How did China learn to build 'stealth' planes?

Tuesday, 25. January 2011     1 comment(s)
Charly Salonius-Pasternak
Senior Research Fellow - The Global Security research programme

Much has been made of China’s recent public introduction of its J-20 fighter, its first alleged 5th generation (stealth) jet. The most hyperbolic analysis even suggests that this one plane will change the balance of power in the western pacific. There are many interesting aspects to the story, some of which will be covered in future posts. Today’s post will focus on how China might have acquired stealth related technology that helped in the design and construction of the J-20.

To the surprise of much of the world, in early 2011 China introduced, began testing, and flew a plane it has claimed to be its first 5th generation plane– this was considerably sooner than was expected, even by US defense officials. The Chinese Air Force had announced it would introduce an F-22 type plane around this time, but the fact that China has had significant problems producing even earlier generation J-10 jets, led many to argue that China must have copied the technology from somewhere. The obvious candidate is the US, with recent speculation centred on the US F-117 plane shot down over Serbia in 1999. Though it is likely that Chinese understanding of stealth technology improved through their acquisition of some pieces from the F-117 wreck, the story is more complex.

First, a little history: The US F-117 that was shot down over Serbia in 1999, was shot down with technology originating in the 1960s, technology which the 1970s designed plane was intended to counter. A few technical upgrades, predictable planning on the US/NATO side and use of non-doctrinaire tactics by the Serbian military made the feat possible. The F-117 was ultimately retired from active service in 2008. Was this retirement in response to events a decade earlier? Possibly, but by 2008 the F-117 design was more than three decades old and most of the planes required costly upgrades. With the Raptor (F/A/B-22) already operational and the Joint Strike Fighter on the horizon, there was little perceived need to extend the usage life of the first generation stealth plane.

There are no outward signs that the Chinese J-20 benefitted from the F-117’s older ‘faceted’ approach to stealth design, as the J-20 is more modern and curved in ways similar to the Russian FA-PAK and US F-22. If the Chinese learned anything about stealth from this first generation plane, it more than likely had to do with the special radar absorbent coatings on the plane. A modern curved shape and radar absorbent materials are, however, not the most difficult pieces to develop when building a 5th generation plane. One of the most difficult pieces is the creation and integration of sensors and onboard systems (including communications). This is where the story becomes more intriguing.

There are strong indications that in 2007 and 2008 hackers were able to steal data from a sub-contractor in the multi-national Joint Strike Fighter program. The odds-on favourite destination for the data is China. According to published reports, hackers gained access to data related to design and electronic systems. Because the Joint Strike Fighter is in many ways at the cutting edge of manned stealth flight (unlike the F-117), such information would undoubtedly have benefited China’s J-20 efforts – if the information was real (obviously, short of multiple J-20s falling out of the sky, the public will never know).

However, even stipulating that China was able to access real data and then copy some systems from the JSF, it would not get China over the single biggest hurdle in building a 5th generation plane: integration. It is very unlikely that information on integration of systems (including communications) would be stored on any computer directly connected to the Internet. This gives us something to look for in the coming years: If China is able to take the J-20 into service in the next few years, suggesting big leaps in integration, there is every reason to believe that it is because they benefited from work done by others – and the F-117 is unlikely to be the source.

What all of this suggests about the broader US – China military relationship is the topic of the next post.

Oh, and the J-20 will not change the power balance between the US and China in the western Pacific.

Texts reflect the opinions of the individual authors

Discussion (1 comments)

2.2.2011, Vesa Vihavainen

Just wonder how top secret stuff was at all available over the net. The war tactics taught by American Indians, Chinese Sun Tsun, guerilla warriors etc. tell clearly that you should hide yourself, hide your power, and then hit at the right time and hard. Common sense?

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