WASHINGTON – Pictures of what many believe is China’s first prototype stealth fighter plane emerged online more than a week ago and created a mild stir among defense tech geeks and military press. But when the Wall Street Journal – the most-read newspaper in the country – threw a picture of the J-20 on the front page Wednesday morning, military officials forced to scramble tamped down the notion the U.S. was caught flat footed or unaware.
Is the U.S. surprised the Chinese have this prototype?
“No, it’s not a surprise,” said Vice Adm. David “Jack” Dorsett, top naval intelligence officer, at a defense writers’ breakfast in Washington on Wednesday.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said China would not have a stealth fighter until 2020. Dorsett said he did not know how close the J-20 was to being ready for battle, but when reporters pressed him he agreed it was “years” away.
Still, the U.S. has been “pretty consistent in underestimating the delivery time,” he said, of China’s emerging weapons systems. “They enter operational capability quicker than we originally project.”
“Is it a surprise?” he repeated,” No. Do we need to refine our assessments better? I think so.”
Pentagon spokesman Col. David Lapan said that Gates and others have long said publicly they knew China was pursuing stealth vehicles. Lapan noted the press corps seemed to become noticeably more interested in the pictures once they hit the Wall Street Journal’s pages.
The Journal said experts shown the pictures believed the aircraft is in final high-speed trials before its first flight. Privately, other defense insiders are questioning what can be deduced from the photos.