WASHINGTON (Reuters) - China is still years away from being able to field a stealth aircraft, despite the disclosure of images indicating that it appears to have a working prototype, a U.S. Navy official said on Wednesday.
The images have been posted on a number of websites and were published Wednesday on the front page of The Wall Street Journal, which said they appeared to show a Chinese J-20 stealth fighter prototype making a high-speed taxi test.
The disclosure of the photographs comes just days before U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates is due to travel to Beijing on Sunday.
The pictures are likely to heighten U.S. concerns about China’s military buildup, including possible deployment in 2011 of its first aircraft carrier and a new anti-ship ballistic missile seen as a threat to U.S. aircraft carriers.
The Journal said many experts believed the J-20 photos were authentic and a strong indicator that China is making faster-than-expected progress in developing a rival to Lockheed Martin’s F-22 Raptor, the world’s only operational stealth fighter.
But U.S. Vice Admiral David Dorsett, director of naval intelligence, said deployment of the J-20 was years away.
Dorsett told reporters on Wednesday that the published photos left a lot of questions unanswered. He did not immediately vouch for their authenticity.
“It’s still not clear to me when it’s going to become operational,” he said. “Developing a stealth capability with a prototype and then integrating that into a combat environment is going to take some time.”
A U.S. intelligence official estimated in May that the J-20 could rival the F-22 Raptor within eight years.
The Raptor is the premier U.S. fighter, with cutting-edge “fifth-generation” features, including shapes, materials and propulsion systems designed to make it appear as small as a swallow on enemy radar screens.
“We’re anticipating China to have a fifth-generation fighter ... operational right around 2018,” Wayne Ulman of the National Air and Space Intelligence Center testified in May before a congressionally mandated group.
Ulman said there were a lot of unknowns about China’s next-generation fighter, which would be a follow-up to nearly 500 fourth-generation fighters considered at a technical parity to older U.S. fighters.
“It’s yet to be seen exactly how (the fifth-generation) will compare one-on-one with, say, an F-22,” Ulman said.
Gates said in 2009 that China was not expected to have a fifth-generation aircraft by 2020 and no more than a handful by 2025.
Additional reporting by David Alexander; Editing by Doina Chiacu