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The leak Wednesday of photos of a what appears to be a prototype of China’s first stealth fighter jet attracted immediate attention worldwide, but many note that China is years away from moving that jet into service.
Pictures of the jet and accompanying articles appeared on the front page of the Chinese daily Global Times on Wednesday. The lack of a government suppression of the disclosure lends credence to China's reports, the Associated Press reports.
The Global Times did not comment on the authenticity of the pictures, but since the government wields extensive control over state media, the report's appearance and the fact that censors have not removed images from websites suggest a calculated move to leak the information into the public sphere.
That in turn would reflect the growing confidence of the traditionally secretive People's Liberation Army, which is pushing for greater influence and bigger budgets.
US defense officials don't appear worried.
"It is not of concern that they are working on a fifth-generation fighter," since the Chinese are "still having difficulties with their fourth-generation fighter," Marine Col. Dave Lapan, a Pentagon spokesman, told the Associated Press.
The prototype jet pictured in the leaked photos, known as a J-20, is notable because, like the US F-22, it would be undetectable by radar and antiaircraft defenses. The F-22 is currently the world’s only operational next-generation stealth fighter jet.
The pictures emerged only days before US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates's visit to China planned for this weekend and a couple weeks before President Hu Jintao travels to the US to meet with President Obama, CNN reports.
The timing of the disclosure is no coincidence, some say, and hints at China's new approach to military power – deterrence – by broadcasting their growing capabilities, The New York Times reports.
These days, there is more muscle to show. A decade of aggressive modernization of China’s once creaky military is beginning to bear fruit, and both the Pentagon and China’s Asian neighbors are increasingly taking notice.
By most accounts, China remains a generation or more behind the United States in military technology, and even further behind in deploying battle-tested versions of its most sophisticated naval and air capabilities. But after years of denials that it has any intention of becoming a peer military power of the United States, it is now unveiling capabilities that suggest that it intends, sooner or later, to be able to challenge American forces in the Pacific.
The Global Times also reported that utilization of the new jet remains many years off and denied claims that the development of the J-20 is a sign of military aggression, instead calling it merely a reflection of China’s economic growth.
"If the development of the J-20 is true, it will be another reflection of China's fast industrial advancement, which has already been highlighted by high-speed railways and space exploration," Song Xiaojun, a Beijing-based military expert, told the Global Times. "Besides the global, military impact, the rumored J-20 also bears political significance because it represents China's growing power."
He disagreed with some media reports that China is becoming aggressive militarily.
"The country's increasing military strength matches its economic growth," Song added.
Bloomberg reports that Vice Admiral Jack Dorsett, head of US naval intelligence, said the US underestimated the speed at which China could reach certain military technology milestones – the development of a ballistic missile capable of hitting a maneuvering target and, potentially, the stealth fighter jet.
Meanwhile, China Post reported that Taiwan’s deputy defense minister in charge of intelligence Shen I-ming said the “authenticity of the photos was questionable” and that while China has been developing a fifth generation fighter jet system, that is not what is pictured in the published photos. Shen also said that Taiwan has been monitoring China’s military development.
Dennis Blasko, an expert on the People's Liberation Army – the world's largest military force – said the timeline for development of the jet was "probably considerably longer than what most outside observers would estimate."
"I have yet to see proof of a test flight. And testing for a prototype can take quite some time before production begins," Blasko said.
CNN reports that the stealth jet wasn't expected to be operational until 2017 but that testing is now expected to begin much earlier than that, and AFP reports that Chinese officials said it could enter into service as early as the next eight to 10 years.