China Tests Its New Stealth Plane--But Don't Freak Out About It

80beatsBy Andrew MosemanJan 13, 2011 5:48 AM


Sign up for our email newsletter for the latest science news Military watchers are all atwitter this week about J-20, the Chinese stealth aircraft that has now taken to the skies in its inaugural test flight. It's the country's first radar-evading plane. The question is, what is it for, and should we worry? The aircraft appears most similar to the F-22 Raptor, the United States' stealth bomber/fighter and the only one of its kind in the world.

"From what we can see, I conclude that this aircraft does have great potential to be superior in some respects to the American F-22, and could be decisively superior to the F-35 [joint strike fighter]," claims Richard Fisher, a senior fellow on Asian military affairs at the International Assessment and Strategy Center, a Washington-based security think tank. [Los Angeles Times]

At 70 feet, the J-20 is actually longer than the Raptor by 10 feet. To some, that size would suggest its makers are attempting to maximize range, making the J-20 as much a bomber as a fighter.

The Chinese jet has “perhaps lower super-cruise performance and agility than an F-22, but with larger weapon bays and more fuel,” [defense expert Bill] Sweetman added. “Super-cruise” is the ability to travel long distances at supersonic speed, something only the F-22 can really do, at the moment. [Wired]

The point of this for China

, then, may be to gain the capacity for long-range bombing attacks. But with the information available now, it's not entirely clear—the J-20 could also be intended as a long-range interceptor. Even though we don't know much about the Chinese military's new toy, Wired says

, we shouldn't panic for a number of reasons. For one thing, the plane's Russian engine means the Russians could cut off the supply if they don't care for China's choice of military

targets. But on a bigger picture note, the competition for bragging rights between two stealth aircraft will be the least of everyone's worries if the United States and China ever do come to serious military blows. Says Admiral Mike Mullen

, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, says the technological achievements of China's secretive military reenforce the need for good diplomacy.

"The opaqueness of that, tied to our lack of relationship, is something I'd like to see if we can crack open," he told reporters, stressing the importance of direct military relations between the United States and China to defuse any potential problems that could escalate into violence.... "Many of these capabilities seem to be focused very specifically on the United States so that's why having this relationship is so important." [AFP].

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