Beijing Banned Export of Its New Stealth Fighter

Policy bars sale of the J-20 to China’s allies

War Is Boring
Dec 12, 2014 · 4 min read


The Chinese government reportedly will not sell the new J-20—China’s first stealth fighter—to foreign countries. Not coincidentally, the United States adopted a similar policy regarding its own F-22 stealth fighter.

The revelation of the apparent export ban comes as a surprise. Since the Chengdu-built J-20’s 2011 debut, Western analysts have assumed the large, angular, twin-engine fighter would, like most Chinese weapons, become an export commodity.

Instead, it seems Beijing wants to keep the J-20’s high-end military capabilities all to itself. Cash isn’t worth giving up the radar-evading warplane’s secrets.

Song Zhongping, a former officer in Beijing’s strategic missile force, revealed the export ban in a December interview with China’s Phoenix TV news program.

“The export of advanced Chinese military technology is prohibited,” Song said. “This is in order to keep J-20’s fifth-generation technology out of hostile hands.”

That’s the same rationale the U.S. Congress cited when it formally outlawed sales of the F-22 stealth fighter in the mid-2000s. Prior to that, Japan had asked to acquire F-22s.

But Tokyo has been an occasionally unreliable friend to the U.S. when it comes to secret technology. In 2007, Japanese authorities caught a Japanese navy petty officer apparently trying to pass to China information on the U.S.-made Aegis radar.

What’s ironic about China’s J-20 sales-restriction is that many observers strongly suspect Beijing’s engineers derived the plane’s design in part from data that Chinese hackers have stolen from the American-led F-35 stealth fighter program.

The U.S. expressly designed the F-35 to be safely exportable. The F-35 is smaller, slower and less stealthy than the F-22. But it still includes sensitive technologies including sophisticated sensors and radar-absorbing coatings.

In any event, Song described the J-20 restriction as directly connected to the F-22 prohibition. “If one day the United States decides to export the F-22, China might consider lifting its ban, as well,” he said.

His reasoning seems to be that if America’s allies possessed F-22s, China’s allies would need J-20s to balance them. And with the F-22 proliferating, its secrets would proliferate, too—obviating any need to similarly limit the spread of the J-20’s presumably similar technology.

Song doesn’t seem to appreciate that F-22 production ended nearly three years ago—and no one in Congress, the White House or the Pentagon has made a serious effort to restart it.

There is other evidence that China intends to keep the J-20 all to itself. Shortly after the J-20’s debut, the rival Shenyang Aircraft Corporation unveiled its smaller FC-31 stealth fighter prototype.

Unlike the government-sponsored J-20, the FC-31 is strictly a private venture that Shenyang intends to sell abroad. Pakistan has expressed interest.

The FC-31 represents Beijing’s opportunity to compete in the lucrative world market for radar-evading fighters. If the sensitive J-20 is like America’s F-22, then the commoditized FC-31 is analogous to the U.S. F-35.

The J-20’s development is accelerating. There are five prototypes in testing—each successive copy possessing big improvements over its predecessors. The Chinese air force could begin receiving copies for front-line use as early as 2017—12 years after the F-22 entered service.

War Is Boring

From drones to AKs, high technology to low politics, exploring how and why we fight above, on and below an angry world

War Is Boring

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We go to war so you don’t have to

War Is Boring

From drones to AKs, high technology to low politics, exploring how and why we fight above, on and below an angry world

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