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Unveiled: China's secretive stealth fighter

Last updated on: November 01, 2016 19:51 IST

China showcased its Chengdu J-20 stealth fighter for the first time in public on Tuesday, sending it on a flypast over Airshow China, the country's biggest meeting of aircraft makers and buyers in the southern city of Zhuhai.

The J-20 fighter is called Beijing's answer to the US F-22 stealth fighter and the F-35 that will be soon deployed in the Pacific by the United States and Japan.

Two J-20 jets swept over dignitaries and hundreds of spectators and industry executives gathered at the China International Aviation and Aerospace Exhibition's opening ceremony in a 60-second flypast, generating a deafening roar that was met with gasps and applause and set off car alarms in a car park at the site.

China has been refining designs for the J-20, first glimpsed by plane spotters in 2010, in the hope of narrowing a military technology gap with the United States.

Pakistan, the largest importer of Chinese arms has said earlier that it is in talks with China to buy the FC-31 -- an export variant of the same aircraft. The FC-31 was briefly flown in the 2014 Zhuhai airshow.

The stealth aircraft is regarded as major breakthrough for China which is otherwise mostly reliant on Russian aircraft including advanced versions of Sukhois.

India is yet to make stealth aircraft which can penetrate through enemy radars.

The J-20 aircraft will fly over the weeklong show each day after taking off from an airfield in nearby Foshan, but visitors will not be able to view the aircraft close up on the ground.

But analysts said Tuesday's brief and relatively cautious J-20 routine -- the pilots did not open weapon bay doors, or perform low-speed passes -- answered few questions.

"I think we learned very little. We learned it is very loud. But we can't tell what type of engine it has, or very much about the mobility," said Greg Waldron, Asia Managing Editor of FlightGlobal told Reuters. "Most importantly, we didn't learn much about its radar cross-section."

A key question whether the new Chinese fighter can match the radar-evading properties of the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor air-to-air combat jet, or the latest strike jet in the US arsenal, Lockheed's F-35. The F-22 Raptor, developed for the US Air Force, is the J-20's closest lookalike.

An official in the People's Liberation Air Force told media in Zhuhai the aircraft will not be displayed in public because the "J-20 contains many of China's top technologies in stealth aircraft plus other military secrets".

"The secrets include the J-20's body shape, the proportion of its wing and body and other secrets as aircraft experts can easily calculate its stealth parameters from its exterior," Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post quoted the unnamed PLAF official as saying.

The J-20 earlier made waves earlier as its picture covered in tarpaulin at an airport in Tibet. The J-20 has already created a buzz about its likely deployment on the India-China border though Chinese experts say it is unlikely.

But the mere display of such a newly developed aircraft was a revealing signal, others said.

"It's a change of tactics for the Chinese to publicly show off weapons that aren't in full squadron service yet," said Sam Roggeveen, a senior fellow at the Sydney-based Lowy Institute, told Reuters, adding that "it demonstrates a lot of confidence in the capability, and also a lot of pride."

President Xi Jinping has pushed to toughen the armed forces as China takes a more assertive stance in Asia, particularly in the South China and East China seas.

The long-range J-20, armed with air-to-air missiles, performed its first test flight in 2011 and has been the object of feverish attention by the nation's aviation buffs. At least six prototypes have been produced, according to an annual report on the Chinese military issued by the Pentagon this year.

A write-up in the China Military Online in September stated that "it is said that J-20 will be put into service soon but the China-India border is apparently not the ideal place for its deployment".

"In addition, the world's highest airport there does not have a complete set of supporting facilities and such shortage will impede the function of J-20".

Experts added that if China is to deploy J-20 targeting India, it will do that only when the maintenance and operation of the aircraft in plain bases becomes mature.

J-20 will not be deployed in Daocheng Yading airport (Tibet) as it is too close to the border, and it is vulnerable to India's first-wave hit.

"If India is to deploy the BrahMos missile on the China-India border, then the Daocheng Yading airport will likely become its target," the write up said.

J-20 specifications:

Length: 21.26 Meters (69.75 Feet)
Wing span: 12.88 Meters (42.26 Feet)
Canard span: 7.62 Meters (25.00 Feet)
Height 4.45 Meters (14.60 Feet)

Empty weight 17 Tons
Loaded Weight: 25 Tons

Maximum speed: (When Powered with WS-15 turbofan engine)
At altitude: Mach 2.5 (1903 mph, 3062 km/h)
Supercruise Speed : Mach 1.83 (1393 mph, 2442 km/h)

Service Ceiling: 20000 Meters (65620 Feet)

Combat Radius: 2000 Kilometers (1243 Miles)
Ferry Range: 5500 Kilometers (3418 Miles)

Images: China unveils its J-20 stealth fighter during an air show in Zhuhai, Guangdong Province, China. Photographs: Reuters