SINGAPORE — Will China’s development of new weapons counter the dominance of U.S. forces in the Asia-Pacific region — in space, at sea and, most recently, in the air?
Photographs and video footage appeared on Chinese websites last week purporting to show China’s first stealth fighter carrying out runway tests. A test flight of the twin-engine jet, known as the J-20, took place Tuesday, and Chinese military sources have been quoted as saying that the aircraft could be deployed as early as 2017.
Such a timetable would be a considerable advance on most assessments by foreign intelligence agencies. It follows a warning last month by a senior U.S. commander that China, again well ahead of expectations, had developed and started fielding a ballistic missile that may be capable of hitting a U.S. aircraft carriers and other big warships 1,500 km or more from the Chinese coastline.
In the past few years, China has shown it might try to challenge U.S. primacy in space-based satellite communications critical to long-range military operations. China deliberately shot down one of its own orbiting satellites in 2008, evidently to demonstrate what it could do.
The J-20 photographs have prompted speculation that China is hot on the heels of the U.S. and Russia in developing so-called fifth generation stealth combat planes.
At present, the U.S. Air Force’s F-22, an air defense fighter, is the world’s only fully operational 5-G stealth aircraft capable of avoiding detection by radar and other sensors. However, the Chinese version is considerably larger, which suggests it may have been designed as a fighter-bomber with a longer range and heavier weapon loads.
If this were so, it would add to the concern of Japan and many other Asian countries at China’s rapidly growing ability to offset U.S. military power in the Asia-Pacific region and enforce Beijing’s claims to disputed land, island and sea territory. They include a vast swath of the South China Sea in the maritime heart of Southeast Asia. They also include the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands and surrounding waters, and seabed energy and mineral resources.
Back in September 2009, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who is visiting China, Japan and South Korea this week, confidently predicted continuing U.S. “command of the skies” for the next 20 to 25 years. He said that America would have “more than 1,000 F-22s and F-35s before China fields its first fully operational fifth-generation fighter — a gap that will grow well into the 2020s.”
The F-35, also an advanced stealth aircraft, is scheduled to start entering training service later this year. However, production of more than 3,000 of the planes for the U.S. and foreign allies, including Australia, will be slowed by cuts in the U.S. military budget announced last week. In 2009, the Pentagon decided to reduce funding for the F-22, partly on the grounds that China would not have similar aircraft for at least 15 years.
Is it time for a reality check? The performance capabilities of the J-20 are as yet unknown. But it is expected to be well behind the two U.S. 5-G stealth aircraft, the F-22 and F-35, in technical sophistication and ability to evade detection.
China’s experience in military operations also lags well behind America’s in recent years, particularly in large-scale combined services deployments. While the U.S. may have underestimated some key aspects of China’s military modernization program, a top U.S. Navy intelligence officer said in Washington last week that America should not over-estimate Beijing’s military prowess and that China had not yet demonstrated an ability to use its different weapons systems together in proficient warfare.
The officer, Vice Adm. David Dorsett, said that although China had developed some weapons faster than the U.S. expected, he was not alarmed overall. “Have you seen them deploy large groups of naval forces? No,” he said. “Have we seen large, joint, sophisticated exercises? No.”
China’s lack of recent combat experience makes it difficult to assess progress in its military transformation. The U.S. has been involved in a wide range of conflicts for much of the period since the end of World War II.
China has taken part in only a few conflicts, all of them with nearby countries. Its last large-scale engagement was in 1979, when it invaded northern Vietnam to punish Hanoi for toppling the Beijing-supported Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia. However, Chinese forces were fought to a standstill by defending troops using mainly Soviet weapons and experience from the Vietnam War.
China is reported to be refitting a Soviet-era aircraft carrier for deployment in the South China Sea as soon as next year. It is building two other relatively small carriers, with the first to be launched by 2014. More and perhaps bigger vessels are expected to follow as China’s navy gains operational experience.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Navy and Air Force are working together to develop a new airborne long-range strike capability. Known as the Air-Sea Battle concept, it would among other things extend the range from China at which America’s 11 giant nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and their escorts can fight and refuel.
Gates said in May that the strategy would involve greater use of long-range unmanned aircraft, new sea-based missile defenses, and missile-armed submarines and high-speed Littoral Combat Ships for coastal operations close to target zones.
China and the U.S. are in a military modernization race. China is striving to catch up as fast as possible. The U.S. aims to maintain the big capability gap that has long been in its favor. At stake is the future balance of power in the Asia-Pacific region.
Michael Richardson is a visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of South East Asian Studies in Singapore.