BEIJING—The first clear pictures of what appears to be a Chinese stealth fighter prototype have been published online, highlighting China’s military buildup just days before U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates heads to Beijing to try to repair defense ties.
The photographs, published on several unofficial Chinese and foreign defense-related websites, appear to show a J-20 prototype making a high-speed taxi test—usually one of the last steps before an aircraft makes its first flight—according to experts on aviation and China’s military.
The exact origin of the photographs is unclear, although they appear to have been taken by Chinese enthusiasts from the grounds of or around the Chengdu Aircraft Design Institute in western China, where the J-20 is in development. A few experts have suggested that the pictured aircraft is a mock-up, rather than a functioning prototype of a stealth fighter—so-called because it is designed to evade detection by radar and infrared sensors.
But many more experts say they believe the pictures and the aircraft are authentic, giving the strongest indication yet that Beijing is making faster-than-expected progress in developing a rival to the U.S. F-22—the world’s only fully operational stealth fighter.
China’s defense ministry and air force couldn’t be reached to comment on the latest photos. Even without official confirmation, however, the photographs are likely to bolster concerns among U.S. officials and politicians about China’s military modernization, which also includes the imminent deployment of its first aircraft carrier and “carrier-killer” antiship ballistic missiles.
Such weapons systems would significantly enhance China’s ability to hinder U.S. intervention in a conflict over Taiwan, and challenge U.S. naval supremacy in the Asia-Pacific region.
Gen. He Weirong, deputy head of China’s Air Force, announced in 2009 that China’s first stealth fighters were about to undergo test flights and would be deployed in “eight or 10 years.” But there was no clear physical evidence of their existence until the latest photographs emerged.
Chinese authorities who monitor Internet traffic in the country appear not to have tried to block the J-20 pictures.
“The photos I’ve seen look genuine,” said Gareth Jennings, aviation desk editor at Jane’s Defence Weekly.
“It’s pretty far down the line,” he said. “The fact that its nose wheel is off the ground in one picture suggest this was a high-speed taxi test—that usually means a test flight very soon afterwards. All the talk we’ve heard is that this could happen some time in the next few weeks.”
U.S. officials played down Chinese advances on the plane, which American intelligence agencies believe will likely be operational around 2018. “We are aware that the Chinese have recently been conducting taxi tests and there are photos of it,” said Pentagon spokesman Col. David Lapan. “We know they are working on a fifth-generation fighter but progress appears to be uneven.”
Col. Lapan said it appears the Chinese are still seeking engines for a fourth-generation fighter from Russia, an indication that they are “still encountering problems” with development work toward the fifth-generation aircraft, the J-20.
But the 2018 estimate suggests U.S. officials believe China’s development of the fifth-generation fighter has accelerated. In 2009, Mr. Gates predicted that China wouldn’t deploy a fifth-generation fighter until 2020. U.S. officials said the latest disclosures wouldn’t affect any U.S. aircraft-development programs.
China has made rapid progress in developing a capability to produce advanced weapons, also including unmanned aerial vehicles, after decades of importing and reverse engineering Russian arms. The photographs throw a fresh spotlight on the sensitive issue of China’s military modernization just as Washington and Beijing try to improve relations following a series of public disputes in 2010.
Source: The Wall Street Journal