What can analysts glean from leaked photos of Beijing's latest fighter plane?
It wasn't so long ago that Western observers were analyzing photos of China's prototype stealth fighter, the J-20, under a microscope. Now, it seems, there may be more to see.
Newly leaked photographs online show what appear to be Beijing's second stab at a stealth jet. The images depict a black, dual-engine prototype aircraft on its maiden flight with its landing gear down. Observers have taken to calling the plane the J-31 -- a reference to its tail number, 31001 -- although some are calling it the J-21 and still others will probably call it the F-60 if, over the very long term, China winds up building the plane as a product for export on the international market.
Here's what we can say so far about the new jet: The J-31 differs from its predecessor in that it's smaller and lighter. It looks a lot like the F-22 Raptor and the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, raising concerns that at least some of this plane might have been the result of theft or espionage -- although others point out that around the world, designs for next-gen stealth fighters are converging. It's hard to be certain, but defense experts infer from the craft's lightness, as well as from its two-wheeled front landing gear, that the J-31 may be headed for naval service on China's recently unveiled aircraft carrier (which is actually a refit of an old Russian vessel). If that's the case, we may not see the J-31 in action for some time: Beijing has no immediate plans to store aircraft on the ship, much less embark on full operations with it. What's more, a carrier can't function on its own without a supporting set of ships. So before China can send sea-launched planes swooping through some other country's airspace, it's got to learn how to integrate a carrier into its fleet. There are a lot of uncertainties and potential obstacles in that undertaking alone.
Since it's an untested machine, we can guess a lot more about what the J-31 probably can't do than what it can. Computer mockups (images, by the way, that should be taken with a spoonful of salt) suggest that the stealth jet can carry up to 12 missiles, but the plane's internal weapons bays can fit only four medium-range weapons. That's important because carrying armaments outside the bays, under the wing, makes the plane considerably less stealthy. Also suspect are the quality of the electronics inside the craft as well as the stealth paint coating the outside -- China's limited expertise with stealth aircraft have led most observers to question the reliability of these components.
Finally, the biggest bottleneck in China's stealth program has been engine development; according to defense experts, Beijing may be a decade or more away from building an indigenous stealth engine that will fit its jets. Until then, it's made do with Russian imports. Writing in the Wall Street Journal , Andrew Erickson and Gabe Collins speculate that the J-31's two-engine design could mean one of two things: either it needs the extra power to sustain long-range or loitering operations, which provides a clue as to the aircraft's intended mission, or the Chinese don't trust the Russian engines enough to use just one (what if it malfunctions mid-flight?).
Lest we mistake the J-31 for a sign that China has pulled even with the West technologically, it's important to remember that the plane is only a prototype and likely won't be ushered into service for years. And keep in mind the usual caveats that what may appear as alarming advances in military technology, experts generally regard as catch-up after decades of a strategy emphasizing a low-tech numbers game.