China’s development of stealth fighter takes U.S. by surprise

January 7, 2011

By Ken Dilanian, Los Angeles Times

A few weeks ago, grainy photos surfaced online showing what several prominent defense analysts said appeared to be a prototype of a Chinese stealth fighter jet that could compete with the best of America’s warplanes — years ahead of U.S. predictions.

Days later, the commander of the United States’ Pacific Fleet disclosed that a long-awaited Chinese anti-ship missile, designed to sink an American aircraft carrier, was nearly operational.

As Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates heads to China this weekend, analysts are expressing concerns over Chinese military advances, strides that appear to have taken the U.S. by surprise. The Pentagon had predicted that China wouldn’t have a stealth fighter for a decade or more and Defense officials had given no previous indication the anti-ship missile, which had long been tracked by the U.S., was close to fruition.

The assertions came as Gates on Thursday outlined plans to cut $78 billion in projected growth from the Pentagon’s budget over the next five years and shrink the number of troops on active duty. Gates is expected to meet stiff resistance from contractors and military officials who have long been accustomed to annual budget increases and development of new hardware systems in response to warnings of new foreign threats.

“We have been pretty consistent in underestimating the delivery … of Chinese technology and weapons systems,” Vice Admiral David J. “Jack” Dorsett, deputy chief of naval operations for information dominance, told reporters Wednesday. “They enter operational capability quicker than we frequently project.”

Dorsett acknowledged that the stealth fighter was real, but said it would be years before the jet could be deployed. “Developing a stealth capability with a prototype and then integrating that into a combat environment is going to take some time,” he said.

China watchers disagree about the extent to which the U.S. should worry about China’s steadily increasing military power, which remains well behind American war technology. But there is one emerging consensus: After a three-decade buildup and a raft of technological secrets stolen through espionage, China has closed the capabilities gap enough to post a threat to U.S. freedom of action in the western Pacific Ocean.

“It is true that China is doing some things that we need to be very concerned about, and it’s also true that they are in no danger of matching U.S. capabilities,” said Christopher A. Ford, a former State Department official and author of “The Mind of Empire: China’s History And Modern Foreign Relations.” “Their immediate game is simply to make sure that it becomes vastly more complicated for us to do what we might want to do in a crisis in their particular neighborhood.”

The anti-ship weapon, described as a mobile, land-based ballistic missile capable of hitting a moving target 2,000 miles away, could do that. Defense watchers were startled when Adm. Robert F. Willard, who heads the U.S. Pacific Command, told a Japanese newspaper last month that China had achieved an “initial operational capability” for the missile.

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