence of the plane’s existence could actually be a fake—‘a product of the Adobe OKB,’ he said, referring to Adobe’s popular Photoshop image-manipulation software and the Russian acronym for an aviation design bureau.
But from December 25, more photos appeared on-line, each clearer and more revealing than the last, offering proof that not only was J-20 real, but Beijing wanted the world to know it. Indeed, on January 5, the English-language Global Times newspaper, published by the Chinese Communist Party, underscored the latter point by printing a round-up of foreign reporting on the new jet fighter. ‘Denial is not an option,’ Sweetman argued.
He’s right. China has now joined the leading ranks of fighter-building nations, prompting a debate in the West and among China’s immediate neighbours over if and when the J-20 might begin entering service in large numbers—and how that might shape the Pacific balance of power.
All this means that a reliable and useful assessment depends on an accurate view of the J-20’s design, plus a clear-headed consideration of the plane’s industrial, political and strategic context. But even taking the most favourable view of the J-20, it’s hard to credibly claim that Chengdu has changed the world.