The Wall Street Journal‘s front page today features a pair of black-bordered snapshots of China’s J-20 fighter, under a headline warning of “A Chinese Stealth Challenge?” For those of us who have read the Journal for years, respecting its balanced and judicious approach on national-security topics, it’s plane something has changed since the venerable, but boringly sober, Bancroft family sold the place to Rupert Murdoch in 2007. The Australian press baron obviously loves to stir the superpower pot.
The piece is laced with foreboding:
…experts say they believe the pictures and the aircraft are authentic, giving the strongest indication yet that Beijing is making faster-than-expected progress in developing a rival to the U.S. F-22—the world’s only fully operational stealth fighter…the photographs are likely to bolster concerns among U.S. officials and politicians about China’s military modernization, which also includes the imminent deployment of its first aircraft carrier and “carrier-killer” antiship ballistic missiles.
Such stories are an evergreen for reporters trolling the military-industrial complex beat (and yes, we wrote about this stealth fighter back on Dec. 27…but we didn’t put it on the cover of our magazine).
Over breakfast this morning, a top Navy intelligence officer told reporters the yet-to-fly J-20 won’t be challenging the skies anytime soon. The new warplane is likely years away, said Vice Adm. David “Jack” Dorsett, the deputy chief of naval operations for information dominance. But he warned that such developments have tended to surprise U.S. intelligence — never a good thing. “We have been pretty consistent in underestimating the delivery…of Chinese technology and weapons systems,” he said. “They enter operational capability quicker than we frequently project.” The taxiway tests of the J-20 suggest it could be flying by 2018, two years earlier than previously thought by U.S. intelligence.
The new jet prepares for takeoff just as relations between Beijing and Washington appear to be warming. Defense Secretary Robert Gates heads to China later this week, clearing the way for a visit to Washington later this month by Chinese president Hu Jintao. The two nations have been squabbling over North Korea, Iran and trade, shadowed by military moves by both nations in the western Pacific. Part of that has involved the U.S. dispatching F-22 fighters to Guam, Hawaii and Japan to signal U.S. resolve in the region. It should come as no surprise that China plainly doesn’t care for such incursions into its ‘hood, and is reacting by bolstering its own air force. They seem to be doing pretty much what we would do if the Chinese, for the sake of argument, were deploying its hottest fighters to Bolivia, Cuba and Venezuela.