BEIJING — Photos leaked online that appear to show a prototype of China’s first stealth fighter jet were discussed in state media Wednesday — a move that supports claims the country’s military aviation program is advancing faster than expected.
Both the English and Chinese language editions of the Global Times ran front-page articles on the photos of what appears to be a future J-20 fighter, along with extensive reports on the buzz the pictures have generated overseas.
Photos of the plane appeared on unofficial military news websites and hobbyist blogs last week and were still viewable Wednesday.
The Global Times did not comment on the authenticity of the pictures, but since the government wields extensive control over state media, the report’s appearance and the fact that censors have not removed images from websites suggest a calculated move to leak the information into the public sphere.
That in turn would reflect the growing confidence of the traditionally secretive People’s Liberation Army, which is pushing for greater influence and bigger budgets.
But the U.S. Defense Department said it wasn’t worried about the reports.
“It is not of concern that they are working on a fifth-generation fighter,” Marine Col. Dave Lapan, a Pentagon spokesman, said, since the Chinese are “still having difficulties with their fourth-generation fighter.”
Calls to the spokesman’s office at the Defense Ministry rang unanswered.
Aviation websites said the photos were taken from outside a fence at the Chengdu Aircraft Design Institute’s airfield in southwestern China. The plane appeared to be undergoing a taxiing test of the sort that precedes an actual flight test.
A future Chinese stealth fighter has long been considered an inevitability. Deputy air force chief He Weirong told state broadcaster CCTV in November 2009 that China’s fourth-generation fighter — a reference to stealth technology — would begin flight testing soon and could enter service within eight to 10 years.
China’s aviation industry — both military and civilian — has made rapid progress in recent years but still relies heavily on imported technology. Propulsion technology has been a particular problem, with Russian engines still employed on China’s homemade J-10 fighter jets and the J-11, a copy of Russia’s Su-27 fighter jet.
Stealth technology is even more difficult to master because it relies on systems to hide the presence of the plane while equipping the pilot with enough information to attack an enemy. Emissions must be hidden and the plane’s fuselage sculpted to avoid detection by radar and infrared sensors.
Chinese progress in that field calls into question U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ decision to cap production of the F-22 Raptor stealth fighter at 187 planes. Supporters of the F-22 have warned of growing threats from China, as well as Russia, which has developed a stealth prototype that is already in the test flight stage.
Analysis of the J-20 photos shows it to be larger than either the Russian or U.S. planes, likely allowing it fly farther and carry heavier weapons.