China's Ballistic-Missile, Stealth-Fighter Advances Draw Attention of U.S.

Advances in Chinese military technology, including a new anti-ship ballistic missile and possibly a radar-evading fighter plane, are drawing scrutiny from Pentagon officials days before Defense Secretary Robert Gates is due to meet with his counterpart in Beijing.

Vice Admiral Jack Dorsett, the head of Navy intelligence, said yesterday that the Pentagon had underestimated the speed at which China has developed and fielded a ballistic missile that may be capable of hitting a maneuvering U.S. aircraft carrier. Dorsett said it was too early to tell whether the U.S. also has misjudged China’s capability to build a stealth fighter jet.

“We’ve been on the mark on an awful lot of our assessments but there has been a handful of things we have underestimated,” Dorsett told defense reporters. The DF-21D missile now has so- called initial combat capability, he said, according to his analysts and U.S. Pacific Command head Admiral Robert Willard.

China’s advances in military technology are drawing close scrutiny and concern from the Pentagon and new Republican- controlled House, particularly when they may jeopardize the dominance of U.S. naval forces in the Pacific region. News of the Chinese advances comes as Congress prepares to consider cuts in the Defense Department budget.

The timing of the Pentagon disclosures may be linked to those budget debates, which come after a more than a decade-long surge in Chinese defense spending that is beginning to yield new planes, missiles, submarines and perhaps soon an aircraft carrier, said Huang Jing, a visiting professor at National University of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Diplomacy.

‘Rising Power’

“You have an established superpower seeming to stagnate or even decline and meanwhile you have another rising power coming up,” Huang said. “This kind of comparison makes this whole issue even more serious.”

The news on China’s military is also drawing more attention because President Barack Obama is set to host President Hu Jintao in Washington in less than two weeks, Huang said.

China’s military buildup doesn’t pose a threat to any nation and is an important force to maintain world peace, said Hong Lei, a spokesman for the Ministry of Defense, in Beijing today. He declined to comment on the photographs of the fighter, beyond directing queries at the military.

The Chinese have tested the DF-21D missile over land a sufficient number of times to conclude that “the missile system itself is truly competent and capable,” Dorsett said. Still, China has not yet demonstrated a capability to use the missile effectively in combat situations, he said.

Chinese Threat

Defense Secretary Robert Gates said in a Sept. 16 speech that China’s “investments in anti-ship weaponry and ballistic missiles could threaten America’s primary way to project power and help allies in the Pacific -- particularly our forward bases and carrier strike groups.”

Gates is scheduled to visit China next week for talks seeking to improve military relations.

Dorsett’s remarks on the DF-21D status go further than the Pentagon did in its latest annual report on China’s military, released in August.

The 2010 report included a sketch of the notional flight profile of the new missile. It gave no indication that the missile had reached, or was close to, an initial combat capability. Nor did the report mention China’s new J-20 stealth fighter, which has appeared in photos on the Internet in recent days.

U.S. intelligence in particular misjudged China’s progress developing the technology necessary to sense and attack a maneuvering vessel, Dorsett said. Dorsett heads the Navy’s Office of Naval Operations for Information Dominance, which includes Navy intelligence.

Surprising Progress

On advances in ballistic-missile capabilities by the Chinese, Dorsett said “we certainly wouldn’t have expected them to be this far along” if asked five years ago.

“The technology has increased their probability of being able to employ a salvo of missiles to be able to hit a maneuvering target” he said.

Still, the Chinese military has yet to demonstrate it can effectively employ the missile, Dorsett said.

“They have certainly test fired this over land, but to our knowledge they have not test fired this over water against maneuvering targets,” he said.

China has “the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, they have sensors on ships that can feed into the missile for targeting,” he said. “So could they start to employ that? Yes, I think so.” He added that it is unclear how “proficient they are in the employment” of that capability.

Stealth Fighter

Photos of the J-20 aircraft have appeared on the Internet and Aviation Week & Space Technology reported Monday that the aircraft was conducing early runway tests as a prelude to a first test flight. The aircraft is comparable to the U.S. F-22 and would be China’s first stealth plane.

“I think time will tell whether we have underestimated. I’m not convinced that we have at this point. It will take more time,” Dorsett said.

The J-20 disclosure “was not a surprise,” Dorsett said. “It’s not clear to me” when the aircraft will reach its initial operational status.

“They have been able invest in a military build-up and a stealth fighter is just one aspect of that,” he said. “The fact they are making progress in that should not be a surprise.

“How far along are they? I don’t know. They clearly have an initial prototype,” Dorsett said. “Is it advanced and how many trials and test and demos do they need to go through before it becomes operational? That’s not clear to me.”

Reaching that status could take years, he said.

To contact the reporters on this story: Tony Capaccio in Washington at acapaccio@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Silva at msilva34@bloomberg.net

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