China's state media have published pictures that appear to show a prototype of the country's first stealth fighter jet -- a move that supports experts' claims that China's military aviation program is advancing faster than expected.
The photographs show what appears to be a future J-20 fighter conducting taxi tests on a runway at the Chengdu Aircraft Design Institute's airfield in southwestern China. Analysis of the images shows the jet to be larger than either the Russian or U.S. stealth planes, likely allowing it to fly farther and carry heavier weaponry. That could call into question the U.S. decision to cut funding for its own stealth jet, the F-22.
The release of the photos comes just days before U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates begins a long-delayed visit to Beijing, a year after China suspended military ties over arms sales to Taiwan. Now China appears to be showing off its own military hardware.
A future Chinese stealth fighter has long been considered inevitable. 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 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.
NPR's Louisa Lim reported from Beijing for this story, which contains material from The Associated Press.