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China’s indigenous FGFA J-20 program hit by COVID-19 outbreak, PLA soldiers infected: Taiwanese expert

Many of Chinese troops have likely been infected by the coronavirus. “To some extent, it is a blow to PLA's morale, but it is hard to say if it is a big blow or not," said Dr Si-fu Ou, a defence expert at Taiwan think tank Institute for National Defense and Security Research

Reported by: Dhairya Maheshwari New Delhi Published on: May 01, 2020 23:16 IST
Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) troops perform a
Image Source : AP

Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) troops perform a flag-raising ceremony for a military parade to commemorate the 90th anniversary of the founding of the PLA, in 2017 (file photo for representational purposes)

The manufacturing of China’s indigenously developed Chengdu J-20, the world’s third fifth-generation fighter aircraft (FGFA) in service, has hit a roadblock as Beijing grapples with disruptions in supply chains due to the outbreak of COVID-19, a Taiwanese defence expert has reckoned.

“It is reported that J-20 fighter may also be delayed because of supply chain disruption,” said Dr Si-fu Ou, the acting deputy CEO and the chief of Division of Advanced Technologies and Warfighting Concepts at Taipei-based think tank Institute for National Defense and Security Research (INDSR). The Taiwanese defence institute has been keeping a track of the latest developments in Beijing’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

“However, the pro-government papers said they will back on track very soon. From my point of view, the J-20 still has some troubles that need to be fixed. Their productions are in small scale. It doesn't matter if Wuhan coronavirus causes a delay or not,” he cautiously added. 

“But it is also rather early to seriously suggest what kind of production run the J-20 may ultimately enjoy going into the future, not least due to the difficulty of predicting what the future geopolitical and economic trajectories China and the region may undergo in the intervening period,” the expert said.

Dr Ou has drawn upon government and media reports in Chinese, state-backed materials in the public domain and the timeline and figures as he came out with a new research paper, ‘The PLA’s Civil Support in Counter-Coronavirus Campaigns’, published in the last week of April.

The Chengdu J-20 fifth-generation fighter aircraft (FGFA), which made its maiden flight in January 2011, entered into combat service in February 2018, according to leading military publication Jane’s Defence Weekly.

Around 200 of them are said to have been manufactured till date.

In fact, the COVID-19 outbreak, which originated at a ‘wet market’ in Wuhan in December last year, has also thrown a spanner in the works of Beijing’s nuclear submarine programme, besides resulting in the postponement of military drills in the country’s Inner Mongolia at the Zhurihe base, the largest training facility in Inner Mongolia.

PLA troops infected

While Beijing has officially denied that no member of the two million-strong People’s Liberation Army has been infected with coronavirus, circumstantial evidence has pointed otherwise.

Chinese language reports and government documents ‘provide a snapshot of a military power that has been able to offer limited support and likely is infected at a certain scale’, noted Dr Ou.

“While 4,000 troops had been sent to Wuhan to help local authorities contain the outbreak, the Chinese Army was able to mobilise 10,000 troops across the country, providing medical services, transports, disinfections and street patrols among other things,” said the scholar.

Dr Ou said that many of the PLA troopers could be undergoing the necessary quarantine so to keep the disease from infecting other soldiers. “To some extent, it is a blow to PLA's morale, but it is hard to say if it is a big blow or not,” he said.

In the face of mounting evidence on several infections within the military ranks, the Communist Party of China (CPC) has been following its time-tested strategy of suppressing any information contradicting its version of events.

“The CCP has tightly controlled and clamped down on information about the contagion within the ranks of its armed forces,” the INDSR’s research paper stated. 

Also read: Republican lawmakers seek wet-market ban in China


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