Photos Reveal Possible Chinese Stealth Fighter

There are new photographs of what appears to be a new Chinese fighter jet. The plane — China's version of a stealth fighter — is shown performing what are believed to be taxi tests on a runway. Aviation experts are trying to learn more from the photos about the progress and meaning of the Chinese stealth jet, while the Pentagon has downplayed the development, indicating it could still be several years before the fighter could be fielded. But the news comes in the context of rising defense spending in China and a new emphasis there on military modernization. Defense Secretary Robert Gates visits China next week.

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The proposed cuts in U.S. defense spending come just as concerns about China's military program are growing. The latest example: a new Chinese fighter jet with stealth characteristics, meaning it can't be seen on radar.

It's still in development, but pictures of the aircraft on a runway appeared last week in Chinese media. U.S. experts aren't sure how soon the plane will be operational, but they say it shows China is moving quickly to modernize its military.

NPR's Tom Gjelten reports.

TOM GJELTEN: There are a lot of U.S. security experts who follow China's military development, and in their world, it was no secret China was working on a stealthy aircraft. Some pictures had even leaked out.

But Roger Cliff of the RAND Corporation says those early images didn't reveal anything all that impressive.

Mr. ROGER CLIFF (RAND Corporation): They appeared to be versions of aircraft that were already in service that had been modified to try to make them stealthy and so on. But the newest pictures show an entirely new design that looks very advanced.

GJELTEN: The aircraft shown on a Chinese runway last week looks something like an American F-22, the most advanced stealth fighter in the world today. It has the same two angled tailfins, for example. It can carry missiles. It has twin engines.

Richard Fisher, at the International Strategy and Assessment Center is one of many China analysts impressed by this new Chinese fighter.

Mr. RICHARD FISHER (International Strategy and Assessment Center): It has, in my opinion, the potential to have a performance that could be superior to the American F-22.

GJELTEN: You said superior.

Mr. FISHER: Yes.

GJELTEN: That would be if it could fly faster or farther than the F-22 with its same stealth capability. But no one knows that for sure yet.

Pentagon officials point out the new Chinese fighter is years from being operational. And Dean Cheng of the Heritage Foundation says the news of an advanced Chinese stealth aircraft should not be coming as a surprise.

Mr. DEAN CHENG (Heritage Foundation) The Chinese air force is not the obsolete air force it was in the '50s and '60s. That model has been jettisoned.

What should be of concern is when we contrast where the Chinese are versus very confident assertions by various folks that the Chinese were a decade away.

GJELTEN: A decade away. U.S. intelligence officials now think the new Chinese fighter could be in use by 2018. And Roger Cliff says it's a surprise to him and other analysts that the Chinese have developed a fighter with a long-range capability. That alone, he says, is cause for concern to U.S. air commanders.

Mr. CLIFF: This is a plane that's going to be able to fly far enough to actually threaten those aerial refueling aircraft, signals-intelligence aircraft, radar aircraft and so on that are all essential to our ability to actually use air-combat power in a conflict.

GJELTEN: And this new aircraft is just the latest example of the Chinese military advances. They're due to launch an aircraft carrier of their own later this year. Plus, there's a new Chinese missile that could hit an American aircraft carrier.

And Chinese officials are calling for sharp increases in military spending and making more aggressive statements about their military intentions.

James Mulvenon, a China expert at the Defense Group consultancy, says there's an effort here to send the United States a message. Defense Secretary Robert Gates heads to Beijing next week, and Chinese president Hu Jintao comes here later this month.

Mr. JAMES MULVENON (China Expert, Defense Group): Recent disclosures of photographs, I think, fall in that pattern and are meant to set a certain tone, which is to say that China is not easy to push around and that the United States needs to pay greater attention to China's statements about its view of its national interests and to pay greater respect to those.

GJELTEN: China's military modernization program still leaves it years behind U.S. capabilities, but not that many years. The security experts following these developments say China will be rivaling the United States, at least in Asia, as soon as 2020.

Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington.

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