China may have reversed engineered the J-20 stealth fighter it has been ostentatiously leaking pictures of in recent weeks from a U.S. F-117 stealth jet shot down by Serbia in 1999 while on NATO duty during the Kosovo war. That is the implication of remarks by Admiral Davor Domazet-Loso, Croatia’s military chief of staff at the time who says Chinese agents bought up parts from the downed plane, one of the first to have been shot down, from local farmers. (via BBC). “At the time, our intelligence reports told of Chinese agents criss-crossing the region where the F-117 disintegrated,” Domazet-Loso says.
The BBC says a senior Serbian military official confirms that some of the pieces were removed by souvenir collectors, and that some ended up “in the hands of foreign military attaches”. If nothing else, this would all help explain why China and America’s stealth jets look so similar.
China (and Russia) maintained close intelligence links with Serbia during the Kosovo war. Beijing is long thought to have run an intelligence post from inside its Belgrade embassy during the war. The embassy was struck by U.S. bombs barely a month after the F-117 was shot down. The U.S. maintained the attack, which was orchestrated by the CIA and in which three people died and 20 were injured, was an accident, the intended target being a Serbian arms warehouse a quarter of a mile away. While we have absolutely no evidence to think otherwise, we do now wonder.
Update: State media have refuted the allegation that the J-20 is based on a downed F-117. The Global Times quotes test pilot Xu Yongling as saying that “the J-20 is a masterpiece of China’s technological innovation”. He adds that it would have been impossible for China to glean technology from the F-117, whose stealth technology lags far behind fourth-generation fighters and was regarded as ‘outdated’ even when it was shot down. The same article quotes an unnamed defence ministry official as saying “it’s not the first time foreign media has smeared newly unveiled Chinese military technologies. It’s meaningless to respond to such speculations.”