China conducts first test-flight of stealth plane

Photo apparently showing prototype of Chinese-made stealth bomber Photos of the Chinese-made stealth aircraft began appearing on websites earlier this month

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China has conducted the first test-flight of its J-20 stealth fighter, Chinese President Hu Jintao has confirmed to US Defence Secretary Robert Gates.

The confirmation came after images of the 15-minute flight in Chengdu appeared on several Chinese websites.

Mr Hu said that the flight had not been timed to coincide with Mr Gates' visit, the US defence secretary said.

The US is currently the only nation with a fully operational stealth plane.

But both Russia and China are known to be working on prototypes of stealth fighters, which are invisible to radar.

Mr Gates' three-day visit to Beijing comes amid US concern over the speed at which China's military is modernising and upgrading its technology.

"I asked President Hu about it directly, and he said that the test had absolutely nothing to do with my visit and had been a pre-planned test. And that's where we left it," Mr Gates was quoted as saying by Reuters news agency.

'Take some time'

Analysis

Before the official confirmation from the president, pictures reportedly taken by fighter jet spotters had appeared on all major Chinese web portals, including the state-run Xinhua news agency.

There is also a video clip showing the stealth fighter taxi-ing, taking off and landing, accompanied by a trainer jet, with fans chatting and shouting "magnificent".

The spotters have been camped out near the fighter jet design institute in Chengdu, in south-west China. They have dubbed the prototype "Black Ribbon", meaning black 4th generation fighter.

They also say that Xi Jinping, China's Vice-President and Vice-Chairman of the Military Commission, visited the airfield on Saturday, presumably to witness a test flight that was aborted due to bad weather.

Leaked images of what was said to be China's J-20 fighter first appeared earlier this month during taxi tests at the Chengdu Aircraft Design Institute.

On Tuesday, the plane took off and flew for about 15 minutes, according to eyewitness accounts published on unofficial Chinese web portals.

A video clip of the flight was also posted on the web.

China says it expects the stealth plane to be operational some time between 2017 and 2019.

But earlier this month the Pentagon played down concerns over the fighter.

"Developing a stealth capability with a prototype and then integrating that into a combat environment is going to take some time," said US director of naval intelligence Vice Admiral David Dorsett.

China's official military budget quadrupled between 1999 and 2009 as the country's economy grew. In 2010 it stood at $78bn (£50bn).

But the US has by far the largest defence budget in the world at just over $700bn.

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