China making air force, navy upgrades, U.S. officials say

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A China Air Force Military drill in Jinan, China.

China’s air force is fielding new precision-guided cruise missiles, long-range bombers and drones as its Navy expands its long-range punch, according to U.S. military intelligence officials.

“While we would not characterize the modernization as accelerated,” it’s “progressing at a steady pace” and is significant, Lee Fuell, a director at the Air Force’s National Air and Space Intelligence Center, said in a presentation released yesterday.

Fuell’s presentation and one prepared by the Office of Naval Intelligence for a hearing of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission in Washington are the most detailed new public assessments of the Chinese air force’s and navy’s growing military capabilities.

While China’s military spending is less than one-fifth of the U.S.’s, President Xi Jinping has vowed to create a strong and disciplined military since he took control of the Central Military Commission when he became party secretary in November 2012. Under Xi, the Chinese navy has conducted military drills in the Pacific and the South China Sea, and in November the nation declared an air defense identification zone over islands disputed with Japan.

China is improving its air and naval power to blunt U.S. military prowess in the Pacific, project force farther from Chinese shores, and even blockade or invade Taiwan, the island democracy whose territory it claims.

“Given the pace” of China’s naval modernization, “the gap in military capability between the mainland and Taiwan will continue to widen in China’s favor,” wrote Jesse Karotkin, the ONI senior intelligence officer on China, in the newstatement to the commission.

In addition, the naval intelligence office said in its report “many of these capabilities are designed specifically to deter or prevent U.S. military intervention in the region.”

Cruise missiles

Deploying additional land-attack cruise missiles on new submarines and surface vessels “could enhance China’s ability to strike key U.S. bases throughout the region, including Guam,” said the 12-page naval intelligence assessment.

The Chinese army, which manages and operates the missile force, “is progressing at a steady pace” in expanding its arsenal of medium-range ballistic missiles armed with conventional warheads to increase the range “at which it can conduct precision strikes against land targets and naval ships (including aircraft carriers) operating far from China’s shores out to the first island chain,” Fuell said in his presentation.

The rapid, widespread fielding of Chinese-made anti-ship cruise missiles with ranges greater than 100 nautical miles is typical of the developments in a navy transitioning from a coastal maritime force to one “capable of multiple missions,” wrote Karotkin.

‘Improve capability’

The goal of China’s upgrades “is to improve capability to conduct offensive and defensive operations such as strike, air and missile defense, power projection, and early warning and reconnaissance,” said Fuell, the Air Force intelligence center’s technical director for force modernization and employment, in testimony prepared for the review commission, a panel created by the U.S. Congress.

“We believe the Chinese are not trying to match the U.S. system vs. system, but are pursuing more of a system-of-systems approach that exploits what they perceive to be adversary weaknesses or exploitable vulnerabilities,” he said.

China’s air force upgrades are in tandem with fielding long-range anti-ship cruise missiles on half of its 62 submarines, developing more mines to add to its inventory of 50,000, and a “dramatic improvement” in its navy’s ability to conduct satellite reconnaissance of broad areas, according to the naval intelligence office assessment.

Threaten adversaries

The growing arsenal also will enhance China’s ability to threaten potential adversaries and “significantly expand its counter-intervention capability further into the Philippine Sea and South China Sea,” it said.

China has grown increasingly assertive in territorial disputes with its neighbors, including Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, Brunei and the Philippines. Still, a conflict in the South China Sea would strain the Chinese air force’s ability “to project airpower in a sustained fashion,” in part because of its “limited aerial refueling capabilities,” said Fuell.

China will cross a major threshold by 2020, when its new aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, is expected to be capable of launching and recovering aircraft “to support fleet operations in a limited air defense role,” the ONI said.

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