Beijing Banned Export of Its New Stealth Fighter

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


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.

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