An aircraft that is reported to be a Chinese stealth fighter is seen in Chengdu, Sichuan province, in this picture leased by Kyodo news agency, 8 Jan 2011
An aircraft that is reported to be a Chinese stealth fighter is seen in Chengdu, Sichuan province, in this picture leased by Kyodo news agency, 8 Jan 2011

Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell went out of his way at a briefing Wednesday to say some reports about China?s new J-20 fighter are "over the top", and make assumptions that the aircraft is as advanced as the new, fifth generation American fighters. "We don?t know, frankly, much about the capabilities of that plane, which you saw photographs and some video of.  We don?t know yet what the capabilities are of the engine that propelled that plane.  We don?t know if it?s a fifth generation engine.  We don?t know if indeed it is as stealthy as they claim it to be," he said.

Morrell says China is far from fielding a fighter jet capability that could match the hundreds of advanced, radar-evading aircraft that the United States already has deployed, the additional planes it has in production and even newer ones that are in development.

On his way to China two weeks ago, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates acknowledged that China is moving faster toward developing its own fifth generation fighter, known as the J-20.  Two days later, while Gates was meeting with Chinese leaders, the aircraft made its first test flight, taking both U.S. and Chinese officials by surprise.

But Morrell says China?s pursuit of an advanced fighter capability was well known. "We were well aware of this evolving capability.  And what we saw last week doesn?t change the strategic calculus at all," he said.

The Pentagon did not mention the Chinese J-20 development program in its last two annual reports on China?s military advances.  But Morrell says China?s effort is part of the reason the United States developed its own fifth generation fighters, the F-22 and F-35, and upgraded older planes to near fifth generation capability.

The spokesman?s contention that one flight test is not evidence of an advanced capability was backed up Wednesday by at least one expert on China?s military. "Well, I don?t think we have a clear idea on what it can do or is designed to do," said Larry Wortzel, a 30-year U.S. Army veteran and a long-time China watcher. He is now a member of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, a research arm of the U.S. Congress.  He says there is considerable doubt about whether the Chinese plane has an engine as strong as the U.S. fifth generation fighters.  And he says while it looks like a stealth aircraft, its actual capability will not be known until it flies in the vicinity of foreign radar.  But he does not dismiss concerns about the Chinese plane.

"I think the intelligence community has been surprised consistently by how quickly China has begun to field equipment.  And I think they were surprised that this came out when it did.  But for the most part, it takes them two to three years from the initial test to get something operational, and sometimes it takes them longer than that," he said.

Still, Wortzel says U.S. officials could be surprised again, particularly because China is believed to have stolen plans for the F-35, the most advanced American fighter jet, and to have obtained parts from a U.S. stealth aircraft that crashed in Europe 10 years ago.  In addition, he notes that an American was convicted just this week of passing military secrets to China.

So Wortzel says U.S. officials should worry about China?s stealth fighter development effort, but he also says Secretary Gates is right when he argues that the United States will remain well ahead of China in that key, high-technology military capability for years to come.