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PLA’s Stealth Surprise to Gates: Was it a Surprise to Hu Too?

There is so much happening in China and with such rapidity that I find it difficult to keep pace with it. I do hope that the Indian intelligence agencies are keeping themselves abreast of what has been going on in China and the role of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in it.

2. The PLA has been making remarkable use of the Internet and China’s vast and ever-growing community of Netizens to keep their people informed of its achievements and to create a national pride in them. They are using the community of Netizens— many of them apparently military personnel— in various ways to collect information about the rest of the world, to disseminate information about China and its military achievements and to undertake a psychological warfare.

3. Till a few months ago, I used to spend about an hour every morning to go through China’s government and party controlled print media in order to get a hang of what has been going on in China. Now I find that the monitoring of the print media alone is no longer adequate for a proper understanding of China. One has to do a systematic monitoring of the mushrooming web sites, blogs and micro-blogs. The English used in these sites and blogs is of poor quality as compared to the excellent English in the print media. As a result, one has difficulty in having a proper understanding. One has to visit multiple sites for a clear understanding.

4. The way the PLA made the world aware of its success in developing a Stealth aircraft much before the West expected it to do so is a good example of how it uses the Internet to project its strength. In December, many Internet sites in China carried pictures of a prototype Stealth aircraft undergoing runway tests in an airfield near Chengdu.

5. Then on January 11, as Robert Gates, the visiting US Defence Secretary, who arrived in Beijing on January 9, was getting ready to call on President Hu Jintao, Internet sites in China were full of pictures of the Stealth aircraft undergoing its first test flight from an airfield near Chengdu in the Sichuan province for about 15 minutes on January 11. It has been reported that some Netizens actually gave a virtual running commentary of the flight. If true, this would have been possible only if the PLA  had alerted military-connected Netizens about the impending test flight.

6. It has been reported that Gates asked Hu during his meeting with him whether these accounts are correct. It has been further  reported that Hu confirmed that the reports are correct, but he claimed that the first test flight had nothing to do with Gates’ visit and that it had been planned sometime ago.

7. Gates was apparently taken by surprise by the test flight on the day he was meeting Hu, but was Hu himself aware that the PLA was going to carry out the test flight that day? Some reports say that while the PLA had taken the approval of the Central Military Commission for the test flight, its doing so on the day of Gates’ meeting with Hu was a surprise even to the Chinese political leadership. It will be difficult to confirm this. However, it is noticed that Xi Jinping, a member of the Standing Committee of the Political Bureau of the CPC Central Committee, member of the Secretariat of the CPC Central Committee, Vice President of the People’s Republic of China, Vice Chairman of the CPC Central Military Commission and President of the  Party School of the CPC Central Committee, had reportedly  visited Chengdu around this period.He is projected as Hu’s successor-designate as the Chinese President and party General Secretary . The reports of his visit would tend to rule out the possibility of the PLA taking the political leadership by surprise by timing the test flight  on the day of Gates’ meeting with Hu. According to the BBC,  Xi Jinping visited the airfield on January 8 presumably to witness a test flight that was aborted due to bad weather.

8. Annexed are two detailed reports on the test flight carried on January 12 by the “People’s Daily” online and the “China DailY . (12-1-11)

( The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute for Topical Studies, Chennai, and Associate of the Chennai Centre For China Studies. E-mail: )

ANNEXURE I ( From the “People’s Daily” online of January 12,2011)

China’s stealth fighter J20 takes to air January 12, 2011

President Hu Jintao confirmed China yesterday conducted its first test flight of a stealth fighter jet, which marks dramatic progress in the country’s efforts to develop cutting-edge military technologies.

After talks with the Chinese president, US Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Hu told him that the maiden test flight of the advanced J-20 fighter jet prototype was not timed to coincide with his visit and had been planned earlier.

“I asked President Hu about it directly, and he said that the test had absolutely nothing to do with my visit and had been a preplanned test. And that’s where we left it,” Gates told reporters.

Gates is visiting Beijing, seeking to improve often tense military relations.

China yesterday successfully tested its radar-eluding fighter.

The prototype plane, known as J-20, took off from an airstrip at the site of Chengdu Aircraft Industrial Group at 12:50pm in the southwestern city of Chengdu.

The flight lasted for about 18 minutes, with a J-10 fighter – China’s last homegrown jet – accompanying the J-20.

Although it will be some years before the J-20 enters service, it is a potential rival to the US F-22 Raptor, the only stealth fighter currently operating.

The US is also employing stealth technology on the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, while Russia’s Sukhoi T-50’s stealth fighter made its maiden flight last year and is set to enter service in about four years.

In photographs, China’s twin-engine J-20 appears larger than either the Russian or US fighters, potentially allowing it to fly further and carry heavier weapons.

The plane is developed by the Chengdu Aircraft Industrial Group.

China’s aviation industry – both military and civilian – has made rapid progress in recent years but still relies heavily on imported technology.

Propulsion has been a particular problem, with Russian engines still powering the J-10 and J-11, a copy of Russia’s Su-27 fighter.

Stealth technology is even more difficult to master as it relies on systems to hide the presence of the plane, while equipping the pilot with information to attack an enemy. Emissions must be hidden and the fuselage sculpted to avoid detection by radar and infrared sensors.

Despite the challenges, the J-20’s entry into the test flight stage seems to indicate China is progressing faster than expected with the new technology, even though the plane’s true capabilities aren’t known.

Analysts said two prototypes have been developed, with one employing a Russian engine and the other a Chinese one. It wasn’t clear which prototype flew yesterday.

Chinese progress also potentially calls into question Gates’ decision to cap production of the F-22 at 187 planes, partly because of claims that China would not have a fifth-generation fighter for many years to come.

Along with the J-20, China’s military is developing sophisticated new warships, submarines, missiles and possibly one or more aircraft carriers.

Source: Shanghai Daily

ANNEXURE II ( From the “China Daily” of January 12 )

Test flight of stealth jet reported By Zhao Lei (China Daily) ‘Event not targeted at any country’

BEIJING – China staged a test flight of its first stealth fighter jet on Tuesday, according to online news sites and Internet blogs.

Although the government and the military have yet to formally confirm the news, an official with the Ministry of National Defense seemed to corroborate it.

Asked by the media to confirm the test flight at a news conference, Guan Youfei, deputy director of the ministry’s foreign affairs office, said: “As for the event you mentioned, it is not targeted at any country or particular target, nor does it intentionally coincide with the visit by US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. It was a normal and routine arrangement.

“China has developed some weaponry to safeguard its national sovereignty, security and territorial integrity … China’s military development must be correctly assessed.”

Gates told reporters after talks with President Hu Jintao that the maiden test flight of the advanced J-20 fighter jet prototype was part of their discussions.

Gates said Hu told him that the maiden test flight was not timed to coincide with his visit.

“I asked President Hu about it directly, and he said that the test had absolutely nothing to do with my visit and had been a pre-planned test. And that’s where we left it,” Gates was quoted as saying by Reuters.

Asked to comment on reports about the test flight, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei sidestepped the question.

He said it is “quite normal” for any country to update its weaponry, and China has done so based on “its own security and defense needs” and “no particular country is targeted”.

The test flight of the radar-eluding fighter jet in Chengdu, Sichuan province, has been widely reported on Chinese Internet blogs and online news sites.

The test flight of the two-engine, fourth generation fighter jet, which lasted 15 minutes, has been hailed by Chinese aviation enthusiasts and military fans as a glorious chapter in the history of the country’s aviation industry and in the modernization drive of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

According to Internet reports, which cited witnesses, the prototype took off at 12:50 pm and landed at around 1:05 pm at an unidentified airfield in Chengdu, which, along with Shenyang in Liaoning province and Xi’an in Shaanxi province, accommodates one of the country’s most important and advanced aviation industry bases.

They showed pictures of a fighter plane in flight, and some offered what were cast as running accounts of the J-20 stealth jet fighter taking off for a short flight.

An online video clip showed the aircraft took off smoothly as onlookers applauded and then pierced the sky. The pilot later made a few passes over the airfield before landing. The clip showed a chase plane flying behind.

The news has generated blanket coverage on all major news portals including, and

The website of the official Xinhua News Agency also put a combination of photos taken by netizens, who allegedly witnessed the test flight from afar, on its front page, headlining the “successful” flight in a photo slideshow.

Pictures of the aircraft in flight and on the ground surrounded by men in civilian clothes and army overcoats were previously posted on Chinese military websites.

After the maiden appearance of the J-10 fighter aircraft on China Central Television on Dec 29, 2006, the focus of attention for China’s aviation enthusiasts and Western military analysts turned to the development of China’s fourth generation jet fighter that supposedly boasts stealth technology, supercruise performance and superb maneuverability.

According to earlier reports by Western media, the J-20 is one of the stealth fighter programs launched in the late 1990s.

Two prototypes had been built as of the end of 2010, the US-based Aviation Week reported.

In late December, a host of photographs were posted online by Chinese netizens, apparently showing people checking a J-20 prototype at an unnamed airfield allegedly located in Chengdu. The Chinese captions for some other photos suggested the prototype was undergoing high-speed taxiing tests on a runway.

Shortly after, aviation enthusiasts across China began swarming to Chengdu. Some of them waited continuously outside the unidentified facility for a rare opportunity to witness the jet fighter.

A low-quality video clip recording the taxiing process of a J-20 prototype was later put online.

Despite the apparent appearance of the J-20 much earlier than many foreign military analysts had expected, some Western aviation experts argued that their Chinese counterparts still faced obstacles, the most immediate being the lack of a reliable domestically developed engine.

On Jan 6, just days ahead of the test flight, China’s Central Military Commission awarded a first-class merit to Gan Xiaohua, an aircraft engine expert from a PLA Air Force equipment research institute, according to the Ministry of National Defense.

Many analysts and Chinese netizens regarded the award as a positive sign that implied the country had achieved a remarkable advance in the aircraft engine field.

The test flight was hailed by many netizens as a huge success for the country’s national defense technology industry.

“I could hardly hold my tears on hearing this news, and I do feel really proud for the achievement our scientists and servicemen have made,” a netizen, who goes under the name of SuperFighter, said in a comment on

General He Weirong, deputy commander of the PLA Air Force, said in November 2009 that he expected the J-20 to be operational in 2017-2019.

Cheng Guangjin and Reuters contributed to this story.

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