Center for Strategic Communication

Liaoning, left, and the J-21. Photos: Chinese Internet via China Defense Blog and Shanghaiist

Liaoning, left, and the J-21. Photos: Chinese Internet via China Defense Blog and Shanghaiist

The U.S. knows very little about China’s newest stealth fighter prototype, the Shenyang J-21. But the just-released photographs of the Chinese jet reveal it to have a barely noticeable but key detail — one that suggests the jet might be hauled by China’s future fleet of aircraft carriers.

The J-21, according to the three photos of it circulating on the Internet, has twin nose wheels. That’s the kind of tough landing gear usually associated with naval fighters optimized for launching and landing on the heaving decks of aircraft carriers at sea. Could the J-21 be a tool of Chinese naval power?

Just two days after the J-21 — or J-31, as some observers think it’s designated — made its blurry Internet debut at a factory airfield in northeastern China, there are far more questions than answers about the new airplane’s origins, characteristics and purpose.

How stealthy is it — and how far along in its development? Is the J-21 a copy of the U.S. F-35 based on blueprints stolen by Chinese hackers, as some China-watchers contend? Is the new plane meant to compete with, or complement, the larger Chengdu J-20 stealth fighter prototype that debuted 21 months ago? And was the J-21′s first appearance timed to send a forceful message to U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who is China on his first visit as Pentagon chief?

We don’t know. But the nose wheels seem to indicate that the J-21 is at least theoretically capable of flying from the Liaoning, China’s first aircraft carrier. Many carrier planes — including the American F-35C and F/A-18E/F, the Russian Su-33 and China’s related J-15 — all have the distinctive twin wheels, whereas most strictly land-based jets have only a single wheel up front. The reason is simple: carrier planes land harder on their comparatively tiny, seagoing airstrips, and thus require more robust landing gear able to distribute the force of impact.

To be fair, China’s carrier Liaoning has spent the last 15 months on sea trials around its home port of Dalian in the country’s northeast, and has yet to launch or land a fixed-wing plane. When that important milestone might take place is anyone’s guess. Working up a safe and effective carrier and seagoing air wing is hard. “Simply having a ship is only the beginning to effective carrier operations,” The Atlantic‘s James Fallows pointed out.

But Beijing is working to get its carrier planes ready. The J-15, an upgraded Chinese copy of Russia’s Cold War-vintage Su-33 carrier fighter, has been flying since 2009. And in August a J-15 was apparently craned aboard Liaoning for deck-handling tests. China is also developing what looks like a copy of the U.S. E-2C carrier-borne radar plane, though it’s not clear the Chinese model can launch from a ship’s deck.

A naval J-21 could complement this evolving mix of carrier-based warplanes, providing the same stealthy backup that the F-35 is meant to offer to non-radar-evading F-18s in the future U.S. Navy air wing.

But that’s assuming a lot. Until we see a J-21 launching from Liaoning‘s deck, we can only wonder about those twin nose wheels, and speculate about the new fighter’s possible maritime destiny.