Thursday, November 19, 2009

Defense Intelligence Agency on China's new fighter

The Defense Intelligence Agency is sticking by its estimates of when China will deploy a fifth-generation jet fighter after recent remarks by a Chinese general that Beijing's most advanced jet could be fielded by 2017 - years earlier than U.S. intelligence projections.

"We believe that first flight of a Chinese fifth-generation fighter will occur in the next few years; however, we also believe it will take about 10 years before the [People's Liberation Army] begins to operationally deploy a fifth-generation fighter in meaningful numbers," DIA spokesman Donald Black told Inside the Ring.

As reported in this space last week, Gen. He Weirong, the deputy commander of the Chinese air force, told Chinese state-run media that the new advanced jet would fly soon despite U.S. intelligence projections that it will not be ready for combat for at least 10 years. (Gen. He was incorrectly identified as Gen. Ho Weirong last week.)

Gen. He said the first jet could be deployed by 2017, and his remarks have sparked renewed debate over whether to continue production of the Pentagon's most advanced jet, the F-22. Production of the jet, beyond 187 more planes already in the pipeline, was effectively canceled by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates earlier this year.

If deployed by 2017, the new advanced warplane would make China's jet force more advanced than those of Britain, France and other Western European statesaccording to military analysts.

Asked if U.S. projections about the new Chinese jet were incorrect, Mr. Black said "the intelligence community has been warning of the development of a Chinese fifth-generation fighter for several years."

"Intelligence estimates typically provide a range of dates associated with operational deployment," he said. "Gen. He's comments are generally consistent with these intelligence community estimates of Chinese fifth-generation fighter operational deployment."

The United States is deploying large numbers of F-35 jets, which lack some fifth-generation capabilities of the F-22, such as supercruise, a propulsion system that allows the jet to fly longer distances, fire its long-range weapons, and then exit without running out of fuel.

Mr. Gates said in July that U.S. projections of when China would deploy its new fifth-generation jet, dubbed J-XX by some analysts, indicate that the F-22 was not needed in large numbers because China will not have large numbers of fifth-generation fighters by 2020. Despite large numbers of F-35s and some F-22s, "China, by contrast, is projected to have no fifth-generation aircraft by 2020. And by 2025, the gap only widens," Mr. Gates said.

Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said he did not see "any inconsistency in what the SecDef has said and the DIA assessment."

"In both cases, we don't see any significant fifth generation Chinese fighter capability for next 10 years or so," Mr. Whitman said.

Richard Fisher, a China military-affairs specialist with the International Assessment and Strategy Center, said the DIA's response to the Chinese general's remarks were comforting.

"But one has to suspect that there is now light between recent DIA assessments and what Secretary Gates said on July 16," Mr. Fisher said. "Secretary Gates basically said that a Chinese fifth generation fighter threat would not materialize well into the 2020s, while the DIA seems to imply that their 'range' of assessments could accept this happening closer to 2020."

For Mr. Fisher, the most important issue is not the quality of U.S. intelligence analysis on Chinese weapons developments, but U.S. leadership.

"The Obama administration convinced the Congress to deny U.S. forces a critical capability, the F-22, in some part due to its assessment of Chinese next-generation fighter capabilities, an assessment that may not have been the 'consensus' within the intelligence community," he said.

"Democracies require informed debate in order to survive. It is appearing that the debate over the termination of F-22 production was not sufficiently informed regarding emerging Chinese capabilities."

Mr. Fisher said some evidence indicates China may have several fifth-generation fighter programs in train and could augment less capable jets with upgrades and advances.

"I doubt that the Chinese are going to limit their force to 187 fifth-generation air-superiority fighters," he said, referring to the Pentagon's limited buy of F-22s.

A U.S. Air Force official involved in the F-35 development program told Aviation Week that the Chinese will "have a difficult road if their design is tied to the J-10," China's indigenous fourth-generation fighter.

The officer said that significantly reducing the new aircraft's radar cross-section will require more than stealth outer coatings. New integrated design and shaping as well as coatings are needed, the officer was quoted as saying in the magazine's Nov. 13 article on the new Chinese jet.

A Chinese Embassy spokesman did not respond to an e-mail seeking comment on the new jet.


The true strength of Chinese military is hard to assess because it rarely conducts (publicize) Western-style military exercise.

A lot of its true capability [and weaknesses] are shrouded in secrecy. US military is the polar opposite of its Chinese counterpart.

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