Recently published photographs have revealed that China has begun testing a new version of their J-20 stealth fighter.
The latest prototype, assigned as number 2002, was spotted at a research facility in the city of Chengdu. Compared to the original 2001 model, the redesigned stealth jet features some slight, but notable modifications. Beyond this, not much is known about China's stealth program and there's still debate over whether such accelerated developments present any sort of credible threat to the F-22, America's supreme stealth fighter.
It was only a little over a year ago that the first photos and a video of China’s rumored J-20 stealth fighter surfaced on numerous web sites and blogs. Not too long after, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said that Chinese president Hu Jintao openly acknowledged to him to that the Chinese military had indeed just completed a 15-minute test flight. At the time, General He Weirong of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force said that serviceable fleet may be ready as early as 2017.
Since then, there's been periodic sightings of the mysterious Mighty Dragon. Back in March, published snapshots showed the aircraft performing aerial maneuvers over an unspecified region of China’s airspace. Business Insider reports that “the prototype is said to be using the Saturn AL-31 turbofan engine developed by the Russians for their Su-27 air superiority fighter.”
Even with financial problems and a manufacturing strike jeopardizing future production of the F-22, some American industry experts don't see China's progress as anything worth losing any sleep over. "I'm not sure that its even much of an impressive airframe," aviation analyst Richard Aboulafia of the Teal Group told The Daily Telegraph. "It looks like something that might have been designed in 1985."
But comparing the J-20 capabilities head to head with the F-22 as a way to gauge threat level may be a flawed approach. Lower production costs may enable China to bolster the size of their fleet to the point where outnumbering the opposition is all it would take to win in aerial combat situations. And according to Wired's David Axe:
Mighty Dragon 2002 does appear to be a step towards an early combat capability. It features several apparent improvements over its sister Mighty Dragon 2001, including stockier landing gear and a redesigned nose that could house an ultra-modern electronically scanned radar. If Beijing chooses to build a squadron of J-20s for early front-line use, they could look a lot like jet number 2002.
He also adds that it's likely that China's approach won't involve undergoing a prolonged testing period as is typical with U.S. military defense technologies. Instead, it's possible that they'll just fast-track the process to put sufficiently operable models into service. In the meantime, any necessary improvements will simply be implemented into the second generation.
Simply put, we might be seeing a combat-ready J-20 fighter sooner than anyone would have expected.
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