Replica of American F-117A, F-22 observed; New-gen jets tested in Tibet

by Col. Vinayak Bhat (Retd)

New Delhi: New pictures and videos of the Chinese J-20 stealth aircraft, leaked recently, suggest that the fighter has been under development for long and that a fair deal of reverse-engineering has gone into it, essentially by ‘borrowing’ US technology.

China’s People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) seems to have mastered the art of copying the technology invented by other nations, helped to some extent by the Chinese diaspora.

Reverse engineering has been China’s forte since the 1960s. They have learnt to fine tune the reverse-engineered product and make some changes to give it a completely different look, latest satellite imagery suggests.

Stealing USAF Stealth Technology

On 27 March 1999, one of the US Air Force’s stealth bombers was shot down in the NATO raid of Yugoslavia during Operation Noble Anvil.

The wreckage was sent to China to study the stealth phenomenon except for the cockpit, which remains in a Belgrade museum.

On 7 May 1999, the USAF bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade amid rumours that Washington has learnt about their intentions to steal the F-117A technology. Later, Washington apologised and said it was not intentional and was merely an accident.

Soon after the Kosovo war, an exact replica of F-117A was observed at one of PLAAF’s radar development establishments. A similar replica of another USAF aircraft F-22 was observed in China at the Neifu Pucheng airport.

After the US raid in Abbottabad that killed Osama bin Laden, it is believed that Pakistan provided access to China to study the remains of the stealth Black Hawk chopper that brought in the US Navy Seals and crashed during landing. The existence of the super-secret stealth helicopter was not known until the raid.

First Flights

The first flight of J-20 took place on 11 January 2011. The Chinese have a fascination for special sounding dates.

The image shows a J-20 at Chengdu airbase along with its buddy plane, a J-10. The red-carpeted platform for the first flight ceremony is clearly visible.


The first flight of J-31, the second stealth design of China, was noticed at Shenyang Aircraft Cooperation’s airstrip on 31 October 2012. The aircraft is a twin-engine mid-size stealth fighter supposedly being developed for the PLA Navy.

Initial Production

Low-rate initial production (LRIP) of both the J-20 was observed on satellite imagery in December 2015. The J-20 is still being tested at various locations including Chengdu.

The J-31 production is going slow with only a second prototype coming out, which could possibly be an LRIP model.

Radar Range Tests

These tests involving radars and aircraft are carried out to ensure a minimum of cross-section is exposed to the radar as radars ensure even smallest of silhouettes are captured.

The stealth J-20 has been tested at various radar cross section (RCS) ranges in China. It has been observed at Gaobeidian with many 3D radars of the Chinese PLAAF. The image here shows J-20 aircraft being tested for the canards from the side angle.

The rear fuselage and wing testing have been observed elsewhere in Chengdu and Dingxin RCS stands.

A surprise revelation at Gaobeidian, about 70 km southwest of Beijing, was a possible replica of USAF stealth X-47 demonstrator, albeit in a smaller size. This could be for testing the JY-11 3D radar or a new UAV.

Tests in Tibet

It is also known that China PLAAF has tested J-20 stealth aircraft for high-altitude operations, especially landing and take-off. The handheld pictures of Amdo Banda airport with a lone J-20 in camouflaged cover were seen on Chinese internet.

The J-20 aircraft being observed in Tibet created a sensation, with rumours that four fighter jets were deployed at Lhasa’s Gonggar airport. The latter was a false alarm though.


Recently, a video was leaked on the Chinese internet, claiming operationalisation of J-20 aircraft in the PLAAF. The location was Dingxin airbase but the tail numbers suggested Ninth Regiment of Third Division located at Wuhu.

China is overshadowing the US technological dominance, especially in the field of stealth aircraft. The tremendous research and development achieved in this field is likely to boost faster operationalisation of J-20 and J-31 aircraft.