Sunday, January 16, 2011

Hu confirms J-20 stealth jet test

President Hu Jintao reportedly confirmed that China's first stealth fighter jet, the J-20, underwent its first test flight Tuesday, making the first official acknowledgement of the plane's existence since the surfacing of online photos in December.

US Defense Secretary Robert Gates, currently in Beijing, was told that the test was not timed to coincide with his trip. His visit has seen Chinese military figures and officials frequently repeat that China's military development remains decades behind that of Western countries.

"I asked Hu about it directly, and he said that the test had absolutely nothing to do with my visit and had been a pre-planned test. And that's where we left it," Gates was quoted by Reuters as saying Tuesday.

Responding to a question on the fighter jet, Guan Youfei, deputy director of Foreign Affairs Office of the Defense Ministry, said Tuesday that China's military hardware development was not aimed at any other country.

During his meeting with Gates, Hu stated that China and the US share extensive common interests and enjoy broad prospects for cooperation, according to the Xinhua News Agency.

The Pentagon chief hailed his Beijing visit as a "positive" step forward but called for patience, saying military ties with China could not be improved overnight, AFP reported.

"I think this is an arena where we have to play the long game," Gates added.

Gates will visit the command base of the Second Artillery Force of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) today before flying on to Seoul.

An aviation enthusiast surnamed Zhang, who live-broadcast on the test taking place near the Chengdu Aircraft Design Institute, told the Global Times that the J-20 had been escorted by a J-10S trainer, had taken off at 12:50 pm and had landed at 1:10 pm after making a few passes over the airfield.

Citing pictures posted by bloggers, Xinhua reported that people cheered after the prototype landed safely, showing pictures of a large group of people standing around the plane.

Yang Yao, one of China's top test pilots, told the Global Times that after the maiden flight, the J-20 will undergo a battery of tests prior to being approved for use in the field, a process that usually lasts at least three years.

"After that, at least another year is needed before full production of the plane. Then the Chinese pilots will need to learn how to maneuver this new-generation fighter jet, which will take a certain amount of time," he said.

Ni Feng, a researcher of US Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, told the Global Times that "the timing of the J-20's maiden flight is a coincidence, but it showed that China is more confident and honest in unveiling its military progress. This is a step forward for promoting mutual trust with other major players in the global community."

Gary Li, a China expert with the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, called the exposure a sign of "unofficial transparency."

"The PLA would not have decided to unveil such a leap in aeronautical development in such a manner if they were not confident about it," Li said.

Despite the absence of official technical details of the J-20, some Western analysts are comparing it to the US Air Force's F-22 Raptor stealth jet, the world's only operational fifth-generation stealth fighter.

Due to defense cuts, the US has ceased the production of the F-22 in favor of the F-35, a cheaper fifth-generation fighter jet that has fewer capabilities.

Retired US Air Force Lieutenant General Thomas McInerney wrote in a Fox News story last week that the F-35 will be no match for the J-20, repeating his call for inserting funding for F-22s into the Pentagon's defense budget for 2011.

Carlo Kopp and Peter Goon, partners in the Air Power Australia think-tank, told, a US-based technology website, that the US Navy's F/A-18 Super Hornets and the F-35 fighter jets are "aerodynamically and kinematically quite inferior" to the J-20.

They claimed that due to the J-20's larger size, the Chinese plane would be optimally designed for fast, high-altitude interception using long-range missiles, as opposed to close-range dog fighting.

Li Daguang, a military expert at the PLA National Defense University, disagreed with those predicting the potential outcome of battles between the J-20 and F-22.

"It is too early to say whether the J-20 can challenge the F-22, since we don't have any technical details for the Chinese plane. I also have doubts over the plane's stealth capability," he said.

"The J-20 is definitely stronger than previous Chinese jets, but one plane's development doesn't necessarily bring about great progress in the country's overall air strength," he added.

The US-based Aviation Weekly reported that, based on the pictures, the J-20 jet has features that make it less compatible with stealth activities.

"The J-20 may not match the all-aspect stealth of the F-22," it said.

Some analysts said the J-20, with a larger size and a higher ground clearance than the F-22, might be a mixture of a stealth jet and a bomber.

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