The Chinese military is making significant advances in sophisticated weapons at a pace that has caught the Pentagon off guard, a senior U.S. intelligence official acknowledged.
The new weapons, coming as China's navy becomes more assertive
in the western Pacific and South China Sea, include an advanced long-range ballistic missile, the Dong Feng 21D
, said to be able to hit U.S. aircraft carriers before they are in striking range of the Chinese coast, and a new stealth fighter
that could challenge the best new American fighter, the F-22.
"Across a broad array of weapons systems, they are making progress,'' U.S. Navy Vice Adm. David Dorsett told reporters Wednesday. While the development of the new stealth fighter was anticipated, he said that "the speed at which they are making progress . . . we underestimated.''
But Dorsett emphasized that while China is making worrisome advances in sophisticated conventional weapons like missiles and jet fighters, the larger concern is China's intent and capability to wield "non-kinetic'' power in the form of cyber warfare and offensive and defensive information warfare.
"I don't think we are behind'' in these new forms of warfare," Dorsett said, "Are we where we want to be in the future? No, but we are building the foundations.''
Revelations about the new weapons -- the first video
of the Chinese stealth fighter just became available on the Internet -- come just in advance of a new series of U.S.-China diplomatic engagements. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates is preparing to leave for a long-delayed visit to China this week, where he will hold a series of meetings with military officials. And on Jan. 19, President Obama will host China's president, Hu Jintao, at the White House.
Both overtures are intended to repair relations with the Asian superpower
that have been strained over differences on dealing with North Korea and Iran, and over trade, financial and currency issues.
But China's fast-growing military capabilities, and its recent muscle-flexing
in the south China and Yellow Seas, clearly have caught the Pentagon's attention and concern. The United States in past months has quietly beefed up its military forces in the Far East, stationing F-22 fighters on Guam and rotating aircraft carriers and nuclear attack submarines through the region. And this fall, Gates agreed to join Japan in opposing China's claims to the disputed Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea.
Dorsett said China has clearly developed a capability to field the anti-ship ballistic missile and to strike a "maneuvering target,'' such as an aircraft carrier. China also has acquired an old and decrepit Russian aircraft carrier that it will take to sea for testing this year, a step toward building its own carriers by 2020, Dorsett said.
Senior U.S. strategists worry
that China's long-term goal is to hold at risk U.S. ships and military facilities in the Far East and beyond, an "anti-access'' strategy that would restrict the United States' military and diplomatic clout in the region. Threatening the regional operations of U.S. aircraft carriers -- the iconic symbols of American power -- is a key objective, they said.
Asked directly whether the Dong Feng 21D missile is an immediate threat to American aircraft carriers, Dorsett replied: "That's something I'd prefer not to talk about.''
The stealthy Chinese fighter appeared to have been rolled out for a runway test; in one frame of the video its front wheel seems to lift off the ground as it speeds down the tarmac.
Dorsett characterized the aircraft's status as "the front end of a capability'' China is trying to develop. He said he did not know when China might begin actual flight testing, but he asserted that an operational capability for the fighter is "years'' away.
To illustrate the accelerating speed at which China is developing sophisticated military capabilities, Dorsett said a decade ago it had no integrated "ISR'' system, referring to an integrated intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance capability to seek out, identify and fix distant and scattered targets. Today, China has such a system, he said. Within the past 10 years China also has developed and deployed an over-the-horizon radar. Both capabilities significantly threaten U.S. naval freedom of action in the western Pacific.
But he questioned China's ability to become "operationally proficient'' at fusing the capabilities of its individual weapons systems into a coordinated, networked war-fighting capability that can be effectively wielded by highly trained personnel. "I don't see that now,'' he said. "I don't see them as 10 feet tall. . . . I am not worried. I am very focused. . . . But we need to look to the future.''
Dorsett said he is "more concerned about the non-kinetic'' capabilities being developed by China, including cyber warfare and systems that combine intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance systems where the United States has long held a global lead.
"We are still trying to develop, to get our heads around a paradigm shift from the industrial warfare age to the information age,'' Dorsett said. He cited the progress the Navy and the Defense Department have made in developing cyber-war capabilities, and stressed that this work must continue to stay ahead of other powers.
"This is one where we don't want to shoot behind the target,'' he said.