BEIJING — China’s first radar-evading stealth fighter staged a runway test at an airbase in central China on Wednesday and could make its first flight as early as Thursday afternoon, the Hong Kong editor of a Canadian military journal said.
But the nation’s state-run media, which called news of the tests “rumors” in Wednesday’s newspapers, sought to play down reports about the aircraft’s capabilities. And comments about the new jet’s test regimen abruptly disappeared from blogs run by Chinese military enthusiasts.
The American magazine Aviation Week & Space Technology first reported on tests of the new plane, designated the J-20, in an article released on Monday. Military analysts say that photographs of the new jet on the tarmac at an airfield near Chengdu, have been appearing on blogs since mid-December.
Andrei Chang, the editor of Kanwa Defense Weekly in Hong Kong, said in a telephone interview on Wednesday that he had been authoritatively told that the jet will make its first test flight on Thursday, weather permitting.
He said Chinese officials appeared to have deliberately allowed word of the tests to become public, even to the point of bringing the jet to a Chengdu airfield, Factory 132 of the city’s aircraft design institute, that is commonly watched by military hobbyists, in a bid to display the nation’s growing military sophistication.
Defense Secretary M. Robert Gates is set to arrive in Beijing on Sunday to meet his Chinese counterpart, resuming top-level military consultations that have been all but frozen since the White House announced a $6 billion arms sale to Taiwan last January 29.
“They want to show the U.S., show Mr. Gates, their muscle,” Mr. Chang said.
Although the growth of China’s officially disclosed military budget slowed in 2010, the country remains in the midst of a swift expansion and modernization, much of it centered on improving air, sea and space capabilities.
Chinese military officials say their buildup is entirely defensive. Most analysts say the military’s expansion is part of a long-range strategy to transform the armed forces from a domestic power to a regional one, and ultimately to a force with global reach like that of the United States.
The People’s Liberation Army Navy is reported to be building an aircraft carrier, the first of several that the Pentagon says could be deployed by 2020. The head of the United States Pacific Command, Admiral Robert Willard, told a Japanese newspaper last month that a long-anticipated anti-ship ballistic missile, designed to strike other aircraft carriers, had reached an “initial operational capability.”
Navy officials later amended that, saying that the Chinese have a workable design but that it has yet to be tested.
In news reports, military analysts have suggested that the J-20 remains well behind both Russia’s T-50 jet and the two American stealth aircraft, the F-22 and F-35, in technical sophistication and radar-evading ability. Mr. Chang said the jet’s shortcomings likely include a Chinese-manufactured engine that is substantially inferior to those of its competitors.
Photographs of the jet, taken at the airfield and posted on Chinese Web sites, show an aircraft that mimics the design of the American F-22 Raptor. Aviation Week said that the plane appeared designed to carry larger weapons than the F-22, and analysts said it would be capable of launching cruise missiles and being refueled in midair.
Military analysts quoted in Wednesday’s South China Morning Post said that it would probably take the Chinese a decade to produce the J-20 in large numbers. Mr. Chang said that the military likely would need another 10 to 15 years to develop a stealth fighter equivalent to the advanced models in the United States and Russia.