Other Industries

Cloak and dagger

Stealth fighters in focus after ‘metamaterials’ IPO


Ukrainian footage taken by drone

A company called Shaanxi Huaqin Technology landed on Shanghai’s STAR Market earlier this month, with a share sale that valued it at nearly Rmb17 billion ($2.7 billion).

Coverage of the IPO was subdued in the local media, although a closer look in its prospectus suggests the company’s know-how in coatings technology could be deployed for military usage.

Huaqin specialises in the production of camouflage and protective materials. Probably more significantly for weapons experts, some of these materials are said to support stealth technologies used by the People’s Liberation Army, especially for its aircraft and missiles.

There was a flurry of excitement four years ago at rumours of advances in so-called ‘metamaterials’ – or coatings that help jets to evade radar detection. Chinese scientists were testing out an ‘invisibility cloak’ for some of the country’s most advanced weapons systems, it was claimed.

Stealth materials absorb the specialised microwaves sent out by radars to detect aircraft, but their coatings have been too thick and heavy for most jets to carry. The scientists claimed to have developed thinner and lighter materials, although analysts were cautious, saying the technology would be difficult to mass produce and was unlikely to work against all radar bandwidths.

Nonetheless, the reports were taken as another signal that China was closing the gap on US military capabilities in key areas and Beijing has just announced another 7.1% increase in the national defence budget to Rmb1.45 trillion for the year.

The budget hike comes in well above anticipated GDP growth of 5.5% and is likely to be significantly higher than claimed, most foreign commentators think, because it’s asserted by many defence analysts that the Chinese under-report the real level of spending.

China’s state media is still sensitive to claims that the country is dedicating more of its resources to its military capabilities, however, pointing out that this year’s budget is less than a third of the proposed spending on the military in the US.

Breakthroughs in stealth technology could dovetail with the development of the Chengdu J-20 aircraft – China’s most advanced stealth fighter. Not much is known publicly about the fighter, beyond that it first flew in 2011, powered by engines of Russian design. State-run media have claimed that at least 100 of them have entered service, although sightings have been limited to brief appearances like a fly-by at the Zhuhai Airshow last year.

Chinese engineers are said to have struggled to produce engines powerful enough to allow the J-20 to match the likes of the US F-22, although reports on state television last week claimed that the air force is testing its most advanced engine yet, the WS-15, in J-20 deployments.

Talk of the struggle for stealth fighter supremacy comes at a time when much smaller, cheaper weapons have been scoring deadly success against Russian tanks and artillery in the Ukraine, despite being pretty basic compared to other technology.

Drones can fly below radar coverage and have no pilots on board that can be captured or killed. But military expert David Hambling told NBC News this week that the destructive impact of Turkish-made Bayraktar drones on Russian forces was unexpected, describing their design as “literally a World War I aircraft, in terms of performance”.

“It’s got a 110-horsepower engine. It is not stealthy. It is not supersonic. It’s a clay pigeon – a real easy target,” he added.

Earlier this week it was reported that US officials have warned Beijing not to supply the Russians with weapons, with allegations that Moscow had asked for military equipment from the Chinese, including shipments of armed drones.

China’s foreign ministry responded quickly to deny the claims, describing them as “disinformation” by the Americans.

In the meantime, Ukraine’s government has been trying to put pressure on DJI, the leading Chinese drone maker, to disable drones that it claims are being operated by Russian forces on Ukrainian soil.

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