China will be operational with its first stealth fighter in just seven years, will have an overall modern military in nine years, and continues to close the window on any possible defense of Taiwan should the mainland make a military move against the island.
These were among the conclusions of the Pentagon’s most recent report on China’s military power, officially known as "Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China." The annual report is required by Congress, which mandates that it be timely, factual, and broad-based in its assessment of China’s military capabilities.
The Obama Administration usually takes a diplomatic tone with the report so as not to inflame relations with China, but the latest edition was required to take note of several milestone events: J-20 stealth fighter flight tests, the beginning of sea trials on China’s first aircraft carrier, and successful flight testing of the DF-21D, a ballistic missile with a warhead that can be retargeted in-flight, giving China a means to attack US aircraft carriers more than 900 miles away.
The report also estimates that China has increased its military spending to $160 billion, or 13 percent more than last year, marking a continuing trend of annual double-digit growth. China, it said, sees a "window of opportunity" in this decade to catch up with the US, which is having trouble modernizing its military due to the prolonged economic downturn and continuing budget deficits. China’s military spending is about double what France, Germany, the UK, or Russia individually spends on defense, and is second only to the US in the size of its military budget.
China disclosed its new J-20 fighter early this year; videos circulated on the Internet before a formal announcement of the aircraft was made. The Pentagon report says the J-20’s appearance "underscores" China’s investment in advanced defense systems, but the department doesn’t expect operational capability prior to 2018. DOD said the J-20 still has a lot of development "hurdles" ahead of it, and that China still lacks "mastery of high-performance jet engine production." Though the report downplays how soon the J-20 will be operational, the estimate is years earlier than predicted by then-Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates when he stated his reasons for terminating the F-22 in 2009.
The J-20 program "highlights China’s ambition to produce a fighter aircraft that incorporates stealth attributes, advanced avionics, and supercruise-capable engines over the next several years," the Pentagon asserted. Senior USAF officials have suggested publicly that the J-20 has benefited directly from China’s cyber intrusions on the US and its contractors. The aircraft bears a strong resemblance to the F-22 and F-35 in some features, notably in the nose and air intakes.
China is not neglecting air defense, long-range strike, or command and control, either. The B-6 bomber fleet (adapted from the Soviet Tu-16 Badger design) is being expanded with longer range aircraft and a new cruise missile, also with longer reach. China is introducing its HQ-9 air defense system, a knockoff of the Russian S-400, and continues adding more battalions of SA-20s. In fact, the Pentagon said China has "one of the largest" air defense networks in the world, and is putting tremendous resources into its anti-access capabilities. There are "several types" of airborne warning and control systems in development or being deployed. China also continues to build tanker aircraft to extend the reach of its fighters and bombers, all of which are either being built with or retrofitted with aerial refueling gear.
Not Just Red Air
In all military sectors, China has "benefited from robust investment in modern hardware and technology," and will largely be a world-class military by the early 2020s, the report declares.
"The decade from 2011 through 2020 will prove critical to the [People’s Liberation Army] as it attempts to integrate many new and complex platforms, and to adopt modern operational concepts, including joint operations and network-centric warfare," the report says. China continues to aggressively pursue "capabilities intended to deter, delay, or deny possible US support for [Taiwan] in the event of conflict," and across the Taiwan Strait, "the balance of … military forces and capabilities continues to shift in the mainland’s favor."
The report said China’s ballistic missiles can reach virtually all of the territory of the US now and may soon be fitted with multiple warheads. Defensively, China has invested heavily in deeply buried facilities and a tunnel network "which reportedly stretches for over 5,000 km [3,100 miles]."
In space, China’s 2007 demonstration of a destructive anti-satellite system has been expanded to include a variety of systems aimed at crippling, jamming, or disrupting US satellites, the Pentagon said. These include "kinetic and directed energy (i.e., lasers, high-powered microwave, and particle beam weapons)," and along with other systems both indigenous and foreign-supplied, they can "jam common satellite communications bands and GPS [Global Positioning System] receivers."
In a first, the Pentagon acknowledged that Israel has "previously supplied advanced military technology to China" but has since "reformed its export control regime." Though China has relied on technologies from Russia and elsewhere in the past, "this trend is changing as China becomes more self-sufficient in development and production."
China has identified 16 "major special items" on which it will focus its R&D resources, the Pentagon’s report noted. These include "core electronic components, high-end universal chips and operating system software, very large-scale integrated circuit manufacturing, next generation broadband wireless mobile communications, high-grade numerically controlled machine tools, large aircraft, high-resolution satellites, manned spaceflight, and lunar exploration." A similar list of military-specific capabilities includes low observable technology, radar, counterspace capabilities, and command and control and intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance systems.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Howard P. McKeon (R-Calif.) issued a statement about the report, saying, "China clearly believes that it can capitalize on the global financial crisis," and its emphasis on systems aimed at denying access to the US in the Pacific region should be a cause for concern in Washington.
The Pentagon reiterated the now-common refrain that it earnestly wishes for China to show "more transparency" in what it spends on its military and what forces it is developing, but that so far, there have only been "modest, but incremental improvements in the transparency of its military and security affairs. … There remains uncertainty about how China will use its growing capabilities."
Rep. Randy Forbes (R-Va.), chair of the HASC readiness panel, issued his own statement about the report, saying, "There is no question that China is rapidly closing the technology gap" with the US.
"There is a question, though, of whether the United States will simply cede its global and military leadership role to a nation with uncertain intentions, but known disregard for human rights, basic freedoms, and democratic institutions," Forbes asserted.
China made its usual prompt rebuttal to the report, this time in a speech by Gen. Chen Bingde, chief of the general staff of the PLA, during a visit to the National Defense University in Washington, D.C. Chen said China "never intends to challenge the US," and despite China’s technological military gains, there remains "a gaping gap between you and us." Still, Chen warned of dire consequences if the US continues to sell advanced weapons to Taiwan, which China maintains is a breakaway province and a matter of internal Chinese politics. The severity of the impact on US-China relations "will depend on the nature of the weapons sold to Taiwan," he said.
Talking ’Bout Next Generation
It was inevitable that the Pentagon’s hurried strategy review, meant to find $400 billion-plus in savings from the next 12 years of defense budgets, would pit program constituencies against each other in a less-than-zero-sum game. With one of the largest requirements for funding, air superiority has become a central battleground.
A recent shot was fired in an Aug. 31 letter from Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) to Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta. Chambliss wrote to express his concern that the Pentagon is buying more fourth generation F/A-18s for the Navy instead of devoting those funds to the fifth generation F-35. Lockheed Martin builds a portion of the F-35 in Georgia.
Describing the F-35 as the "cornerstone" of future American air superiority, Chambliss urged Panetta not to let "arithmetic targets mandated by a draconian budget-cutting exercise" cause the Pentagon to lose sight of the need to control the air in any conflict.
Chambliss insisted that any aircraft-buying decisions "reflect actual threat-based warfighting requirements and real economies that can be achieved through modernization of selected assets." Without the F-35 in the specified numbers, he contended, "we run the certain risk of ceding tactical air superiority in future conflicts to foes who are developing and fielding fifth generation aircraft and defensive systems."
The F/A-18E/F, as a fourth generation fighter, "will be of limited to no value in any future threat scenario, and will only drain scarce budgetary resources from systems designed to keep us ahead of our adversaries," Chambliss wrote. He urged Panetta to "fully commit to the expeditious fielding of the F-35 and forego procuring any additional fourth generation fighter."
Chambliss’ missive wasn’t the first shot in this particular duel, however. Christopher M. Chadwick, Boeing military systems president, held a press conference at the Paris Air Show in June, partly to challenge the notion of the "generations" debate. He said the idea of fifth vs. fourth generation is "meaningless," and that the Super Hornet will be just as effective as the F-35 because it will be protected by sophisticated electronic warfare methods rather than all-up stealth. He also challenged Lockheed assertions that the F-35, because its price includes the radar, targeting systems, internal fuel, and other capabilities that are "sold separately" with the F/A-18, will actually cost less than the Super Hornet in the long run.
For its part, the Navy requested additional F/A-18s in order to have enough aircraft to fill out its carrier decks. It agreed to extend the service lives of some of its older F/A-18s but insisted that others have to be replaced because of the structural fatigue of too many carrier landings.
The Air Force has similar structural and age issues with its F-16s, but the current Chief of Staff, Gen. Norton A. Schwartz, and his two predecessors have all insisted on spending any available procurement money on the next generation of aircraft. Schwartz has pointed out that any newly bought nonstealthy aircraft will have a life of 30 or more years—well past the point where they will be able to survive against current and emerging air defense threats. The Air Force, Schwartz has said, would have to retire such newly purchased aircraft prematurely, wasting service life, or keep them in service in less demanding roles. If the latter, it would require extension of the logistics pipeline for those aircraft, an expensive proposition.
The Air Force approach has been to Band-Aid the F-16 force with structural stiffeners and a new suite of sensors to keep them credible until F-35s can be delivered to replace them.
Nevertheless, the budget cuts are unavoidable, and senior USAF leaders have talked unceasingly of "tough choices" ahead. Senior USAF officials have privately mentioned pressure within the Pentagon to consider buying some fourth generation F-15Es to make up inventory shortfalls until the F-35 arrives. Also, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has chafed at the notion that there seems to be "no alternative" to the F-35, which he has said gives Lockheed Martin little incentive to keep the program on track and on budget. McCain, ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, signaled his willingness to fund such an alternative.
Chambliss closed his letter by saying he looked forward to discussing the issue with Ashton B. Carter (then undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology, and logistics) at Senate confirmation hearings that would make Carter the No. 2 leader at the Pentagon.
Daily Report: Read the day's top news on the US Air Force, airpower, and national security issues.
Daily Report: Read the day's top news on the US Air Force, airpower, and national security issues.
Daily Report: Read the days top news on the US Air Force, airpower, and national security issues.
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