China’s Defence Ministry has strongly denied that the country was given access to a US stealth helicopter that was downed in Pakistan during the raid that killed Osama bin Laden in May.
In a statement, the ministry said that reports suggesting otherwise were ‘entirely groundless and very ridiculous.’ The denial comes following the suggestion in the Financial Times that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence allowed China access to the modified Blackhawk helicopter, and also let Chinese officials take a sample of the special coating on the aircraft.
News that China may have had access to the helicopter surprised few – the close ties between China and Pakistan are well-documented. And, according to Rick Fisher, a senior fellow at the International Assessment and Strategy Center in Virginia, there’s little doubt that China would have put significant pressure on Pakistan to get a first-hand look at the aircraft.
‘Since at least the 1980s China has been intensely studying all manner of stealth technology and just as important, how to counter them,’ Fisher told me. ‘Regardless of their size, China would have placed enormous pressure on its Pakistani friends to share pieces of the US stealth helicopter. Stealth materials depend not just on their chemical composition, but also their structure, which China could easily determine from a very small piece.’
Timothy Hoyt, Professor of Strategy at theUS Naval War College, agreed that access to US technology could be helpful to the Chinese.
‘Since they are deploying the J-20 “stealth” fighter, access to other examples of stealth technology might be very useful for their own domestic designs,’ he told me. ‘In addition, they would probably want to know specifics for their own air defence efforts in the future.’
Still, Hoyt remained uncertain as to how much immediate use, from a military perspective, access to the downed craft would be. ‘I’ve seen public reports suggesting that Chinese experts may have taken photographs and physical samples. I’m assuming that will be of some use, but it's not clear how much will be immediate and how much is longer term – I suspect the latter is more likely.’
After the crash, US Special Forces tried to destroy the remains of the helicopter, but images later showed the tail appearing to be largely intact. And these images surprised many as the helicopter hadn’t previously been seen by the public.
‘Despite all the coverage we know very little about the stealth modified UH-60, though reputable analysts speculate that it leveraged advances from the cancelled RAH-66 Comanche stealth attack helicopter programme,’ Fisher said. ‘So from this thin data point we can speculate that the stealth UH-60 may use very lightweight stealth coatings, or actual stealth “skin” (like the F-35), advanced infrared engine signature suppression, and perhaps, rotor blades far less reflective of radar signals.’
‘China would have an intense interest in all of these technologies. France and South Africa, other longstanding military mil-tech partners of Pakistan, would also have a high interest, but would likely have to pay for their pieces.’
Regardless of China’s protestations, US officials appear to believe it likely that Pakistan allowed China access, complicating an already tense relationship between Washington and Islamabad that has continued to deteriorate as the year has gone on.
In contrast, Pakistan has been keen to flaunt ties with Beijing. As David Cohen noted here, ‘Pakistan, however, has shown great eagerness to buddy up with China, referring to it as the nation’s “closest friend” and “brother” – and, in a strange incident, announced plans to establish a Chinese naval base in Pakistan apparently without the knowledge of the Chinese government.’