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Doubts and fears over Chinese "stealth fighter"


China is still years away from being able to field a stealth aircraft, despite online images indicating that it appears to have a radar-evading fighter prototype, a U.S. Navy official said Wednesday.

Photographs published on unofficial Chinese and foreign defense-related websites, as far back as Dec. 29, purport to show a J-20 prototype undergoing runway tests, usually one of the last steps before an aircraft makes its first flight.

The twin-engined, chiseled-nosed plane mixes Russian engine technology with a fuselage design similar to that of the U.S. air force's F-22 "stealth" fighter, which can avoid detection by radar. The photographs also appear to feature a "carrier-killer" missile, an adaptation of an intermediate-range ballistic missile — the DF-21D — capable of significant damage to aircraft carriers, as the name suggests.

"The main implication of China deploying this system is that it would certainly make the U.S. navy pause before deciding to project naval power into the South China Sea region during a time of tension," said Peter Felstead, the editor of Jane's Defence Weekly, quoted in The Guardian.

The photographs, reportedly taken at the Chengdu Aircraft Design Institute in western China, come days before U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates heads to Beijing to restart top-level military consultations that were all but frozen in January, 2010, after the White House announced a $6 billion arms sale to Taiwan. Meantime, Chinese president Hu Jintao is due to visit Washington later this month.

China is in the middle of a swift expansion and modernization, much of it to improve air, sea and space capabilities. Chinese military officials say their buildup is defensive, but analysts interviewed by The New York Times say the military’s expansion is part of a long-range strategy to transform the armed forces from a domestic power to a force with global reach comparable to that of the United States.

But one top Taiwanese security analyst who spoke to GlobalPost's Jonathan Adams reports said rumors of the runway test and China's other upgrades had already achieved their key objective: to mess with U.S. war planners' heads.

"It's a very effective deterrent on the minds of strategic planners in Washington," said Lin Chong-Pin, a former Taiwan defense official who teaches strategy at Tamkang University. "The Chinese don’t have to do anything in the future. Their announcement has already thrown a monkey wrench in strategic planning for U.S. action in and around the Taiwan Strait."

Andrei Chang, the editor of Kanwa Defense Weekly in Hong Kong, told the Times on Wednesday that he had been authoritatively told that the jet would make its first test flight on Thursday, weather permitting.

But China's state-run media called news of the tests "rumors" in newspapers Wednesday, and sought to play down the aircraft’s capabilities.

And other experts have suggested that the pictured aircraft is a mock-up, rather than a functioning prototype of a stealth fighter.

As reported by GlobalPost's Adams, China's recent military advances have launched a debate in security circles.

Here are at least 2 videos featuring images of the J-20 prototype: