China has finally unveiled its top-of-the-line stealth fighter jet, in a bid to show off its domestic defense industry.
With the new jet, called the J-20, the People’s Liberation Army Air Force is making a very public statement that it’s serious about modernizing and upgrading its home-made military hardware.
The J-20 has been in production since at least 2009 and has been kept tightly under wraps since then. Its maiden public flight, at the Zhuhai Air Show in China’s Guangdong province on Tuesday, was a flashy affair.
The new aircraft, perhaps not by accident, roughly resembles America’s F-22 Raptor fighter jet, and is just one of two fifth-generation stealth aircraft that the Chinese military hopes to have in operation within the next few years.
Its sister aircraft, the J-31, is expected to start rolling off the assembly line by 2019, with China hoping to export it worldwide to compete with America’s F-35. Both aircraft are an effort to move China away from the Russian-made fighter jets it has relied on for decades, toward developing a sizable Chinese aerospace industry that can compete with American and European manufacturers.
A report to Congress, filed by the Secretary of Defense, reports that China’s fighter jet program is working to bolster its air defense and “strengthen its ability to strike regional airbases and facilities.”
But anticipation is high for the J-20’s first fight for another reason: because it is an open question whether data stolen from American military contractors ended up in the final form of the aircraft.
In 2015, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., questioned Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work about what the U.S. military was planning to do, given that “we know that the J-20 is pretty much mirroring our F-22, we know that their J-31 is pretty much mirroring our F-35.”
Work conceded that the Chinese “have stolen information from our defense contractors and it has helped them develop systems,” but he added that the U.S. has since “hardened” its systems.