On Dec. 22, 2010, someone apparently pointed a cellphone out of the window of a car driving along a public road outside the perimeter of a military airfield in Chengdu, an industrial city in central China. The person holding the phone, whose name has never been revealed, snapped a photo of a black-painted jet fighter taxiing through fog blanketing the airfield.
With that simple act, the photographer appeared to outperform the $80-billion-a-year U.S. spy community, which has the advantage of a plethora of drones, satellites, hackers and old-fashioned human spies. The snapshot was the first hard evidence of China’s very first “fifth-generation” stealth fighter, the J-20 — and it seemed to come as a surprise to some Pentagon analysts. “We have been pretty consistent in underestimating the delivery and initial operational capability of Chinese technology weapons systems,” Vice Adm. David Dorsett said.
In 2009, then-U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates had predicted that China would “have no fifth-generation aircraft by 2020.” Granted, Gates might have meant operational fifth-generation aircraft. All the same, the J-20′s appearance years ahead of schedule was a dramatic demonstration of China’s rapidly expanding aerospace prowess. And discovering it was also a signature achievement by a relatively unknown group of Chinese internet users whose military-technology fandom is having a profound effect on the most important strategic rivalry of the early 21st century.