The U.S. Air Force’s air power superiority over China is rapidly diminishing in light of rapid Chinese modernization of fighter jets, cargo planes and stealth aircraft, according to a recently released Congressional review.
The 2014 U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission recommends that Congress appoint an outside panel of experts to assess the U.S.-Chinese military balance and make recommendations regarding U.S. military plans and budgets, among other things.
The Commission compiled its report based upon testimony, various reports and analytical assessments along with available open-source information. The review states that the Chines People’s Liberation Army currently has approximately 2,200 operational aircraft, nearly 600 of which are considered modern.
“In the early 1990s, Beijing began a comprehensive modernization program to upgrade the PLA Air Force from a short-range, defensively oriented force with limited capabilities into a modern, multi-role force capable of projecting precision airpower beyond China’s borders, conducting air and missile defense and providing early warning,” the review writes.
One commissioner involved with the review told Military.com he wants to see Congress provide the requisite funding for the U.S. to retain its technological superiority in light of China’s rapid progress. This includes providing funding for the Pentagon’s Pacific rebalance, he said.
“Every year we make forty to fifty recommendations to Congress. Commissioners highlight what they consider to be the most important ten recommendations. This year among the top ten recommendations was one to ensure that the budget to meet the Pacific rebalance is adequate,” said Larry Wortzel, a commissioner tasked with helping to oversee the compilation and publication of the annual review.
Regarding stealth aircraft, the review mentions the recent flights of prototypes of the Chinese J-20 stealth fighter, calling the aircraft more advanced than any other air platform currently deployed in the Asia-Pacific region. The Chinese are also testing a smaller stealth fighter variant called the FC-31, according to the report.
China recently displayed the Shenyang FC-31 stealth fighter at China’s Zhuhai Air Show. However, several analysts have made the point that it is not at all clear if the platform comes close to rivaling the technological capability of the U.S. F-35.
However, the U.S. technological advantage in weaponry, air and naval platforms is rapidly decreasing, according to the review. To illustrate this point, the review cites comments from an analyst who compared U.S.-Chinese fighter jets to one another roughly twenty years ago versus a similar comparison today.
The analyst says in 1995 a high-tech U.S. F-15, F-16 or F/A-18 would be vastly superior to a Chinese J-6 aircraft. However today -- China’s J-10 and J-11 fighter jet aircraft would be roughly equivalent in capability to an upgraded U.S. F-15, the review states.
Alongside their J-10 and J-11 fighters, the Chinese also own Russian-built Su-27s and Su-30s and are on the verge of buying the new Su-35 from Russia, the review states.
“The Su-35 is a versatile, highly capable aircraft that would offer significantly improved range and fuel capacity over China’s current fighters. The aircraft thus would strengthen China’s ability to conduct air superiority missions in the Taiwan Strait, East China Sea, and South China Sea as well as provide China with the opportunity to reverse engineer the fighter’s component parts, including its advanced radar and engines, for integration into China’s current and future indigenous fighters,” the review writes.
In addition to stealth technology, high-tech fighter aircraft and improved avionics, the Chinese have massively increased their ability with air-to-air missiles over the last 15-years, the review finds.
“All of China’s fighters in 2000, with the potential exception of a few modified Su-27s, were limited to within-visual-range missiles. China over the last 15 years also has acquired a number of sophisticated short and medium-range air-to-air missiles; precision-guided munitions including all-weather, satellite-guided bombs, anti-radiation missiles, and laser-guided bombs; and long-range, advanced air-launched land-attack cruise missiles and anti-ship cruise missiles,” the review says.
The review also points to the Y-20 aircraft, a new strategic airlifter now being tested by the Chinese which has three times the cargo-carrying capacity of the U.S. Air Force’s C-130. Some of these new planes could be configured into tanker aircraft, allowing the Chinese to massively increase their reach and ability to project air power over longer distances.
At the moment, the Chinese do not have a sizeable or modern fleet of tankers, and many of their current aircraft are not engineered for aerial refueling, a scenario which limits their reach.
“Until the PLA Navy’s first carrier-based aviation wing becomes operational, China must use air refueling tankers to enable air operations at these distances from China. However, China’s current fleet of air refueling aircraft, which consists of only about 12 1950s-era H–6U tankers, is too small to support sustained, large-scale, long-distance air combat,” the review states.
Using Y-20s as tankers would make China more effective into the South China Sea and the East China Sea, Wortzel explained.
The review also cites Russian media reports claiming that Russia has approved the sale of its new, next-generation S-400 surface-to-air-missile to China.
“Such a sale has been under negotiation since at least 2012. The S–400 would more than double the range of China’s air defenses from approximately 125 to 250 miles—enough to cover all of Taiwan, the Senkaku Islands, and parts of the South China Sea,” the review says.
The review also catalogues information related to China’s nuclear arsenal and long-range intercontinental ballistic missiles such as the existing DF-31 and DF-31A along with the now-in-development DF-41.
“They already have road-mobile ICBMs that carry nuclear weapons. The DF-41 is expected to have as many as 10 re-entry vehicles,” Wortzel added.
Some prominent lawmakers, such as HASC Seapower and Projection Forces subcommittee chairman Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va., have expressed concern regarding the review’s findings. Forbes has consistently talked about the U.S. need to properly address the potential threat posed by rapid Chinese military modernization and expansion.
“If you look back at the approach the Pentagon was taking 10 years ago, they were missing what China was doing. China was growing geometrically,” Forbes told Military.com in an interview. “I think we have to be looking globally to make sure we are creating the kind of strategies that are going to be necessary to defend this country a decade from now or two decades from now.”
Forbes emphasized that while working toward peace and stability and improving relations with the Chinese is important, the U.S. must nevertheless modernize and prepare its military based upon Chinese capability rather than Chinese intent.
“You have to prepare based on capability because intent could change overnight with one incident,” he said.