They could be the products of a Chinese government misinformation campaign. They could be clever Photoshop jobs by Chinese aviation fanboys. Or they could be the real thing: the first hard evidence of the long-rumored Chengdu J-20, China’s first stealth-fighter prototype.
The above photo and several others surfaced over the Christmas weekend on Chinese Internet forums, catching the eye of Aviation Week fighter guru Bill Sweetman. Sweetman, a noted skeptic in the sometimes enthusiastic world of fast-jet journalism, stressed that the pics might be fakes. Fantastical Photoshop art is a hallmark of Chinese military-themed Websites. See the giant, flying “heli-carrier,” or the submarine flattop — both creations of over-excited Chinese Photoshoppers.
But there are hints that the J-20 photos are for real — and that much clearer shots exist, somewhere. “Rumor has it that better shots have put in transient appearances on Chinese Websites before being zapped by the censor,” Sweetman wrote. That those rumored photos were yanked is itself perhaps proof that Beijing really does have a new fighter. “In China’s military fan Web culture, the rapid intervention of the censors is always a boost for the credibility of the poster,” aviation journalist Rick Fisher told Sweetman.
Most convincingly, the airplane depicted in the snapshots apparently has many of the right characteristics for a fifth-generation stealth-fighter prototype: a chiseled front-section, triangular wings, all-moving tailplanes. In fact, the supposed J-20 seems to combine the front fuselage of the U.S. Air Force’s F-22 with the back half of Russia’s T-50 stealth prototype, which appeared a little less than a year ago.