East Chases West: China’s Stealth Fighter, Japan’s Own GPS

China’s reported to have finalized its own stealth fighter prototype, tested in taxi runs last week. Simultaneously, Japan is rumored to be mulling its own GPS solution, to mitigate over-reliance on American tech. This is East meets West, technology style.



China’s reported to have finalized its own stealth fighter prototype, tested in taxi runs last week. Simultaneously, Japan is rumored to be mulling its own GPS solution, to mitigate over-reliance on American tech. It’s East meets West, technology style.

J-20, China’s Stealth Fighter

The publication of some photos online, and official confirmation (by way of military contacts with Japan) reveal that China has been working to complete its own stealth fighter–something a little larger than the now-retired but famous U.S. F-117 stealth aircraft, and designed to compete with the newer F-22.

The J-20’s existence was certainly long suspected by military observers, driven by China’s rapid technological development and the fact that it had no modern stealth aircraft to rival the F-117 (which first flew in 1981) or the ultra-modern F-22 Raptor. The unveiling in state-released imagery, and confirmation the vehicle took part in taxi-tests is a fascinating trick, however, as it lets us make some quick deductions about the J-20.

The vehicle is painted black, though from an image we can’t tell if this is similar radar-absorbent coating as found on the F-117 or just an attempt to make the vehicle look stealthy (while concealing which parts of the airframe are metal, and which are composite materials).

It’s carefully angled and blended exterior is designed to be radar stealthy–particularly its canted all-moving tail fins–but the wheel doors are blunt-shaped, lacking the jagged-shape radar-scattering tricks used to conceal doors on the F-117 and B-2. The arrangement of the engines looks similar to previous-generation Russian fighters, and doesn’t appear to offer particular stealthiness to either radar or infra-red sensors, but we can’t tell if the engines are super-cruise capable. There’s also the possibility that the engine bells allow for vectored thrust, giving the J-20 advanced maneuverability. Weapons would appear to be stowed in internal bays for stealthiness, although one wouldn’t expect to see missile pylons on a prototype.


All in all, as military observers have noted, what we’re seeing here is a very early test-bed aircraft, with a production J-20 a long way in the future (unless this is actually an older vehicle, wheeled out to trick foreign military observers). It does suggest that China’s science and engineering teams have mastered some of the extraordinarily innovative tech needed to build a 21st century stealth aircraft, however. This may be something U.S. Defense Secretary Gates needs to think about, in the aftermath of his recent spending cap on the F-22.

Japan’s GPS

Japan, already the proud owner of a successful national space program, has today announced plans to launch six to seven new commercially funded navigation satellites over the next five years. The intention is to provide coverage over the Asia-Pacific zone, establishing a localized version of the once-military U.S. GPS system that would free Japan from over-reliance on foreign tech.

It’s not a gesture aimed at directly competing with GPS however, unlike the troubled Russian Glonass system, as the idea is to combine existing GPS tech with the positional data from the new satellites, resulting in a navigation positional accuracy that could be 10 times more precise–handy in Japan’s crowded city streets. That’s not to say Japan won’t market the system to its regional partners for hard cash.

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I'm covering the science/tech/generally-exciting-and-innovative beat for Fast Company. Follow me on Twitter, or Google+ and you'll hear tons of interesting stuff, I promise. I've also got a PhD, and worked in such roles as professional scientist and theater technician...thankfully avoiding jobs like bodyguard and chicken shed-cleaner (bonus points if you get that reference!)