Chinese officials recently unveiled a new, high-tech stealth fighter that could pose a significant threat to American air superiority – and some of its technology, it turns out, may well have come from the United States itself.
Balkan military officials and other experts say that in all probability the Chinese gleaned some of their technological know-how from an American F-117 Nighthawk that was shot down over Serbia in 1999.
Nighthawks were the world’s first stealth fighters, planes that were very hard for radar to detect. But on March 27, 1999, during Nato’s aerial bombing of Serbia in the Kosovo war, a Serbian anti-aircraft missile shot one of the Nighthawks down. The pilot ejected and was rescued.
It was the first time one of the much-touted “invisible” fighters had been hit. The Pentagon believed a combination of clever tactics and sheer luck had allowed a Soviet-built SA-3 missile to bring down the jet.
The wreckage was strewn over a wide area of flat farmlands, and civilians collected the parts – some the size of small cars – as souvenirs.
“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,” says 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,” Domazet-Loso said.
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”.
Military consultant Zoran Kusovac said former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic’s regime 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.
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 the Russians also gleaned knowledge of stealth technology from the downed Nighthawk.
China’s multi-role stealth fighter – the Chengdu J-20 – made its first flight on January 11, revealing dramatic progress in the country’s efforts to develop cutting-edge military technologies.
Although the twin-engine J-20 is at least eight or nine years from entering air force inventory, it could become a rival to America’s top-of-the-line F-22 Raptor, the Nighthawk’s successor and the only stealth fighter now in service.
While not totally invisible to radar, the F-117’s shape and radar-absorbent coating made detection extremely difficult. The radar cross-section was further reduced because the wings’ leading and trailing edges were composed of non-metallic honeycomb structures that do not reflect radar rays.
Kusovac said insight into this critical technology, and particularly the plane’s secret radiation-absorbent exterior coating, would have significantly enhanced China’s stealth know-how.
Alexander Huang of Taipei’s Tamkang University said the J-20 represented a major step forward for China. He described Domazet-Loso’s claim as “a logical assessment”.
“There is no other stronger source for the origin of the J-20’s stealthy technology,” said Huang, an expert on China’s air force.