May 9, 2011 -- The next generation stealth fighter under development by the Chinese military could rival America's best fighters in speed, stealth and lethality, according to a new private report.
Details on the Chinese J-20 fighter are scant as the project has been developed under extreme secrecy, but an analysis conducted by the conservative Washington D.C.-based defense policy think tank The Jamestown Foundation based on the little publicly available information concluded that the fighter "will be a high performance stealth aircraft, arguably capable of competing in most cardinal performance parameters... with the United States F-22A Raptor, and superior in most if not all cardinal performance parameters against the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter."
The F-22 Raptor, which cost the U.S. government $77 billion for 187 planes from defense contracting giant Lockheed Martin, has never seen combat in any of America's three simultaneous major combat operations, but is considered by the Air Force and Lockheed Martin to be a stealth fighter without match. The slightly cheaper F-35, an all purpose stealth fighter being developed by Lockheed Martin for the Air Force, Navy and Marines, is not meant to focus on air-to-air combat like the F-22, but on air-to-ground attacks and is expected to work in tandem with the F-22.
The Jamestown Foundation report, written by defense analyst and F-22 proponent Carlo Kopp, was first published last week just days after America's entire fleet of F-22s was grounded due to oxygen system concerns and a new video surfaced online, purportedly showing a rare test flight by a prototype J-20. The report noted the Chinese planes would not have the range to make unsupported strikes against the continental U.S., but U.S. military bases and allies in the region are well within the potential target zone -- including air bases that have been home to the F-22 fighters. However, the Air Force said currently there are no F-22s deployed overseas. The report also says that due to its larger size, the J-20 could potentially carry more or bigger payloads than the F-22.
Though the Defense Department declined to comment on the Jamestown Foundation report, in response to the J-20 video, a Pentagon spokesperson told ABC News last week the U.S. has been "carefully monitoring China's comprehensive and sustained military modernization and its implications for the region."
But as early as January, shortly after a test flight of what appeared to be the J-20, Department of Defense Press Secretary Geoff Morrell told reporters, "We don't know, frankly, much about the capabilities of that plane" and urged observers to "slow down a little bit on our characterizations of the J-20 at this point."
China is still in the development stage for its fighter, whereas once the oxygen system issues are sorted out, the U.S. Air Force will return to having more than 160 operational F-22s. The last of the 187 planes are still being delivered by Lockheed Martin.
Defense Department: China's Stealth Fighter 'Not Surprising'
As more information has surfaced about the secretive J-20, the Defense Department spokesperson would only say the Pentagon has not been taken by surprise.
"The fact that China has developed a prototype for this program is not surprising and is consistent with the direction we have seen China's military taking over a number of years," the spokesperson said.
According to Lockheed Martin, which is still receiving hundreds of millions in taxpayer dollars to upgrade current F-22s, the J-20 "shows that other nations are seeking to develop the capability to challenge the F-22, and by extension, our capacity to attain air superiority in future conflict.
"Such emerging threats illustrate the need to continue enhancing the F-22's capabilities so that it stays ahead of evolving threats," a Lockheed Martin spokesperson said.
Both the Air Force and Lockheed Martin said the reason the $143 million-a-pop F-22s have yet to fire on any enemies -- despite U.S. involvement in air operations in Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan -- is because they're designed specifically to dominate the air against rival sophisticated air weapons like the J-20, not small, poorly armed third-world militaries and insurgent groups.
The planes' natural enemy, therefore, is one that the program's biggest critic, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, said in 2009 did not exist.
"The F-22 is clearly a capability we do need -- a niche, silver-bullet solution for one or two potential scenarios -- specifically the defeat of a highly advanced enemy fighter fleet," Defense Secretary Robert Gates said in 2009 while advocating that Congress ditch further funding for the Raptor from the budget. "[But] the F-22, to be blunt, does not make much sense anyplace else in the spectrum of conflict."
Before the decision was made to cut the F-22 program at 187 planes -- rather than the more than 600 that were originally part of the deal -- dozens of supporters in Congress and state governments sent letters to President Obama arguing that the full force of the F-22s would be needed to counter the next generations planes being developed by China and Russia. Gates dismissed the idea, saying the F-22s and newer F-35s would greatly outnumber any adversaries' forces for the next 15 years at least.