The NYT is carrying a story on the massive buildup of the Chinese Navy which is currently underway.
ZHANJIANG, China - At a time when the American military is consumed with operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, global terrorism and the threat of nuclear proliferation in North Korea and Iran, China is presenting a new and strategically different security concern to America, as well as to Japan and Taiwan, in the western Pacific, Pentagon and military officials say.
China, these officials say, has smartly analyzed the strengths and weaknesses of the American military and has focused its growing defense spending on weapons systems that could exploit the perceived American weaknesses in case the United States ever needs to respond to fighting in Taiwan.
A decade ago, American military planners dismissed the threat of a Chinese attack against Taiwan as a 100-mile infantry swim. The Pentagon now believes that China has purchased or built enough amphibious assault ships, submarines, fighter jets and short-range missiles to pose an immediate threat to Taiwan and to any American force that might come to Taiwan's aid.
As it turns out, that particular service isn't the only one for observers of East Asia to worry about. The increase in capabilities of the PLAAF is on such a scale that American assumptions of air superiority in the event of a conflict in the region are seriously called into question.
China has been involved since 1991 in the largest sustained arms buying spree since the Soviet surge of the late 1970s and 1980s, buying out what amounts to the crown jewels of the Russian technology base.
At the top of China's focus has been the aim to build up a fleet of long range air superiority fighters second only to the US Air Force fleet of F-15C/E.
Current orders and deliveries of directly purchased Su-27SK, Su-27UBK and Su-30MKK and Su-30MK2 sit around 150 aircraft. Concurrently China has contracted to licence build 200 Su-27SK locally as J-11s. That order is being renegotiated now so the latter 100 are more capable Su-27SMK, or possibly a more potent variant. Russian sources last year projected that China's aggregate buy of Sukhoi fighters could top 500 aircraft by 2020.
For comparison the US Air Force operates cca 400 F-15C and 200 F-15E.
The Sukhois are a half generation beyond the F-15 in basic technology, and carry almost as much internal fuel as the F-15E without the penalty of CFT drag. The Sukhois are more agile than the F-15 and have much larger radar antenna bays providing much better long term upgrade potential for BVR combat.
To arm the Sukhois China acquired Russian R-73/74 Archer, R-77 Adder, R-27 Alamo and reports indicate the latter included the X-band anti-radiation homing R-27P/EP model, designed to home on an opposing fighter's radar.
China has also acquired the Russian Kh-31 Krypton series anti-radiation and counter-ISR missile, and is claimed to have licenced it as the YJ-91. Russian Kh-59 standoff missiles, equivalent to the AGM-142, have been acquired, as well as KAB-500/1500 series smart bombs - laser, TV, IIR and GPS/inertial variants are all now available matching the US Paveway and GBU-15.
The Sukhoi Su-34 Fullback is reported to be on China's shopping list, it is a more capable bomber than the F-15E and approaches the punch of the F-111. The Su-27/30/J-11 is being supplemented in a high low mix by the Lavi-like J-10 fighter, soon to enter production. It is apt to be powered by the same AL-31F engine as the Sukhois. Hundreds are expected to be built. The J-10 is a generation beyond the F-16 in airframe design.
There are also big changes underway in assets to support the new PLA fighter fleet. China is negotiating its first buy of Ilyushin Il-78 Midas tankers which provide similar offload to the KC-135 series. The first Chinese AWACS prototype is in flight test, using the Russian Beriev A-50 airframe and a three sided phased array radar, using the same generation of technology as the US E-10 MC2A, planned to replace the E-3C AWACS post 2015.
The other big development on the Chinese front is a drive to build up strategic air strike capabilities. Last year the PLA-AF leadership declared publicly its intent to buy surplus Russian Backfires and probably Bears. Both types remained in production until the 1990s and a surplus of at least 40 late model Backfires exists. This January the Russian AF CAS publicly advocated exporting both Tu-22M3 Backfires and Tu-95MS Bears to China.
China has been developing indigenous cruise missiles, with photos available suggesting these are clones of the BGM-109 Tomahawk. There are reports that tooling for the Kh-65 (Russian eq to AGM-86C) was acquired, and last week allegations were made in the Ukraine that a batch of Kh-55 (AS-15 Kent) were exported to China.
Let there be no doubt about the matter: with the acquisition of the latest Sukhoi fighters, not a single one of the fighters currently in the US inventory in appreciable numbers can lay claim to equal let alone superior capabilities, and if America does manage to prevail in any future conflict involving China, it will be almost entirely on the basis of the superior training of US pilots. That the superiority of the Sukhoi fighters is no mere scare story intended to extract more funding is evidenced by the results of last year's "Cope India" joint training exercise, in the course of which US pilots flying F-15Cs were defeated by their Indian counterparts 90% of the time.
What does all this mean for strategic relations in East Asia? One conclusion which can safely be drawn from the changing balance of power in the region is that the Chinese government will increasingly come to believe in the viability of a military takeover of Taiwan, raising the probability that a large-scale conflagaration will envelope the region. Another conclusion which one can draw is that the days when Japan could spend only 1% of its GDP on defense are gone for good, as are the days when one could indulge fretting about an imaginary resurgent Japanese militarism; an overburdened United States cannot meet the cost of mounting a challenge to Chinese hegemony on its own, nor should it have to, seeing as Japan is threatened much more directly by China's armed forces, and even a doubling of Japan's defense budget would still be more than reasonable in light of the vast scale of Chinese spending.
The only real alternative to a massive ramp-up in Japan's defense capabilities would be for the country to go nuclear, which it could in a matter of months if the will to do so existed; Japan certainly has all the know-how and plutonium required to assemble a massive deterrent in short order, and there is a reason for the existence of a Japanese space programme that goes beyond mere national pride or scientific curiosity. Given the choice between a much better conventionally armed Japan and a nuclear one, however, I suspect that most Asian countries would by far prefer the former - as would the United States, for that matter.