When DoD's top man on China, Michael Schiffer, rolled out this year's China report not too long ago, he renewed a familiar American criticism: Beijing isn't open and transparent about what weapons it's building, and that ultimately is bad for everyone, because it forces the U.S. and commanders around the Western Pacific to assume the worst. Sometimes this criticism gets taken a little too far, as when the State Department was widely mocked in August when it asked "why" China wanted its new aircraft carrier, the Shi Lang. But fundamentally, transparency is a good thing for everyone, and it's worth pointing out that anyone in the world can bring up almost any detail you can imagine about American ships, aircraft or weapons with a few mouse clicks. Doing anything about that information in a tactical situation is a whole other matter.
If you take a step back, though, China actually is improving its military openness -- although, let's be very clear: This is still China we're talking about. But, between radio silence and something, something is a change. There were two good examples just this week:
If you haven't watched it yet, check out John's video of the J-20 posted over at Defense Tech. It's a great look at the jet taxiing to a stop, the pilot popping his canopy, and then opening the jet's F-22-like weapons bay, complete with Skunk Works-approved sawtooth edges on the doors. (There's also a weird square hatch open on the right edge of the jet, just forward of the aft landing wheel. It doesn't look like a weapons bay -- a big maintenance access for the engine, maybe? Any ideas?) While you're watching the video, notice that even though it shows dozens of Chinese engineers, airmen and soldiers milling about on the tarmac, nobody does anything about the person pointing a video camera at this once-secret fighter jet.
John's video is just the latest to show the crawl-walk-run process by which J-20 pilots are learning to fly the new airplane. One or two grainy, distant videos may have been smuggled out illegally, but after this many, and with this kind of clarity, it's obvious that Chinese officials want people to see them. Again -- not the same as holding a press conference at the aerodrome and taking questions from Steve Trimble, but it's better than nothing.
This week's second example came in a very brief report in China's official Global Times newspaper, apparently not available online but which was picked up by wire services: A Chinese spokesman announced that the Shi Lang is evidently back from its initial sea trials and it accomplished all the objectives that commanders set down. What were they? What's next? No dice -- but here's another interesting detail from this same item: "China says the ship is intended for research and training, pointing to longer-term plans to build up to three additional clones of the carrier in China’s own shipyards."
This could be significant, or it could just be a confusing choice of phrase by our reporter, but what it seems to say is that China wants to copy the Shi Lang, which began its life as the Soviets' Varyag, as opposed to designing a new, indigenous class of ships from the keel up. If true, it says a lot: The Chinese apparently like the size, ski-jump configuration and other aspects of their current ship, which tells us they're not going to try for a Royal Navy CVF-size flattop or anything like a U.S. Navy carrier. (Unless it doesn't.)
But at least we open-source normies have these crumbs to chew over, even if all they end up doing is making us want more.