The China Gap

Aug. 1, 2010

Adm. Michael G. Mullen recently called worried attention to China’s “heavy investments” in advanced “expeditionary, maritime, and air capabilities.” This, he noted, is “oddly out of step” with Beijing’s “stated goal of territorial defense.”

The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff implied China had a more ominous aim. The “gap” between its words and deeds is large, Mullen told the Asia Society June 9. It is so large, in fact, that he has “moved from being curious [about the buildup’s purpose] to being genuinely concerned.”

Mullen’s words were unusual; frank talk about the threat of growing Chinese power is rare. Even as China has pressed to build up its military forces, Washington has reacted tepidly. This stems from the existence of a second and more significant “China gap.”

Rebecca Grant, director of the Mitchell Institute for Airpower Studies, defines it as “the gap between China’s steady pursuit of military capabilities under an artful strategy [and] US defense strategy, which has apparently chosen to downgrade and minimize the need for conventional deterrence in the Pacific.”

Grant was referring to Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates’ reorientation of US military capabilities away from deterrence of China’s conventional forces to lower-tech, irregular combat in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The SECDEF’s assumption seems to be US air and naval forces still maintain a comfortable lead in the Pacific.

This concept took heavy fire in recent hearings of the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, chartered by Congress. Experts noted that China’s air force, in particular, has advanced from being a regional power with limited capabilities to a force with growing potential to imperil US interests.

Wayne A. Ulman, the China issues manager at the National Air and Space Intelligence Center at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio, asserted that the capabilities of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) have grown “dramatically” over the past decade.

He said the PLAAF has gone from being a technologically inferior force to a well-equipped, fairly well-trained one. On its current course, he added, “China will have one of the world’s foremost air forces by 2020.”

Nearly 500 of China’s approximately 1,600 fighters now are of the fourth generation type. They can be seen as at technical parity with US fighters such as the F-15 and F-16, he noted. If Ulman is correct, China will have a stealthy “fifth generation” fighter, rivaling USAF’s F-22 Raptor, operational by 2018, years earlier than Gates himself has estimated.

Roger Cliff, a RAND Corp. analyst, noted that China now produces a beyond-visual-range radar-guided air-to-air missile comparable to the US AMRAAM or Russian AA-12, and a variety of laser, TV, and satellite guided precision munitions. Cliff noted that modern hardware alone does not necessarily bring more strength, without advances in doctrine, training, and logistics. “However,” he said, “China has been making progress in many of these dimensions as well.”

The panel heard warnings that the PLAAF has made a tremendous investment in ground-based air defenses, needed to blunt any USAF operations against Chinese targets. Since 2000, the PLAAF has purchased many more Russian SA-20 SAMs. China also has begun to deploy the domestically produced HQ-9, comparable to the SA-20.

In a future war, Ulman reports, US airpower would face “one of the world’s most advanced and robust air defense networks.”

Jeff Hagen, an engineer-analyst from the RAND Corp., told the panel that China’s burgeoning ballistic missile force threatens USAF’s major regional air bases. He estimated that, today, China could throw 480 ballistic missiles and 350 cruise missiles at Osan and Kunsan in South Korea, and 80 ballistic missiles and 350 cruise missiles at Kadena, Misawa, and Yokota in Japan. At present, Chinese missiles do not have the range to hit Anderson AFB, Guam, though it is working on such weapons.

“Clearly,” said Hagen, “the US could face extended periods of time where few, if any, of our bases near China are operating.”

The interlocking power of modern fighters, dense air defenses, and devastating attacks on air bases, combined with capabilities to strike at US cyber and space systems, threatens US land- and sea-based airpower with “lockout” from the western Pacific.

In fact, said Richard D. Fisher Jr., a China airpower expert of the International Strategy and Assessment Center, China’s effort “has the potential to end the assurance of US air superiority in Asia, absent a vigorous US response.”

The US may be in a military airpower race with China, but only one side is racing.

The record of US neglect in recent years is long, in Grant’s assessment. She notes that the Obama Administration has halted the key F-22 program at only 187 fighters; blocked Japan’s bid to acquire its own F-22s; failed to launch a new long-range bomber program; delayed acquisition of a tanker; limited deployment of missile defense systems; and fumbled an effort to streamline its cyberwar operations.

Gates constantly reminds allies that US air and naval assets outnumber those of China.

“This pointless bean counting does little to account for the fact that US air and naval forces must reach far across the globe to project power,” Grant said.

DOD has not been totally inert in the face of Beijing’s challenge. It has begun the task of expanding its network of Pacific bases. USAF and the Navy are developing “AirSea Battle,” an employment concept aimed at maximizing their joint-force power in the Pacific.

The situation is neither desperate nor beyond repair. The $15 trillion US economy exceeds China’s by a factor of two, and could easily support modest force improvements.

Administration leaders might ponder that fact as they make budget and force-planning decisions in months ahead.

“Anti-access and area denial are not simply buzzwords we use to argue for more money in the budget,” Mullen warned. “These are real capabilities being pursued by real people, and we would do well to bear them in mind as we build the force for the future.”