For years, the world has watched as China has moved toward developing a new, long-range stealth bomber. It received the first of them -- the Hongzha-6K -- last year, alarming analysts who suggested in a November report to Congress that it could potentially be used to carry nuclear weapons.
Photographs circulating online this week raise the prospect that the twin-engine Hongzha-6K may not be the only plane the Chinese are preparing to field. Grainy images show a B-2-like bomber taxiing down a runway on what it is purportedly Chinese soil. They were posted on the Chinese website Tiexue with speculation that it's yet another new advanced stealth bomber for the Beijing's rapidly-advancing military.
"This stealth bomber is my New Year's president, I hope all of you military fans like it," wrote the individual who posted the photos. "Other people say this is the ‘sharp sword' [unmanned aerial vehicle, but look at the undercarriage, OK? Doesn't this get your blood going? Are you excited?"
The post already has received interest abroad. Tim Robinson, the editor in chief of "Aerospace," the top publication for the Royal Aeronautical Society in London, posted the link on Twitter on Monday, questioning whether the photos had been doctored:
Via SecretProjects forum - grainy pic of Chinese 'B-2' stealth bomber. Photoshop or another LO surprise from China? http://t.co/5P6khbgGyn— Tim Robinson (@RAeSTimR) December 30, 2013
It wouldn't be the first time that valuable military intelligence about China emerged online first. Chinese civilians blogging obsessively about the their country's military hardware has revealed secrets before, raising some to question whether the Chinese government actually tacitly endorses the practice by not immediately wiping them off the Internet. That includes a video posted last year of the J-20 "Annihilator" a fifth-generation fighter jet the Chinese have in development that some analysts say could rival the United States' stealthy F-35.
But there have been false alarms about China's growing air force, too. In one example, a rumor was spread widely online in 2009 that President Obama planned to sell details about the U.S. B2 bomber to China as a way to pay down its national debt. That was clearly false, as the myth-busting website Snopes later pointed out. Chinese commenters raised doubts about the authenticity of the bomber photos on Monday, as well.
Still, the U.S. came close to aspects of the B-2 Spirit's technology getting into the hands of the Chinese at least once. In 2010, the United States convicted Noshir Gowadia, an Indian-born U.S. citizen working as an engineer in Hawaii, of selling secrets to the Chinese for use in building cruise missiles. He also had been one of the main designers of the B-2 for the Northrop Corp., which merged with another company to become Northrop Grumman in 1994.
Gowadia's indictment said he and a fellow conspirator from China intended to market his knowledge of the B-2 and other defense programs for cash. He ultimately was sentenced to 32 years in prison.
-- Foreign Policy's Liz Carter contributed to this report.
Photo by Tiexue.net