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Scientists in China are developing a powerful radar to detect stealth aircraft, a technology that could be a military “game changer” if mounted on a satellite or plane. China North Industries Group Corporation tested a device capable of generating terahertz radiation with unprecedented power at a military research facility in Chengdu, Sichuan province, according to

Terahertz radiation, or T-rays, can penetrate composite materials to reach underlying metallic layers and is widely used in industrial plants to spot product defects.

Terahertz radars are already capable of finding a concealed weapon in a crowd from hundreds of metres away, and a more powerful version is under development to put on an early warning aircraft or satellite to identify and track military aircraft, including the US’ F-22 and F-35 stealth fighters.

Attempts to realise military applications for T-ray technology have been limited by the bulk and low power output of terahertz generators. The new device could generate stable, continuous radiation at an average level up to 18 watts, and terahertz pulses with peak power close to one megawatt, on par with some military radars.

China has claimed that some of its existing very-high-frequency military radar can detect traces of stealth aircraft but doubters say the microwaves from those devices would be absorbed or deflected by stealth materials.

Qi Jiaran, deputy director of the department of microwave engineering at the Harbin Institute of Technology, said the new instrument could be a game changer.

Qi, a terahertz imaging specialist not directly involved in the Chengdu project, said the report suggested that China had made a breakthrough in some key technology and components. But the technology was still bulky and could not be fitted easily on a plane or satellite.

“Field deployment may require power output at the kilowatt level. There is still a long way to go before we can monitor stealth fighters or bombers from space,” Qi said.

The new instrument was developed by the China Academy of Engineering Physics in Mianyang, the nation’s largest research institute for the development and production of nuclear weapons.