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Report: Russia sold China tech for J-20

For awhile there, everybody in the defense game had a theory about what role Russia may have played in China's development of the J-20. Did Moscow keep completely out of it to focus on its own T-50 development? Did China ... ah ... "borrow" ... plans or technologies from the Russians, they way it has from the United States? Or was this a straight-up business relationship, like back in the bad old days? And if so, did Russia initiate it, or did China?

According to a report by the Reuters news service, picked up by AvWeek, Russia may be pulsing out technologies and parts to China as part of a deliberate strategy to increase the number of fighters that could challenge the United States. And as the originator of key components in the J-20, Russia keeps an edge by knowing exactly what the fighter's capabilities and weaknesses are.

Here's how Reuters' Thomas Grove broke it down, from Moscow:

Experts say the fifth-generation J-20 fighter, which made its maiden flight in January during a visit of the U.S. defense secretary, could have its origins in the Mikoyan 1.44 stealth jet that never made it to the production line. A highly-placed source close to Russia’s defense industry said the similarities suggested Mikoyan technology had been passed into the hands of Chinese arms designers.

“It looks like they got access … to documents relating to the Mikoyan—the aircraft that the Ministry of Defense skipped over in its tender to create a stealth fighter,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity. He said it was not clear whether such a transfer of technology had been legal. Analysts say Russia’s assistance to the Chinese may help Moscow keep tabs on the rising military power’s defense capabilities of its eastern neighbor.

Independent analyst Adil Mukashev, who specializes in ties between Russia and China, suggested there had been a financial transaction. “China bought the technology for parts, including the tail of the Mikoyan, for money,” he said.

Russia and China deny it, but the story is plausible, given that the Russians apparently never could make the Mikoyan 1.44 work as a challenger for the F-22. (To be fair, it was probably never meant to become a production aircraft.) If China asked, or Russia offered, to hand over their research and spares in exchange for cash on the barrelhead, it would've been a very tempting deal for both sides. Russia gets a payday and makes life a little scarier for the United States; China's aerospace industry gets another jump-start, and it makes life a little scarier for the United States.

But it doesn't answer key questions about the J-20, including whether China can build enough of its own high-quality jet engines for a full production run of the new stealthy fighters. And this story, if true, actually could provide another arrow in the quivers of J-20 skeptics: The Russians clearly never got the Mikoyan 1.44 where they wanted it. In fact, MiG entered it in the PAK FA competition, but as we were reminded again this week, Russian authorities opted for Sukhoi's T-50 instead.  (Let's pause here to imagine Russian defense industry officials interjecting to talk about the "valuable lessons" they learned from the losing bid.) So if there were flaws in the 1.44's design, they may have been passed down to the J-20, and maybe it isn't an invincible expression of pure airpower after all.

Then again, the J-20 also clearly isn't a carbon copy of the 1.44. So if there were original imperfections, the Chinese may have buffed them out.

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