Aircraft Carrier, Stealth Fighters Boost China's Status as Major Military Power
The report makes no bones about the U.S. military's concerns regarding China's burgeoning arsenal of advanced weaponry, including an aircraft carrier and stealth combat jets. The Pentagon is required to submit to Congress an annual assessment of China's military capabilities. The latest one, "Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2013," was released May 6.
"The most significant development in the PLA Navy over the past year has been the sea trials and commissioning of China’s first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning," the report says. "The carrier most likely will conduct extensive local operations focusing on shipboard training, carrier aircraft integration, and carrier formation training before reaching an operational effectiveness in three to four years."
The Liaoning would operate in the East and South China Seas. A new base that is under construction in Yuchi features a deep draft harbor with replenishment, repair, and maintenance facilities.
The J-15 aircraft conducted its first takeoffs and landings from the Liaoning in November. The J-15 carrier-based fighter is the Chinese version of the Russian Su-33. The J-15 is designed for ski-jump takeoffs and arrested landings. "The formation of carrier battle groups will enable the PLA Navy to conduct comprehensive operations and enhance its long-range operational capabilities," the Defense Department study says. It notes that the Chinese government has denied reports that a second aircraft carrier is being constructed in Shanghai.
The PLA has been developing aircraft with low-observable features, advanced avionics, super-cruise engines, and stealth applications, the report says. "China seeks to develop these advanced aircraft to improve its regional airpower projection capabilities and strengthen its ability to strike regional airbases and facilities."
China’s first fifth-generation fighter is not expected to enter service before 2018, and China faces numerous challenges to achieving full operational capability, including developing high- performance jet engines, the study says. The PLA Air Force "views this technology as a core capability in its transformation from a predominantly territorial air force to one capable of conducting offensive and defensive operations."
Stealth aircraft such as China’s J-20, the study says, "could be used as a multirole fighter to strike ground targets within the region in addition to supporting air superiority missions beyond China’s borders. China’s second developmental fifth-generation fighter is smaller in size than the J-20 — tentatively identified as the J-31 — but could be designed for multirole missions, "providing China with a second stealth platform for regional operations."
Stealth drones also are a priority for the PLA Air Force, the Pentagon study says, especially in air-to-ground strike roles.
The PLA has concerns about its ability to counter U.S. fifth generation aircraft, such as the F-22 and F-35, the report says. "In response, the PLA Air Force has emphasized the need to develop systems and training to defend against the employment of foreign stealth technology in combat." It also seeks to "emphasize offensive capabilities to counter an adversary’s use of stealth technology, to include the use of long-range attack capabilities to destroy enemy aircraft on the ground.
The Pentagon believes that China's advancing military arsenal partially was developed with technology that was obtained, sometimes illegitimately, from other countries, primarily the United States. "The Chinese utilize a large, well-organized network to facilitate collection of sensitive information and export-controlled technology from U.S. defense sources," the report says. "Many of the organizations composing China’s military-industrial complex have both military and civilian research and development functions. This network of government-affiliated companies and research institutes often enables the PLA to access sensitive and dual-use technologies or knowledgeable experts under the guise of civilian research and development."
These organizations rely on conferences and symposia, legitimate contracts and joint commercial ventures, partnerships with foreign firms and partnerships to obtain desired technologies.
"In the case of key national security technologies, controlled equipment, and other materials not readily obtainable through commercial means or academia, China has utilized its intelligence services and employed other illicit approaches that involve violations of U.S. laws and export controls," the report says. China wants to "develop an innovative dual-use technology and industrial base that serve both military and civilian requirements. China’s defense industry has benefited from integration with its expanding civilian economy and science and technology sectors, particularly sectors with access to foreign technology."
Examples of dual-use technologies that benefit the military include advanced aviation and aerospace, source code, traveling wave tubes, night vision devices, monolithic microwave integrated circuits and cyber technologies. "Differentiating between civil and military end-use is very challenging in China due to opaque corporate structures, hidden asset ownership, and the connections of commercial personnel with the central government."
The Pentagon estimates that China’s military spending for 2012 was somewhere between $135 billion and $215 billion. "It is difficult to estimate actual PLA military expenses due to China’s poor accounting transparency and incomplete transition from a command economy," the report says. "China’s published military budget omits several major categories of expenditure, such as procurement of foreign weapons and equipment."
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