BRUSSELS — 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 analysts said that in all probability the Chinese gleaned some of their technological know-how from an American F-117
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 antiaircraft 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 ever been hit.
The wreckage was strewn over a wide area of flat farmlands, and civilians collected the parts 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,’’ said 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,’’ he said.
China’s stealth fighter — the Chengdu J-20 — made its inaugural flight Jan. 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.