China is building an advanced combat jet that may rival within eight years Lockheed Martin Corp's F-22 Raptor, the premier US fighter, a US intelligence official said.
The date cited for the expected deployment is years ahead of previous Pentagon public forecasts and may be a sign that China's rapid military buildup is topping many experts' expectations.
"We're anticipating China to have a fifth-generation fighter ... operational right around 2018," Wayne Ulman of the National Air and Space Intelligence Center testified on Thursday to a congressionally mandated group that studies national security implications of US-China economic ties.
"Fifth-generation" fighters feature cutting-edge capabilities, including shapes, materials and propulsion systems designed to make them look as small as a swallow on enemy radar screens.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates had said last year that China "is projected to have no fifth-generation aircraft by 2020" and only a "handful" by 2025.
He made the comments on July 16 to the Economic Club of Chicago while pushing Congress to cap F-22 production at 187 planes in an effort to save billions of dollars in the next decade.
Ulman is China "issues manager" at the center that is the US military's prime intelligence producer on foreign air and space forces, weapons and systems. He said China's military was eyeing options for possible use of force against Taiwan.
The People's Liberation Army, as part of its Taiwan planning, also is preparing to counter "expected US intervention in support of Taiwan," he told the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission.
He said the PLA's strategy included weakening US air power by striking air bases, aircraft carrier strike groups and support elements if the US stepped in.
Attacks against US "basing infrastructure" in the western Pacific would be carried out by China's air force along with an artillery corps' conventional cruise missile and ballistic missile forces, he said outlining what he described as a likely scenario.
He described China as a "hard target" for intelligence-gathering and said there were a lot of unknowns about its next fighter, a follow-on to nearly 500 4th generation fighters "that can be considered at a technical parity" with older US fighters.
"It's yet to be seen exactly how (the next generation) will compare one on one with say an F-22," Ulman told the commission. "But it'll certainly be in that ballpark."
Lockheed Martin, the Pentagon's No. 1 supplier by sales, is in the early stages of producing another fifth-generation fighter, the F-35. Developed with eight partner countries in three models with an eye to achieving economies of scale and export sales, it will not fly as fast nor as high as the F-22.
Gates has argued that the United States enjoys a lopsided advantage in fighters, warships and other big-ticket military hardware. Some US congressional decisions on arms programs amount to overkill, out of touch with "real-world" threats and today's economic strains, he said in two speeches on the issue this month.
"For example, should we really be up in arms over a temporary projected shortfall of about 100 Navy and Marine strike fighters relative to the number of carrier wings, when America's military possesses more than 3,200 tactical combat aircraft of all kinds?" Gates said on May 8.
"Is it a dire threat that by 2020 the United States will have only 20 times more advanced stealth fighters than China?" he added at the Eisenhower presidential library in Abilene, Kansas.
Geoff Morrell, the Pentagon press secretary, discounted the gap between the timelines cited by Gates and Ulman. He declined to comment on whether China had made enough progress since last July to change intelligence on the next fighter's debut.
Richard Fisher, an expert on the Chinese military at the private International Assessment and Strategy Center, said Gates' decision to end F-22 production is proving to be "potentially very wrong."
"We will need more F-22s if we are going to adequately defend our interests," he said in an interview on Thursday at the hearing.
Bruce Lemkin, a US Air Force deputy undersecretary for ties to foreign air forces, told the commission he had visited Taiwan twice in his official capacity and that the capabilities of Taiwan's aging F-16s, also built by Lockheed, were not "keeping up."
Whether to meet Taiwan's request for advanced F-16 fighters or upgrade the old ones was still under review by the Obama administration, he said before Ulman spoke.