China has a brand-new jet fighter. Only it’s not really brand-new at all. The emergence of the much-touted Shenyang J-16, following years of speculation, represents a surprising twist in China’s more than decade-long effort to build a world-class air force — and a reminder to outsiders that even Beijing with its tight central control, extensive manufacturing base and apparent deep pockets cannot perform aerospace miracles.
In December 2010 the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force shocked observers when it allowed civilian photographers to snap and publish photos of China’s very first, and previously unseen, stealth fighter prototype undergoing ground testing in Chengdu in central China.
The J-20 “Mighty Dragon” took off for its apparent first test flight on Jan. 11, inaugurating what some have described as a new era of aerial warfare, in which advanced Chinese aircraft might challenge the decades-long dominance of the U.S. military with its stealth fighters and bombers. “China’s new Chengdu J-20 stealth fighter was an important milestone in China’s Long March toward parity in military technology with Russia and the West,” wrote Carlo Kopp, an analyst with Air Power Australia, an independent think tank.