China on track for modern military by 2020: Pentagon

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China appears on track to forge a modern military by 2020, a rapid buildup that could be potentially destabilizing to the Asia-Pacific region, said the Pentagon.

Fueled by its booming economy, China’s military growth in the past decade has exceeded most U.S. forecasts. Its aircraft carrier program, cyber warfare capabilities and anti-satellite missiles have alarmed neighbors and Washington.

Some China watchers, including members of Congress, note with apprehension that rising Chinese defense spending coincides with Washington’s plans for defense cuts, reuters reports.
“China clearly believes that it can capitalize on the global financial crisis,” said Representative Howard McKeon, adding the U.S. military presence in the Pacific must not be sacrificed in an attempt to control U.S. spending.

The Defense Department’s annual assessment to Congress on the Chinese military flagged all the major concerns about China’s growing military might, including Beijing’s widening edge over Taiwan. It also noted cyber attacks in 2010 — including those on U.S. government computers — that appear to have originated in China.
“We have some concerns (on cyber) about some of the things that we’ve seen. And we want to be able to work through that with China,” said Michael Schiffer, a deputy assistant secretary of defense.

The report focused on 2010, a year when the Pentagon said China’s military modernization program paid “visible dividends.” It cited China’s fielding of an operational anti-ship ballistic missile, continued work on its aircraft carrier program and the completion of a prototype of China’s first stealth fighter jet, the J-20.

The J-20 program, the Pentagon report said, would not achieve “effective operational capability” prior to 2018.
“Despite continued gaps in some key areas, large quantities of antiquated hardware and a lack of operational experience, the PLA (China’s People’s Liberation Army) is steadily closing the technological gap with modern armed forces,” the report said.

Officials at China’s embassy could not be immediately reached for comment.

DESTABILIZING EFFECT?

The military buildup could have a destabilizing effect on the region, Schiffer said, calling for greater openness by the People’s Liberation Army and more bilateral military dialogue.
“The pace and scope of China’s sustained military investments have allowed China to pursue capabilities that we believe are potentially destabilizing to regional military balances,” Schiffer said.

The Pentagon said despite its progress at becoming a more potent regional military power, Beijing was not expected to be able to project and sustain large forces in high-intensity combat operations far from China before 2020.

That is something the United States, still the predominant military power in the Pacific, has been able to do throughout the world for decades.

One of the best ways for a military to project power is with aircraft carriers and China launched its first carrier — a refitted former Soviet craft — for a maiden run earlier this month. Schiffer said he believed Beijing was working toward building its own domestically produced aircraft carriers and sources told Reuters China was building two carriers.

Still, the report said any domestically produced Chinese aircraft carrier would not be operational until at least 2015, if construction were to start this year.
“Whether or not this (China’s carrier program) proves to be a net plus for the region or for the globe or proves to be something that has destabilizing effects and raises blood pressure in various regional capitals I think remains to be seen,” Schiffer said.

One of the biggest irritants in Sino-U.S. ties is Taiwan. The PLA suspended military ties with the United States for most of 2010 over U.S. arms sales to Taiwan and warned that a renewed flurry of engagement could again be jeopardized by new arms sales to an island China sees as a renegade province.

Schiffer said the U.S. government has not yet made a decision on any new arms sales to Taiwan, comments echoed at the State Department.

A Reuters report this month said the U.S. sale of 66 new Lockheed Martin F-16 C/D fighter jets to Taiwan appeared unlikely.

Factbox Pentagon details China’s military expansion

The Pentagon said that China was on track to forge a modern military by 2020, a rapid buildup that could be potentially destabilizing to the Asia-Pacific region.

Its annual assessment to Congress on China flagged all the major concerns over its growing military might, including Beijing’s widening edge over Taiwan. It also noted cyber attacks in 2010 — including on U.S. government computers — that appear to have originated in China, Reuters reports.

Here are details from the report:

TAIWAN
* Says that China-Taiwan balance of military force “continues to shift in Beijing’s favor.”
* Taiwan’s relatively modest defense spending has failed to keep pace with “ambitious military developments” on the mainland.
* “Despite a reduction in tensions following the March 2008 election of Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou, the possibility of a military conflict with Taiwan, including U.S. military intervention, remains a pressing, long-term focus for the PLA.”
* By December 2010, the People’s Liberation Army had deployed between 1,000 and 1,200 short-range ballistic missiles to units opposite Taiwan.
* Report says China’s People’s Liberation Army is likely to steadily expand its military options for Taiwan through 2020, including those to deter, delay or deny “third party” intervention — a veiled reference to potential U.S. involvement in any conflict.

MISSILE CAPABILITIES
* The People’s Liberation Army is acquiring large numbers of highly accurate cruise missiles, many of which have ranges in excess of 115 miles/.
* China is developing an anti-ship ballistic missile, the DF-21D, which has a range exceeding 930 miles/ and is armed with a maneuverable warhead.
* China also may be developing a new road-mobile inter-continental ballistic missile.
* China’s program to develop JL-2 submarine-launched ballistic missile, which has an estimated range of some 4,600 miles/ has faced repeated delays. The Pentagon had forecast it would achieve initial operating capability by 2010.

AIRCRAFT CARRIERS
* China launched its first carrier for a maiden run earlier this month, a refitted former Soviet craft, but the Pentagon said it still will take several additional years for China to achieve a minimal level of combat capability on an aircraft carrier, given the level of training for carrier pilots.
* The report acknowledged China could begin construction of a fully indigenous carrier in 2011, which could achieve operational capability after 2015. “China likely will build multiple aircraft carriers with support ships over the next decade.”

STEALTH FIGHTER JET
* Report says the January test flight of China’s stealth fighter jet, the J-20, “highlights Chian’s ambition to produce a fighter aircraft that incorporates stealth attributes, advanced avionics and super-cruise capable engines over the next several years.”
* It says the U.S. Defense Department does not expect the J-20 to achieve an effective operational capability prior to 2018.
* It says the J-20 eventually will give the PLA Air Force a platform capable of long-range, penetrating strikes into complex air defense environments.

REGIONAL REACTION
* “China’s growing economic, diplomatic and military presence and influence in Asia and globally is raising concern among many countries about China’s ultimate aims — and the threats this could present to them. These regional concerns could catalyze regional or global balancing efforts.”
* “China is fielding an array of conventionally armed ballistic missiles, modern aircraft, UAVs, ground- and air-launched land-attack cruise missiles, special operations forces and cyber-warfare capabilities to hold targets at risk throughout the region.”

GLOBAL POWER?
* Says China is unlikely to be able to project and sustain large forces in high-intensity combat operations far from China prior to 2020.
* Still, it says by most accounts China is on track to achieve its goal of building a modern, regionally focused military by 2020.

SPACE WARFARE
* China conducted a record 15 space launches in 2010 and expanded its space-based satellite network for intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, communications and meteorological operations.
* The PLA is acquiring technologies to improve China’s space and counterspace capabilities. China’s military strategists “regard the ability to utilize space and deny adversaries access to space as central to enabling modern, informatized warfare.”

CYBER WARFARE
* Some major intrusions in 2010 that targeted U.S. and other computer systems appeared to originate in China and aimed at pilfering information. Those same hacking skills are similar to those needed to conduct cyber attacks.
* Cyberwarfare capabilities would help China’s military gather information, slow down an adversary’s response time by crippling networks and serve as a force multiplier to kinetic attacks during a conflict.
* The PLA has set up “information warfare units” to attack enemy computer systems and protect Chinese networks.

TERRITORIAL DISPUTES
* China’s territorial claim to virtually the entire South China Sea “remains a source of regional contention” and is contested by Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines and Brunei. In the East China Sea, China also claims the Senkaku islands, which are controlled by Japan, in a long-standing dispute that caused tensions to flare in 2010.
* Next to Taiwan, “these disputes play a central role in PLA planning.”