The Chengdu J-20 (Jian-20; simplified Chinese: 歼-二十; traditional Chinese: 殲-二十; pinyin: Jiān èr shí; literally “Annihilator-Twenty“) is a purported fifth generation, stealth, twin-engine fighter aircraft prototype developed by Chengdu Aircraft Industry Group for the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF). In late 2010, the J-20 underwent high speed taxiing tests. The J-20 made its first flight on 11 January 2011. General He Weirong, Deputy Commander of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force said in November 2009 that he expected the J-20 to be operational in 2017–2019.
The J-20 made its first flight, lasting about 15 minutes, on 11 January 2011. A Chengdu J-10S served as the chase aircraft. After the successful first flight, a ceremony was held. The test pilot of the J-20, Li Gang, Chief designer Yang Wei and General Li Andong (Deputy-Director of General Armaments Department, and Director of Science and Technology Commission of General Armaments Department of the PLA since 2000) attended the ceremony.
China thus became the third nation in the world to “develop and test-fly a full-size stealth combat aircraft demonstrator”, after the United States and Russia. The Guardian reported that experts, on the one hand, expressed “surprise” at the speed with which the aircraft was developed, but on the other hand “said the country’s military prowess was still relatively backward and way behind that of the US” and that its military interests were limited to its region. The first test flight coincided with a visit of United States Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to China, and was initially interpreted by Pentagon officials and media pundits as a possible signal to the visiting delegation from the U.S. However, after meeting with senior Chinese officials including Chinese President Hu Jintao, Secretary Gates remarked, “The civilian leadership seemed surprised by the test and assured me it had nothing to do with my visit.” Jin Canrong, a professor at Renmin University in Beijing who specializes in China-U.S. relations, suggested that President Hu’s ignorance of the test raises questions about the nature of civilian control of the Chinese military. However, as Michael Swaine, an expert on the PLA and United States – China military relations, explained, although it’s possible and even likely that “senior officials in the [Chinese] leadership did not know that this flight test would occur on this precise day,” this is not necessarily evidence of a military-backed effort to insult Secretary Gates’ delegation or embarrass President Hu. Rather, decisions regarding the production, development and testing of such military aircraft are routinely managed by engineers and low-level officials more than by senior civilian or military leadership. Coupled with the fact that there was relatively limited coverage of the event in Chinese media initially, it is likely that the test may not have been considered a significant enough event to warrant notification to President Hu.
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