Chinese Stealth Fighter

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The Chinese military made sure that U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates was on Chinese soil as the J-20--its first stealth aircraft--flew its maiden public flight Jan. 11. Chinese leaders maintained that the timing of the 15-minute hop was coincidental. U.S. officials weren't so sure, and Gates expressed concern that the flight may reflect a split between Beijing's hard-line military and its less bellicose civilian leaders.

Gates also worries that Beijing's increased military spending on new arms will crimp U.S. operations in the western Pacific. A fleet of J-20s could be aloft within several years (only the U.S. now flies operational stealth war planes), and a fledgling class of ship-killing missiles could doom U.S. plans to deploy aircraft carriers to defend Taiwan. China's stealth-fighter flight--which occurred as the U.S. is ending production of its current stealth fighter, the F-22, and scaling back its intended buy of the next-generation F-35--implies an even more aggressive posture.

While the J-20 has some experts worried, most aren't so alarmed. Because it's China's first stealth fighter, they note, there will be inevitable kinks to work out. And Beijing's continuing reliance on Russian components, especially jet engines, suggests that Chinese technology isn't always as cutting-edge as we may think.