WASHINGTON (CNN) - CNN has obtained detailed photographs of a new stealth fighter being tested in China.
It is the second such stealth fighter China has tested in as many years and appears destined to become the communist nation's future aircraft carrier-based fighter jet, according to weapons analysts.
The plane, dubbed by outsiders as the J-31, was test flown Tuesday in Shenyang. According to the analysts, the two photographs obtained by CNN appear to have been leaked by officials in China.
"It has to be an official photographer because nobody else can get that close to the airplane," said John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org. "These are all publicity photos from the factory, and I could not imagine that the factory would publicize these things without somebody higher up in the food chain authorizing it."
Richard Fisher, a senior fellow in Asian military affairs at the International Assessment and Strategy Center (IASC), agrees these are not pictures sent out surreptitiously by some Chinese aviation aficionado. "The Internet censors are controlling this process, have no doubt that."
But Fisher said the reason for the release may not be as threatening as some might imagine.
"It's being done in a way to help promote pro-military nationalism in China. There's just a huge, large audience in China for this kind of information. It's kind of like NASCAR."
No matter who let the pictures go public, they won't answer all the questions surrounding China's fighter program. "They don't want to reveal anything that's truly useful to a foreign military or intelligence service," Fisher said.
In January 2011, China tested the J-20, a fighter jet with stealth characteristics, much like the American F-22.
Fisher said the J-31 appears be a lighter fighter jet similar to the American F-35.
"The J-20 is the heavy stealth fighter, (The J-31) is going to be the medium-weight stealth fighter. It's very much in the same vein as the F-22 versus the F-35, with the Raptor, the F-22 being the heavy fifth-generation fighter for the U.S. Air Force versus the medium-weight F-35."
Pike said that could be the case, but it may be that China is test flying both prototypes and will choose just one to put into production.
While these are both fifth-generation fighter jets, that doesn't put them on par with America's two newest fighters.
For example, Pike said China's jet engines just don't come close to American engines. "This is a sucking chest wound of Chinese military aviation."
Pike said the primary Chinese military jet engine is based on an American design. "We started development of this engine back in the '60s. Then they commercialized it in the 1970s. Then the Chinese got a hold of it 20 years ago and it's still no good. It's a half century-old design that they've been working on for two decades, and it's still no good."
Fisher has a higher opinion of that engine. "It's not entirely true that China is currently facing massive problems. They've actually had some measure of success."
And Fisher said China appears to be developing a brand new engine for the J-31. "The engines that will likely power the J-31 we do know a bit more about. Those engines were actually revealed at the Zhuhai show in 2008," Fisher said referring to an annual China air show. He believes the new J-31 engine is undergoing preliminary testing.
Another problem is the stealth characteristics of the plane.
The J-31 is designed to have a stealthy shape. "From the side profile, it really looks like a 75% (scale) F-22 from the bottom, and the top profile it very much looks like an F-35."
The J-31 may have the stealth coatings that help it absorb radar signals instead of letting them bounce off and give away its position.
But Pike explained the plane has wide seams where different parts of the plane come together. "The seams form something the radar can bounce off of. I'm looking at some close-ups of the J-31 and it's seamy. It's got all kinds of seams and ripples on the skin."
Fisher agreed. "Yes, that's definitely a fair assessment, but what we can say is that it will have a definite low-observable capability, that's for sure."
While it may start out as a land-based fighter, Pike and Fisher both said it could become China's carrier-based fighter jet when the nation builds a second, catapult-based carrier. Their first carrier, currently undergoing sea tests, uses a ski-jump style flight deck to launch planes.
So should America start worrying about these new fighters ?
"Who else do you think these airplanes were designed to fight?" Pike said. "If the Chinese think that their military is a lot stronger than anybody else in the neighborhood, then they're going to throw their weight around."
Pike estimated the J-31 might become a threat in 2027. "You would expect to see the Chinese stealth fighter enter operational service, I don't know, 15 years from now."
Fisher is predicting much sooner.
"My estimate is that the J-31 will start entering squadron service in four to five years."
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