The Complex

China's newest stealth fighter flies

If these pictures are real, then China has flown two new types of stealth fighters in less than two years. You're looking at what's supposedly the newly unveiled Shenyang Aircraft Corporation's J-31 jet flying in the skies over China on Oct. 31.

Chinese military blogs claim these extremely grainy photos (above and below) show the jet taking a 10-minute test flight accompanied by a J-11 fighter (a reverse engineered version of the Russian Sukhoi Su-27).

The first photos of the Shenyang J-31 emerged on the Chinese Internet forums last month.

It should be noted that unlike China's first stealth jet, the Chengdu J-20, we have not seen many photos of the J-31 sitting on the ground or conducting high speed taxi runs in the lead up to a flight test. The J-20 was revealed by amateur plane spotters allowed to sit just outside the airbase  where it was being tested, who took dozens, if not hundreds, of decent-quality photos of the jet. Only a few, mostly grainy, photos of the J-31 have emerged so far.

Some speculate that the J-31 could play the role of a light strike or carrier-based fighter to compliment the much larger J-20, which is speculated to be either a high-speed interceptor like the Soviet MiG-25 Foxbat or a stealthy tactical bomber designed to take out enemy bases and ships.

Earlier this year, the Internet was rife with speculation that China would unveil a new stealth fighter after photos appeared online showing a mystery jet covered in a tarp being transported on China's highways. The silhouette of the mystery plane roughly matched the contours of a model jet -- strongly resembling the U.S.-made F-22 Raptor and F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) -- that Shenyang Aircraft Corporation displayed at an air show several years ago. That model appears to have evolved into the J-31.

While there is no proof that China's latest stealth fighter stole design specifications from American stealth fighter projects, the rear portions of aircraft blatantly copy the design of Lockheed Martin's F-22 while forward sections of the jet look an awful lot like an F-35. Keep in mind that the F-35 program suffered a large cyber intrusion several years ago where loads of data about the aircraft were stolen from the contractors working on it -- an incident that may have contributed to redesigns that have helped drive up costs and delay the fielding of the F-35. (In September, a senior JSF official revealed that the jet's computer-based maintenance system that will contain a host of critical data about the plane needed to be revised to prevent it from being hacked by spies.)

Still, as Killer Apps has pointed out before, having a stealthy shape does not mean the Chinese planes are truly stealth jets. Modern stealth aircraft feature new radar absorbent coatings, along with technology that masks their heat signatures and electronics that cannot be detected when in use. Don't forget, China has yet to master the development of high-performance jet engines, leaving its military largely reliant on Russian engines, for now. It remains to be seen just what capabilities China's new crop of stealth jets will feature.

Chinese Internet

National Security

Data triage and the cyber age

While the media has been getting itself worked up about the fact that American UAVs have broadcast video streams over unencrypted communications channels for years now, some in the military are taking a more nuanced approach to what battlefield data must be super secure.

Three years ago, news broke that insurgents in Iraq were able to watch UAV video feeds by using cheap software. This came more than a decade after video feeds from the MQ-1 Predator UAVs' first combat missions over the Balkans were inadvertently broadcast on local TV sets. And let's not forget the small frenzy that occurred when it was reported that a virus was recording keystrokes at U.S. Air Force drone command centers in 2011.

Some have dismissed the utility of hacking a drone feed without knowing exactly which aircraft's video is being looked at -- and therefore having the ability to warn potential targets. Others have a different take on this.

However, in light of ever-evolving cyber threats aimed at stealing as much data from -- well, everyone -- as possible, the Army is seeking to triage threats to its networks. What does this mean? It means figuring out what information warrants the significant investment in technology, time, and money required to protect it from hackers and what information will be useless if hacked. The latter is called perishable data, and in some cases it includes things like voice communications during a firefight. While this data would be encrypted against hacking by the enemy actually fighting U.S. forces, it wouldn't need to be hardened against hackers with advanced code-breaking abilities because by the time they tapped into the data and analyzed it, the fight would be over and the data useless.  

"We recently made a big decision that's reducing a lot of our costs [and that] is going to [National Security Agency] Type 2 encryption for our push to talk radios at the tactical edge," said the U.S. Army's chief information officer, Lt. Gen. Susan Lawrence during a speech at the Association of the U.S. Army's annual conference in Washington last week. "We realized, did we really need full Type 1 encryption all the way to the dismounted soldier? No."  

(Type 2 encryption is commonly used by the military to transmit sensitive but unclassified information.)

Lawrence's comments reflect the growing view among U.S. military commanders that it will be impossible to protect all of its networks and all the data on the networks. Therefore, the most important information must be heavily guarded against theft or corruption. and it must be kept on a network that is resilient enough to operate even while under attack.

"We can't protect all our networks . . . so it's more about the defense of our data. It's about the data, where do you put the information and the data, where should it reside so we can protect it," said Lawrence.

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