by DAVID AXE
It was Beijing’s ironic Christmas present to the world. On Dec. 25, the first photos surfaced on-line depicting the long-anticipated Chengdu J-20, China’s first stealth fighter prototype. While pundits debated the significance — some predicting imminent doom, others urging calm — steadily more photos, and even videos, appeared. The sleek, supersonic J-20 flew for the first time on Jan. 10, and by then its dimensions and layout were clear.
Analysts began noticing similarities in appearance between the J-20 and several foreign stealth designs, particularly the Russian MiG-1.44 and America’s Lockheed Joint Air Strike Technology demonstrator, both products of the mid-1990s. The design parallels led some observers to question whether China had help with the J-20. In light of Moscow’s and Beijing’s strong and deepening aerospace relationship, it seemed plausible that Russia had licensed stealth technologies that at least influenced, if not enabled, Chengdu’s efforts.
But there seemed to be another, more sinister possibility: that Beijing had based the J-20 on captured, and stolen, American technology.
In March, 1999, NATO launched a month-long air assault on Serbia following that country’s attack on ethnic minorities in what would become the country of Kosovo. On March 27, a Serbian SA-3 battery commanded by Col. Zoltan Dani shot down a U.S. Air Force F-117 stealth fighter-bomber, a type that had been introduced in the early 1980s. The American pilot survived and was quickly rescued, but the U.S. military could not act fast enough to prevent Serbs from pillaging the plane’s wreckage.
Some components ended up in a Serbian aviation museum; farmers spirited away others as souvenirs. And in the aftermath of the conflict, Chinese agents visited many of these farmers. “Our intelligence reports told of Chinese agents crisscrossing the region where the F-117 disintegrated, buying up parts of the plane,” Adm. Davor Domazet-Loso, then the top Croatian officer, told the Associated Press last week.
Could the information Chinese engineers gleaned from examining the F-117 wreckage have helped Beijing produce its own stealth fighter, 12 years later? “My own view is that with one exception, the Chinese would not have learned very much,” long-time aviation reporter Bill Sweetman concluded. “The fundamentals of stealth start with shaping, and the Chinese could have learned all they wanted from a visit to a hobby shop.”
Moreover, the J-20 does not resemble the now-retired F-117 in any way. Where the F-117 used many, angular facets to scatter radar waves, the J-20 and other recent stealth fighters use more subtle shaping techniques, including careful alignment of wing edges.
But stealth is a function of several factors besides shape. For one, the materials used in a planes structure, especially its leading edges, can absorb or reflect radar to varying degrees. In their bits and pieces of the wrecked F-117, Chinese engineers might have discovered new (to them) composites and alloys that they then applied to the J-20.
“Materials are important,” Sweetman agreed, “but most of the materials applied to the F-117, while state-of-the-art in the 1970s, are much heavier and thicker than anything you’d want to let near a supersonic aircraft. Better absorbers eventually made their way to the F-117 fleet, but under an upgrade program that had not delivered any jets by 1999.”
In the balance, it seems unlikely that the J-20 shares and DNA with the F-117. But that’s not to say the J-20 isn’t in part derived from American technology. “Much more useful to the Chengdu designers [than the F-117] would be more recent design and materials data alleged to have been gleaned by cyber-penetration of the U.S. contractor base,” commented Carlo Kopp, an analyst with the Air Power Australia think-tank.
In 2009, The Wall Street Journal reported that Chinese hackers had infiltrated computer networks belonging to Lockheed Martin, maker of the latest U.S. F-22 and F-35 stealth fighters. “The intruders were able to copy and siphon off several terabytes of data related to design and electronics systems,” the newspaper claimed.
“What did they get? We do not know since the [Office of the Secretary of Defense] issued a great many denials after the WSJ article,” Kopp observed. “What we can say is that the Chengdu designers mastered the far more important shaping design rules employed in the F-22A Raptor and F-35 [Joint Strike Fighter]. The critical inlet design on the J-20 is a fusion of the most important ideas introduced in both U.S. fighters. The nose shaping, chining, and wing fuselage joins and lower fuselage shaping are all based on the F-22 design rules, currently the best design rules to have been used in a fighter.
The Pentagon could be telling the truth, and the F-35 hackers came away with little of use. That is to say, the similarities between the Chinese and American stealth fighters could be sheer coincidence.
But a pattern of high-tech, strategic theft argues otherwise. “The United States is a major target for Chinese industrial espionage,” think-tank Stratfor explained. “This is because it is a leader in technology development, particularly in military hardware desired by China’s expanding military, and a potential adversary at the forefront of Chinese defense thinking.”
Stratfor detailed 11 Chinese espionage cases that the U.S. government prosecuted in 2010. Among them, “Xian Hongwei and someone known as ‘Li Li’ were arrested in September 2010 for allegedly attempting to purchase those aerospace-related microchips from BAE Systems, which is one of the companies involved in the development of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Similar espionage may have played a role in China’s development of the new J-20 fifth-generation fighter, but that is only speculation.”
Indeed, most of what has been written or said about the J-20 by anyone outside of Beijing an Chengdu is just that — speculation. That includes this article. It will take more exposure, more analysis and potentially even direct observation of the J-20 by foreign observers for the world to understand with any confidence what the J-20 is capable of, what it’s meant for, and where it came from.