- guardian.co.uk, Sunday 23 January 2011 12.11 GMT
A Chinese stealth fighter jet that could pose a significant threat to American air superiority may borrow from US technology, it has been claimed.
Balkan military officials and other experts said China may have gleaned knowledge from a US F-117 Nighthawk that was shot down over Serbia in 1999.
“At the time, our intelligence reports told of Chinese agents crisscrossing the region where the F-117 disintegrated, buying up parts of the plane from local farmers,” said Admiral Davor Domazet-Loso, Croatia’s military chief of staff during the Kosovo war. “We believe the Chinese used those materials to gain an insight into secret stealth technologies … and to reverse-engineer them.”
The Nighthawk was downed by a Serbian anti-aircraft missile during a bombing raid on 27 March 1999. It was the first time one of the fighters had been hit, and the Pentagon blamed clever tactics and sheer luck. The pilot ejected and was rescued.
A senior Serbian military official confirmed that pieces of the wreckage were removed by souvenir collectors, and that some ended up “in the hands of foreign military attaches”. Efforts to get comment from China’s defence ministry and the Pentagon were unsuccessful.
Parts of the F-117 wreckage, including its left wing, cockpit canopy, ejection seat, pilot’s helmet and radio, are exhibited at Belgrade’s aviation museum. Zoran Milicevic, deputy director of the museum, said: “I don’t know what happened to the rest of the plane. A lot of delegations visited us in the past, including the Chinese, Russians and Americans … but no one showed any interest in taking any part of the jet.”
Zoran Kusovac, a Rome-based military consultant, said the regime of the former Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic routinely shared captured western equipment with its Chinese and Russian allies. “The destroyed F-117 topped that wish-list for both the Russians and Chinese,” Kusovac said.
China’s multi-role stealth fighter – known as the Chengdu J-20 – made its inaugural flight on 11 January, revealing dramatic progress in the country’s efforts to develop cutting-edge military technologies. It is at least eight or nine years from entering service.
Russia’s Sukhoi T-50 prototype stealth fighter made its maiden flight last year and is due to enter service in about four years. It is likely that the Russians also gained knowledge of stealth technology from the downed Nighthawk.
China’s new stealth fighter is based on US technology acquired by Chinese spies during the 1999 Kosovo War, according to Croatia’s former military chief of staff.
China unveiled the Chengdu J-20 stealth fighter during a visit to Beijing by Robert Gates, the US defence secretary, this month. The timing of its maiden flight was regarded as a deliberate reminder by China of its growing military might, and caused alarm amongst its Asian neighbours.
Now, the Admiral who was Croatia’s chief of staff during the Kosovo War has said he believes that China formulated the technology for its J-20 jet from an American F-117 Nighthawk stealth fighter that was shot down over Serbia in March 1999.
“At the time, our intelligence reports told of Chinese agents criss-crossing the region where the F-117 disintegrated, buying up parts of the plane from local farmers,” Admiral Davor Domazet-Loso said. “We believe the Chinese used those materials to gain an insight into secret stealth technologies.”
The Nighthawk was the world’s first stealth fighter, planes that are almost invisible to radar and so able to operate over enemy territory with near impunity. At the time, the US claimed that the downing of one by a Serbian anti-aircraft missile was pure luck. Under its former President Slobodan Milosevic, Serbia routinely shared captured Nato military equipment with China and Russia.
China has a history of being accused of stealing military aircraft technology. Its relations with Russia were strained last year after Moscow accused Beijing of producing near identical versions of its Sukhoi Su-27 fighter and Su-33 naval fighter. China had bought the Su-27, only subsequently to build the similar J-11 fighter. The J-15 naval jet based on the Su-33 is needed for China’s new aircraft carriers, the first of which may be launched later this year and which is also believed to be based on a Russian design.