Chinese radar may trap stealth planes
Matthew Campbell, Washington
THE Pentagon has ordered an urgent investigation to
determine whether its most advanced stealth jet fighters have
been rendered obsolete by a simple radar system being
developed by the Chinese, according to intelligence sources.
Fears that enemies might crack the radar-evading
technology, over which America enjoys a monopoly, have
mounted after an F-117 stealth fighter was shot down over
Serbia this year. Classified reports that China has used
computer advances to build a new type of radar have
increased the fears.
Defence experts say the Chinese, who have been accused of
stealing American military secrets to develop their nuclear
programme, have used relatively simple, home-made
technology to create a radar system known as passive
Yet, if successful, it could make the world's most
sophisticated and expensive aircraft redundant, ending a
quest that has preoccupied Chinese and Russian military
scientists ever since the first stealth fighters took to the skies
in the 1970s.
"A review has been ordered with some urgency of all the
data on this," said a source familiar with intelligence briefings.
"It could have significant strategic implications."
Concerns about the radar capabilities coincide with growing
alarm in the Pentagon at Beijing's increasing military
co-operation with Russia, which is expected to sell billions of
dollars' worth of weaponry to China in the next five years.
Instead of emitting electro-magnetic energy pulses, which
bounce off enemy aircraft and betray their shape and size,
the new system is said to detect them by analysing
fluctuations in commercial television and radio signals filling
Even the stealth fighter, whose bat-like shape is designed to
fool conventional radar by reducing its radar "signature" to
that of a large bird, cannot avoid causing fluctuations to radio
and television signals. With sophisticated computer analysis a
detailed image of the plane could be revealed.
The concept is scarcely revolutionary. Similar systems have
been tested by western defence contractors, including
Lockheed Martin, maker of the stealth aircraft. Last year it
heralded a mobile radar unit called Silent Sentry, said to be
able to locate aircraft using energy reflected from television
and FM radio signals.
New computer technology used to decipher fluctuations in
the signals are believed to have boosted dramatically the
accuracy of the system and the Pentagon wants to determine
to what extent it may have been perfected by the Chinese.
Intelligence suggests China could deploy it within two years.
Because it would not transmit signals but simply monitor
existing television and radio frequencies, the Chinese system
would be "silent" and virtually impossible to find and
An added attraction of such a system to the Chinese is its
cheapness. All they would need, say experts, is an integrated
network of thousands of antennae working like
old-fashioned television aerials. The only sophisticated part is
the computer processing used for deciphering the signals.
Chinese and Russian scientists have spent years on a solution
to America's stealth advantage. Although exact details are
not known, the downing of an F-117 over Serbia during the
Kosovo air war in March was the first worrying indication of
After pouring more than $50 billion (about Ј32 billion) into
its stealth programme, the Pentagon is troubled by the
prospect of a breakthrough in radar technology that has
changed little since its invention on the eve of the second
The latest stealth aircraft, the F-22 Raptor, is due to enter
service in 2004; 339 planes have been ordered at a cost of
$97.7m each, making it the most expensive plane ever built.
The end of the cold war, however, has raised doubts among
critics of runaway military spending about the need for such
an aircraft, designed originally to counter a new wave of
At the same time, the disappearance of the Soviet menace
has been followed - in the minds of American military
planners, at least - by the rise of China as a potential threat.
Evidence of Chinese nuclear espionage in America has
played into the hands of Pentagon hawks who, although
embarrassed over the accidental bombing of the Chinese
embassy in Belgrade, frown upon what they regard as
President Bill Clinton's mollycoddling of Beijing.
While the Clinton administration, heralding an era of
increased co-operation with Beijing, is to seek final approval
for China's entry into the World Trade Organisation at its
summit meeting in Seattle this week, the Pentagon's call for
an investigation of Chinese radar capabilities is part of a
broader analysis of the Chinese military threat being
undertaken by America's security establishment.
Beyond worries about China's nuclear arsenal and the
expansion of a missile base near Taiwan, the Central
Intelligence Agency has reported the appearance of a book
by two Chinese army colonels proposing a new military
strategy of "unrestricted war", including terrorism and attacks
on the enemy's computer infrastructure, in the event of
conflict with America over Taiwan.
American intelligence is also nervous about growing Russian
co-operation with the Chinese, particularly in the
development of hypersonic technology required to build
aircraft capable of operating in space. The Chinese are also
experimenting with high-speed ships that can travel at up to
120 mph, and with airborne laser weapons. Related link: http://www.sunday-times.co.uk/news/pages/sti/99/11/28/stifgnusa01003.html?999