NEWS AND ANALYSIS:
China’s military this week showcased its new J-20 advanced stealth fighter, built with stolen American military technology, at an air show now underway in Zhuhai.
Chinese state media hailed the J-20’s participation in the air show near Hong Kong as the country’s “indigenous fourth-generation medium- and long-range fighter jet.” The Global Times said the two J-20s “dazzled” spectators at the show and were the first models to feature engines produced domestically.
The stealth jet has been in the works for more than a decade and was first flight-tested in 2011 during a visit to China by then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates. Mr. Gates later wrote in his memoir that the timing of the flight test was “about as big an ‘f—- you’ as you can get.”
But Mr. Gates played down the J-20 test at the time, telling Western reporters traveling with him that he questioned whether its radar-evading stealth capabilities were good.
Mr. Gates as defense secretary canceled production of the advanced F-22 stealth fighter after 187 jets were produced. The F-22 was designed for a future conflict with China and is equipped with a unique “super-cruise flight” capability not deployed with the multiservice F-35.
Earlier reports about the J-20 also were dismissed by many China analysts, who questioned whether the advanced jet posed a threat. Now the J-20 is front and center in China‘s aggressive campaign against Taiwan, with growing tensions across the 100-mile wide Taiwan Strait amid promises from Chinese President Xi Jinping to retake the island.
Recent large-scale military exercises around Taiwan, exercises that U.S. officials say were a dress rehearsal for a future military attack on the island democracy, involved J-20s conducting simulated strikes.
China‘s military exercises in early August included 11 ballistic missile firings near Taiwan. The display followed the visit to Taipei by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and were the largest military exercises near the island in decades.
China designed and built the J-20 with stolen American jet technology, according to U.S. officials and court documents. In 2016, Su Bin, a Chinese national, led a cyber operation that obtained sensitive U.S. aircraft information from Boeing and Lockheed Martin, including data on the F-35 and the C-17.
Su was sentenced to nearly four years in prison in 2016 for the hacking operation that netted the Chinese more than $40 billion worth of military technology, at an operational cost to Beijing of less than $400,000.
Su’s cyber team obtained a document from Lockheed that outlined how the F-35 would be tested as it was developed, including how many airplanes would be built and used; how certain components would be tested, how they could be configured, and using what instrumentation; and the techniques used to test the performance, capabilities, and limits of various features of the F-35, according to a court document in the case.
A Chinese translation of the flight test plan produced by Su included the same images of the document produced for Lockheed, according to court testimony in the case. According to U.S. defense officials, the stolen Lockheed test plan proved extremely valuable for the Chinese and was incorporated into the J-20.
U.S. intelligence agencies concluded a Chinese hacking operation based in Chengdu province carried out the theft, giving the information to a subsidiary of the state-run Aviation Industry Corp. of China, the Chengdu Aircraft Industry Group, which incorporated several features of the F-35 into the J-20.
The Chinese even went so far as to publicly boast about the espionage coup, with the Global Times reporting in January 2014 that key technologies in the J-20 were based on the F-35.
Ex-Army pilot imprisoned as Chinese agent
An Iran-born former Army pilot who worked for a U.S. defense contractor was sentenced to 20 months in prison this week for providing military aircraft information to Chinese intelligence, according to court documents in the case.
Shapour Moinian, 67, had pleaded guilty to working as an unregistered agent of China after he accepted tens of thousands of dollars for aviation-related information from a defense contractor engaged in classified defense work. The sentencing comes as authorities in the U.S., Australia and Britain are investigating military pilots and instructors who were recruited by Beijing to train Chinese pilots.
In 2016, Moinian was contacted by the Chinese company through the social media platform LinkedIn and paid to provide a maintenance plan for an unspecified aircraft, according to court papers in the case. The work continued through 2019 and included information and materials about multiple U.S. aircraft.
Moinian said on his security clearance form with the contractor that he had not engaged in contacts with foreign nations. During his employment, he worked on projects for both the Pentagon and U.S. intelligence agencies.
Prosecutors said in a sentencing memorandum that Moinian “repeatedly lied” about his foreign contacts and failed to reveal that he received “cash payments from individuals affiliated with Chinese intelligence services.”
Moinian left Iran in 1976 and joined the Army years later. In the service, he flew both fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters and was based in the U.S., Germany and South Korea. He left the Army in 2000 as a chief warrant officer.
Defense lawyers said in a pre-sentencing memorandum paper that Moinian, despite receiving a good salary at the defense contractor, needed money to support his family because of the high cost of living in San Diego. During the Chinese intelligence operations, Moinian traveled to Hong Kong, Shanghai, Bali, Indonesia. During the Bali trip he was paid $22,000 in cash. During an earlier trip to Hong Kong, he received between $7,000 and $10,000.
The funds were sent to the account of a stepdaughter in South Korea and then to a U.S. bank. China provided a cellphone and other equipment used for communications and transferring information. The U.S. information, including proprietary defense contractor data, was passed using a flash drive.
Moinian’s defense lawyers and federal prosecutors in San Diego did not respond to requests for comment.
Last month, former U.S. military pilot and flight instructor Edmund Duggan, was arrested in Australia on an extradition request from the United States regarding his role in training Chinese pilots. He is a former U.S. citizen.
The arrest followed warnings from British authorities to dozens of former military pilots to halt work in China or face prosecution on national security grounds.
Australia also is investigating reports some of its former fighter pilots were approached to work in China.
In April, The Washington Times reported on an online video that showed a Russian flight instructor working with the Chinese air forces after their JL-10 jet trainer crashed.
China steps up military provocations near Taiwan
China’s military ramped up provocative warplane flights around Taiwan this week, sending 63 aircraft and four naval vessels around the island on Monday, the Taiwan Defense Ministry reported.
The moves included flights across the median line down the Taiwan Strait by some of the 24 J-16 jets. Other warplanes involved included J-11 and J-10 jets, Y-8 anti-submarine warfare aircraft and one KJ-500 airborne warning and control aircraft. The flights coincided with the visit to Taiwan by Greg Hands, Britain’s trade policy minister who arrived in Taiwan on Monday.
The military flights tapered off Tuesday and Wednesday with 21 aircraft and 18 aircraft intruding into Taiwanese air defense zones respectively, the Taiwanese ministry said in tweets.
The four PLA warships near Taiwan were not identified by type or location.
China denounced the British minister’s visit, calling on London to halt all official exchanges with the island democracy China claims as its own.
“We urge the U.K. to earnestly respect China‘s sovereignty, uphold the ‘One China‘ principle, stop any form of official interaction with Taiwan and stop sending wrong signals to Taiwan independence separatist forces,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told reporters. “China firmly rejects any form of official exchanges with the Taiwan region by any countries having diplomatic ties with China.”
U.S. and Taiwanese officials held talks in New York this week aimed at strengthening trade and economic ties at a time of increased U.S.-China tensions, The Wall Street Journal reported.
— Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter @BillGertz.
• Bill Gertz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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