WASHINGTON — Days before Defense Secretary Robert Gates visits Beijing, reports have surfaced that the Chinese military has quietly progressed with two major weapons systems: ballistic missiles that could strike moving aircraft carriers and a prototype stealth fighter.
The question is: Could China effectively use them?
China’s decade-long military buildup is well known, if not completely understood. And part of Gates’ agenda during next week’s visit will be to convince China to provide more transparency regarding its military arsenal, what it wants to acquire in the future and what it intends to do with it.
“I’m not alarmed,” said Vice Adm. David “Jack” Dorsett, deputy chief of naval operations for information dominance and director of naval intelligence. “I am intrigued by the developments. I am quite interested in the quantities and different types of technology that have been developed that we either didn’t expect or we underestimated.”
Despite Beijing’s secrecy, the Pentagon in August released an annual report to Congress that included 83 pages of detail about China’s weapons systems, personnel and global intentions.
Dorsett said in the past the U.S. has underestimated the quantities of China’s weapons systems and the speed with which they’ve been produced. Going forward, he wants to know how proficient the Chinese are at using them.
“That’s one where I don’t want to get the assessment wrong,” he said.
Pacific Command’s Adm. Robert Willard last week said China had reached the early stage of readying medium-range ballistic missiles that could hit moving aircraft carriers. Dorsett told defense reporters in Washington on Wednesday that the new system was “truly competent and capable” and likely could be deployed and fielded, but he questioned whether China could use it in concert with its larger network of missile systems.
“How proficient they are, and what that level of probability is, we don’t know,” Dorsett said. “And frankly I’m guessing that they don’t know.”
According to the Pentagon report, China has 1.2 million active personnel and 500,000 reserve personnel, more than 1,000 increasingly accurate cruise missiles, 75 main surfaces ships, more than 60 submarines, 55 medium and large amphibious ships and 85 missile-equipped patrol craft.
Despite some alarmist views, many say much of China’s lethal combat capability still is decades behind other major powers.
“They don’t have a great integrated [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] capability, they don’t have an anti-submarine warfare capability virtually at all,” Dorsett said. “They don’t demonstrate a level of sophistication in joint war fighting.”
Rather, it’s China’s pursuit of “non-kinetic” technology that concerns him the most, namely electromagnetic warfare jamming, as well as space and cyberwarfare capabilities.
But Dorsett and others say China’s intent is clear: become a regional power with a global navy by mid-century.
“That’s their timeline,” he said.
Already, China has global interests to protect, from shipping lanes threatened by pirates to foreign energy supplies.
“There’s a lot that China’s doing that is what you might call natural and expected for an emerging power,” said Bonnie Glaser, senior fellow at the Center for Security and International Studies. “They are spending a lot of money on their military. They are moving beyond just coastal defense. It shouldn’t surprise anybody that they’re operating farther beyond their waters.”
And the pictures of Chinese stealth fighters have not gone unnoticed in Washington.
“Lately, there’s a lot of nose hairs on fire in this town,” said David Finkelstein, vice president and director of China studies at CNA, a Virginia think tank.
The real problem, he said, is mutual mistrust.
“The important thing these two militaries need to achieve for the long term is to have clarity of intentions, in order to preclude miscalculation,” Finkelstein said. “Bean counting tanks, planes and missiles pales in comparison to trying to deal with that strategic level issue.”