A Chinese aerospace manufacturer on the weekend released high-resolution images of what could be China’s second stealth fighter.
For months, Shenyang Aircraft Corp (SAC), one of China’s principal aerospace firms, has been rumored to be working on the prototype of a stealth aircraft known as the J-21 “Snowy Owl.” This first came to the attention of defense analysts after a video surfaced in late June showing an aircraft fuselage covered in camouflage tarp being transported on a highway from SAC to a People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) test center at Xian-Yanliang Airbase in Shaanxi Province, Defense News reported at the time.
Although experts cautioned that the video and images in June could have been part of a disinformation campaign, the crisp images of the dark-gray prototype serial “001,” posted on China Defense Blog on Saturday, appeared to provide confirmation that rival Chengdu Aircraft Industry Corp, which unveiled its J-20 less than two years ago, was no longer the sole player in China’s efforts to develop stealth aircraft. To date, two J-20 models have emerged and it is believed that the aircraft, which has encountered various delays mainly due to China’s engine technology “bottleneck,” will not be deployed before 2017 to 2019.
So far, there has been no confirmation that the covered fuselage seen in June and the prototype that emerged at the weekend are the same aircraft.
Defense experts remain divided on whether the J-20 and J-21, which outwardly have a similar appearance, with two engines, two tails and radar-evading design, would serve similar functions. However, preliminary image comparisons indicate that the J-21 is smaller than the J-20.
Some military analysts say that the PLAAF has been seeking more than one type of stealth aircraft, including a strike fighter and another serving as an air superiority fighter.
There has also been speculation that the J-21, which is sometimes referred to as the J-31, could serve as a carrier-based stealth complement to the non-stealthy J-15 “Flying Shark,” or as an export model, known as the F-60, to compete against Lockheed Martin Corp’s F-35.
Writing in Wired yesterday, defense analyst David Axe said that the emergence of the new prototype did not immediately imply that both the J-20 and J-21 will go through the development, testing and full-scale production phases. The US Air Force stealth program, he wrote, gave rise to no less than four stealth fighter prototypes in the 1980s, of which only two — the F-22 and F-35 — were eventually adopted, following billions of dollars of investment.
It is not unusual for China to play one defense program against another as a means to increase competition and encourage innovation. Despite the huge costs involved, a now richer Chinese military could also be more inclined to fund two or more stealth programs if the aircraft are intended to serve different purposes.