The “Mighty Dragon” and China’s “Accidental Spies”

Supposedly leaked photos of China’s J-20 “Mighty Dragon” stealth fighter have been appearing on English language webpages over the past few months, calling to mind videos of J-20 test flights posted to Youtube in early 2011. Last year’s videos prompted discussion about what the J-20’s development says about China’s defense sector, while the recent photos have people talking about the PLA’s information security and dissemination strategy. From the Economic Observer:

In mid-March, the Chinese Air Force carried out a test flight for its new fifth-generation J-20 “Mighty Dragon” fighter-jet, without a prior press release. After the test, photos were immediately posted in the military columns of various web media. It looked like a leak from the Chinese Air Force. Except, if it were a real leak, the person responsible for it would by now have received an “invitation to tea” from the state security apparatus.

The carefully staged dissemination of the test flight, just like the announcement of an aircraft carrier program last year, carries a strong political message.

[...]According to a Canadian Internet news site, the J-20 uses an engine similar to the American twin high thrust turbofan, which negates the rumor of a Russian-made engine. It also shows that China has solved its problems in developing a fifth generation fighter. It reflects the great progress China has achieved in this field.

China’s military had certainly predicted that the test flight would garner a lot of attention in many countries.

A post by David Axe in Wired refers to earlier assumed “leaks” of J-20 tests. Just prior to the 2011 videos, a shot of the prototype aircraft was caught from the cell phone of one of China’s civilian military-tech fans, and quickly uploaded to his blog. This photo, the first evidence of China’s rumored development of the advanced jet fighter, proved to surpass the espionage capabilities of the US military, making these fans “accidental spies”. The question is, was this really a matter of chance?

The Chinese fanboys, who post rumors, photos and snippets of technical data to a wide range of blogs and forums, are America’s de-facto spies in China, hoovering up information on Beijing’s latest planes,ships, missiles and ground vehicles and making it widely available to U.S. analysts, journalists, military planners and policymakers.

[...]It’s not actually certain that the fanboys are better spies than the Pentagon’s, CIA’s and NSA’s professional spooks. It’s possible that the Chinese People’s Liberation Army controls the trickle of information to the forums, and by extension to Western audiences — making the fanboys more propagandists than spooks.

Indeed, some forum members admit to belonging to the “50-cent club,” named after the bounty the PLA pays for each reposting of information the military quietly disseminates. Other forum-goers are given access to military facilities or alerted to forthcoming weapons tests at sites that are calculated to be just barely visible to the curious public.

Also see a longer  piece by David Axe in Pacific Standard, further detailing China’s “accidental spies.”

In a Twitter discussion of the article, China security policy expert M. Taylor Fravel (@fravel) notes that tests of the J-20 were not as secretive as David Axe’s article suggested: