I just have some random thoughts from the last couple of days with Obama’s visit to Asia and all the news releases with PLAAF’s 60th anniversary. There have been a lot of new articles recently about the deterioration of the US-Japan relationships with the DPJ sweeping into power. One of the bigger issues we hear recently is the relocation of the Futenma air bases in Okinawa. And I’m sure that many others know the issue better than I do on this, but it seems like the Okinawans are calling for all US troops to leave the island. I know it’s a very unlikely scenario, but how would loosing an air base like Kadena affect USAF operations in the PacRIM (especially in Taiwan scenario)?
Of course, President Obama also visited China on this trip to discuss a series of issues. Climate change and currency valuation are probably the two biggest items on Obama’s agenda. I think for the former, China will continue to accept more responsibility, because it really is in its national interest to do so. We have basically seen the Chinese green energy industry explode in the last couple of years. Even though it has not made any firm promises on targets, it is actually making a lot of progress in every area. I think the Politburo will soon realize that they are already on pace to achieve targets that Western countries expect of them and actually accept some kind of commitment. Even so, I’m not sure if they will figure this out before the all important Copenhagen talks. In the area of currency valuation, I think Chinese leadership will totally miss the ball on this one. Even though it’s probably for their own good to let RMB appreciate, they will probably stubbornly tie their currency to USD longer than they should. With all of the public and private sector debts, it’s hard to imagine USD having anywhere to go but down. If China wants RMB to have some kind of role in a future world reserve currency, it would be much better if it can speed of the process of becoming a floating currency. On the flip side, if China let their currency rise, then it would not have to purchase as much treasury, which will force more purchase by the FED and accelerate the decline of USD. So while US wants China to let its currency rise, it also might not like the resulting affect. The right thing for China to do is probably let its currency rise. And the right thing for USA to do is to get its spending in order, cut down its debt and raise interest rate. However, neither side looks like they are willing to do the right thing.

On the security side, I think we all know by now what the biggest issues are on both side. I have always found the Chinese complaints over F-16 sale to be kind of funny. I am not entirely sure what the order backlog is like for F-16s, but I believe the following countries are still in the midst of receiving their F-16s: Turkey, Pakistan, Greece, Poland, Iraq and Morocco. Even if the F-16 deal gets approved and signed by next year, it will probably take until 2014 before the F-16s get all delivered. We recently heard that the next generation Chinese fighter will be ready in 8 to 10 years. I really don’t think this F-16 deal will help ROCAF as much as most people think it will. The concern I’ve always read from the Chinese military insiders is that they consider F-16 to be an offensive platform. If that’s the case, a deal can still be done without the latest multi-role weapons like JDAM and SLAM-ER.

The major US complaint over China is obviously the issue of transparency. In the past week, PLAAF made some announcements that were surprising to many people in both the transparency and the content. The deputy commander of PLAAF said that China’s 4th generation fighter (5 generation for America) is expected to test flight shortly and also take about 8 to 10 years to enter service. In comparison, J-10 first flied in 1998, delivered to the PLAAF Flight Test & Training Base for evaluation in 2003, had first regiment regiment established in 2004, but still was not considered by Chinese media to have entered service until 2006 when they had already established 2 active regiments. F-22’s production version first flew in 1997, commenced Initial Operational Test and Evaluation in 2003 and achieved FOC in 2007. If China’s 4th generation fighter has a similar time line to J-10 and F-22, it would take about 8 years to go from first flight to service entrance. The first flight would have to happen in the next 2 years to achieve that 8 to 10 years promise. The interesting part is that Kanwa, which is well known for its flawed coverage on PLA, claimed that the 4th generation program had no chance of making its first flight in the near future. The funny part was that an expert from Chinese Air Force Command College replied by saying that PLA would never make an open announcement without believing that it will happen. I personally agree with latter, because it really is very unusual for PLA to make such an early announcement on a project that is so strategically important. Also, I have also read enough rumbling through my Chinese sources to believe that 2018 is probably when the 4th generation plane enters service.

I actually even found a US newspaper covering this story. That article picked up this story from a recent Aviation Week entry. I guess the big question now is why Pentagon was so wrong in its predictions, because it actually said China will not have any 5th generation fighter by 2020. As I read this article, I even myself shaking my head reading these parts.

In April, Adm. Wu Shengli, the navy chief, listed supercruising fighters among equipment that his service needed. Notably, all the other equipment on his wish list looked quite achievable by the end of the next decade, matching the timing that the air force now suggests for the fighter.

—–big gap—–

When Wu raised the prospect of a supercruising fighter, an easy answer seemed to be an advanced version of the J-10. That looks less likely now that He describes the future concept as a full generation ahead of the J-10.

“I believe the Chinese have a difficult road if their design is tied to the J-10,” says a U.S. Air Force officer involved in the development of the F-35. “Significantly reduced signature requires more than coatings. It requires an integrated design philosophy with the right shaping, the right structure and the right surface coatings.”

It’s pretty well known in China that CAC is not only working on the J-10B project, but also is the main contractor for the next generation project. When the admiral made his statement, I find it hard to believe that the US military actually thought he was talking about an improved version of J-10 or J-11. Much of information on existing PLAAF projects are available online and Huitong’s site even does a great job of putting everything together in place. If someone from the Pentagon bothered to check out his section on J-10B, which I can verify to be fairly accurate, they’d know that J-10B has already flied and would be in service years before the end of next decade. They are separate projects. In fact, J-10B must happen before the next generation project, because many of the subsystems will first be tested on J-10B. Here is another part that reflects pretty badly on the US intelligence community:

In his July 16 speech, Gates said that even in 2025 China would have but a handful of fifth-generation aircraft.

The Pentagon seems to have no clue on the progress of China’s next generation project or its induction size. I’ve personally read enough sources to believe that this CAC design will have a small production run like F-22. There will be another next generation design that will form the lo-end of a hi-lo combination (like USAF is doing with F-22 and F-35), but that will come later. I’ve always found it interesting that the Pentagon seems to have trouble identify the number of each type of aircraft in service with PLA, because they have access to all open sources, secrets sources and the most comprehensive satellite images. I personally commend Scramble for doing a great job in identifying all of the Chinese air bases, order of battle and the plane type in each of the bases. In many cases, Scramble ORBAT is updated before even the most enthusiastic Chinese military forums catch hold of a new regiment conversion.

On a similar note, I saw that the ASBM story has landed on Bloomberg this morning. The most interesting part is here:

China’s ballistic missile “portends the sophistication of the threats that we’re going to see,” Roughead said in an interview earlier this year.

China has ground-tested the missile three times since 2006 and conducted no flight tests yet, Navy officials said.

‘Limited Capability’

General Xu Caihou, China’s No. 2 military official, played down the weapon’s significance.

“It is a limited capability” to meet “the minimum requirement of” China’s national security, Xu, vice chairman of China’s Central Military Commission, said in response to a question following an Oct. 26 speech in Washington.

The fact that General Xu basically confirmed this weapon should tell you how far along it is. I think this is another development that took way too long to be identified and should’ve been taken more seriously when everyone was focused on the submarine threat. And with the ASBM story making rounds, the just as important story of the long range LACM deployment is almost totally disregarded.

In conclusion, I think that a lot of transparency complaints that the Pentagon throws at PLA are valid, but it is also unacceptable that the Pentagon would be caught off guard in so many cases. There are enough resources out there that can be researched to form much better conclusion on the progress of the Chinese military.