ARLINGTON, Va. -- Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said reports went “a little over the top” in proclaiming that China had achieved stealth fighter capability, or had even run a "successful test" of its J-20 prototype.
“I think that is another case of us all being a little premature here,” Morrell told Pentagon reporters in a Wednesday briefing.
Morrell also said it was too early for the Defense Department to determine whether China stole U.S. stealth technology off the American F-117 downed in 1999 over Serbia.
“We don’t know a whole lot about what’s in this plane right now,” Morrell said, noting that Chinese reporting cited one general who called the assertion of theft "offensive."
Morell said the Defense Department does confirm that the new-look Chinese airplane had a short test flight. “But we don’t know, frankly, much about the capabilities of that plane which you saw photographs and some video of,” he said.
That vacuum includes whether China’s fighter carries a “fifth generation” engine, or how “stealthy” it is. So-called "fifth generation" aircraft refers to the most advanced fighters of the day, such as the F-22 Raptor stealth fighter.
"It is too early for us to have made those determinations, but I think it is equally early for you all to be making pronouncements about the success of, or the achievement of, fifth-gen capability," Morrell said.
Members of Congress and some defense groups point to the J-20 developments when advocating for restarting F-22 production in response to China’s push toward fifth-generation air power.
Morrell insisted China’s test aircraft “has not changed the strategic calculus at all" of the U.S. stance toward China.
“What Gates had always talked about on this issue,” said Morrell, “was by the time they have operationally significant numbers of this aircraft we will not just have 187 F-22s, which will be unmatched, but we will also have an abundance of F-35s (2,500 scheduled to be built), in addition to all the other F/A-18s and F-16s that are fourth- or 4.5-gen quality.”
“Furthermore, these notions that we’ve been, sort of, caught by surprise on this are also off base. We’ve talked about their pursuit of the J-20 for a long time,” Morrell said. “…so we were well aware of this evolving capability.”
But Defense Secretary Robert Gates told reporters on his plane to China on Jan. 8 that he knew a Chinese stealth plane was in the works, and indicated the rollout of the J-20 (and the pace of China’s anti-ship ballistic missile system) was sooner than expected.
“I think that what we’ve seen is that they may be somewhat further ahead in the development of that aircraft than our intelligence had earlier predicted,” Gates said.
Days later, hours before sitting down the China's President Hu Jintao, the People's Liberation Army conducted at J-20 test flight, catching Gates and possibly Hu by surprise and causing some embarrassment for both during their diplomatically sensitive visit.