New Intel Report on the Threat of Chinese Air Power

The testing of China's new J-20 stealth fighter last month, which garnered international attention because it took place during Defense Secretary Robert Gates' visit to Beijing, was not an isolated event but the sign of something larger.

There has been considered debate about the warplane's true capabilities. Is it an air superiority fighter like the U.S. F-22 or is it a penetrating bomber or maritime strike platform? And whether it is a fifth generation aircraft depends on its electronics and software, items than cannot be determined from photos. Yet, one thing is clear; the development of the J-20 well ahead of forecasts indicates China's desire to challenge American air dominance in ways not seen since the end of the Cold War.

This week, the Pentagon's National Air and Space Intelligence Center (NASIC) published a study of the People's Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) predicting it will it "one of the world's foremost air forces by 2020" and is working to "extend its reach and its lethality." The PLAAF is striving to become "a strategic air force" with missions beyond the defense of the homeland. It will be able to "shape the future operational environment in the Asia-Pacific region and, perhaps one day, even beyond" according to the NASIC.   

The NASIC study is not yet available to the public, but Defense News obtained an advance copy. In its Feb. 21 issue, Wendell Minnick reports,

The PLAAF has traditionally been asked to concentrate solely on the defense of Chinese territory but is now also being asked to pro­tect Chinese interests beyond its borders. Since the 1990s, China has largely shaped its modernization ef­forts around Taiwan, but the PLAAF is beginning to look at sce­narios involving Japan, India and the South China Sea.

The summer saw large-scale Chinese air and naval exercises connected to diplomatic disputes running from Japan to the South China Sea, as well as in the waters surrounding the Korean peninsula.

Meanwhile, in the same issue of Defense News, the headline story was about the squeeze on U.S. military spending, particularly on the procurement of new weapons, as Washington struggles with its fiscal crisis. Though the Pentagon is not responsible for the massive budget deficits, which have been the result of the recession and hikes in domestic spending programs, the paper reports,

It will be tough to find the money to reach the Navy's goal of 313 warships, Gates told the House Armed Services Committee on Feb. 16. He questioned whether the Air Force would be able to afford new aerial re­fueling planes, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and a new bomber in the mid-2020s.

Although House lawmakers introduced a new 2011 defense spending measure on Feb. 11, [Defense Comptroller Robert] Hale said the Pentagon is "concerned that the funding levels in that bill are quite low," even though the top line is higher than the continuing resolution.

Production of the F-22 has already been capped at 187 aircraft. The desire of a booming China to become the dominant air force in Asia will only be encouraged by the retreat of American power.