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Pentagon Still Learning China Stealth Jet Details, Morrell Says

The U.S. Defense Department is reserving judgment on the capabilities of China’s new J-20 fighter jet, spokesman Geoff Morrell said today.

Public reports are only speculation when they assert that the Chinese fighter has cutting-edge “fifth-generation” stealth technologies -- such as advanced sensors, avionics and communications gear -- like those used in Lockheed Martin Corp.’s F-22 and F-35 jets, he said.

Photos of the Chinese aircraft have appeared on the Internet, and a test flight of the J-20 occurred Jan. 11, during Defense Secretary Robert Gates’s visit to Beijing.

“We don’t know what the capabilities of the engine are, we don’t know if it’s a ‘fifth-generation’ engine, we don’t know if indeed it is as ‘stealthy’ as they claim it to be,” Morrell said.

Morrell disputed press accounts, such as reports from China Daily, the U.K.’s Daily Mail or the Associated Press, saying the jet had a “successful test” or was “marking dramatic progress.”

“What we know is that a plane that looks different than any other they produced, that they claim to be their J-20, had a short test flight,” Morrell said.

Discussions about the J-20’s capabilities in the context of China’s overall defense modernization may drive some congressional defense-spending priorities and “has caught the attention of defense investors,” Byron Callan, a defense analyst with Washington-based-Capital Alpha Partners LLC, wrote clients in a note yesterday.

Investors’ Views

Callan said “a consensus may be forming” among investors that the J-20, no matter its status, “boosts support” for the F-35 and “might lead to the resurrection of the F-22.”

“For now, this is a sentiment issue as we haven’t seen people take a stab at estimating the impact on different companies,” Callan wrote.

Morrell also disputed as “off-base” notions “that we’ve been sort of caught by surprise on this. We’ve talked about their pursuit of the J-20 for a long time. That’s why we have pursued the F-22, to deal with any scenario involving China, but also the F-35.”

Gates in 2009 truncated production of Bethesda, Maryland-based Lockheed Martin’s F-22 at 187 aircraft, instead of more than 300 originally planned, in part because he said China would only have a handful of so-called “fifth-generation” fighters by 2025.

“We were well aware of this evolving capability, and what we saw last week has not changed the strategic calculus at all,” Morrell said.

The 2010 edition of the Pentagon’s annual China report made no mention of the J-20.

‘Not a Surprise’

Vice Admiral Jack Dorsett, the head of Navy intelligence, told reporters Jan. 5 that the J-20 disclosure “was not a surprise.”

“They have been able to invest in a military build-up and a stealth fighter is just one aspect of that,” he said. “The fact they are making progress in that should not be a surprise.”

China’s testing of the prototype leaves many unanswered questions, Dorsett said. “Is it advanced, and how many trials and test and demos do they need to go through before it becomes operational?” Reaching that status could take years, he said.

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