Pentagon now estimates China J20 Stealth Jet will be operational sooner than 2018

Wired Danger Room – Last year Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the J-20 wouldn’t be ready until at least 2020. Now, the Pentagon’s top China official has now revised that estimate. The J-20, China’s first stealth jet, will be operationally ready “no sooner than 2018,” David Helvey, deputy secretary of defense for East Asia and Asia Pacific Security Affairs.

The new anticipated timetable for the J-20 hardly augurs the end of American military dominance. But it wasn’t the only Chinese military development that took the Pentagon by surprise last year.

According to the Pentagon’s new report on the Chinese military, China’s got three nuclear-powered submarines — an advance that Helvey conceded the U.S. military didn’t anticipate. China also fielded an “improved” amphibious assault vessel last year, while the U.S. Marine Corps is having trouble upgrading its own.

And that’s just the stuff that the Pentagon can see. Helvey speculated that the Chinese military keeps its research, foreign military acquisitions and nuclear modernization off its books. The report estimates that China’s declared $106 billion annual military budget is really more like $120 to $180 billion.

DoD Annual Report to Congress – Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2012 (52 pages)

China’s published military budget does not include several major categories of expenditure, such as foreign procurement. Using 2011 prices and exchange rates, DoD estimates China’s total military-related
spending for 2011 ranges between $120 billion and $180 billion.

China has developed torpedo and mine systems capable of area denial in a Taiwan scenario. Estimates of China’s naval mine inventory exceed 50,000 mines, with many more capable systems developed in the past 10 years.

China is producing a new class of nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine (SSBN). The JIN-class SSBN (Type-094) will eventually carry the JL-2 submarine-launched ballistic missile with an estimated range of some 7,400km. The JIN-class SSBN and the JL-2 will give the PLA Navy its first credible sea-based nuclear capability. The JL-2 program has faced repeated delays, but may reach initial operating capability within the next two years.

China has expanded its force of nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSN). Two second generation SHANG-class (Type-093) SSNs are already in service and as many as five third generation SSNs will be added in the coming years. When complete, the new class of SSNs will incorporate better quieting technology, improving China’s capability to conduct a range of missions from surveillance to the interdiction of surface vessels with torpedoes and ASCMs.

The current mainstay of modern diesel powered attack submarines (SS) in the PLA Navy submarine force are the 13 SONG-class (Type-039) units. Each can carry the YJ-82 ASCM. The follow-on to the SONG is the YUAN-class (a Type-039 variant), as many as four of which are already in service. The YUAN-class probably includes an air-independent power system. The SONG, YUAN, SHANG and the still-to-be-deployed new SSN-class all will eventually be capable of launching a new long-range ASCM.

China has deployed approximately 60 of its HOUBEI-class (Type-022) wave-piercing catamaran-hull guided missile patrol craft. Each boat can carry up to eight YJ-83 ASCMs. These boats have increased the PLA Navy’s littoral warfare capabilities.

The PLA Navy has acquired modern, domestically-produced surface combatants. These include at least two LUYANG II-class (Type-052C) guided missile destroyers (DDG) fitted with the indigenous HHQ-9 long-range SAM, with additional hulls under construction; two LUZHOU-class (Type-051C) DDGs equipped with the Russian SA-N-20 long-range SAM; and at least nine JIANGKAI II-class (Type-054A) guided-missile frigates, fitted with the medium range HHQ-16 vertically launched SAM. These ships improve the PLA Navy’s area air defense capability significantly, which will be critical as the PLA Navy expands its operations into areas beyond the range of shore-based air defense.

China bases approximately 490 combat aircraft within unrefueled operational range of Taiwan and has the airfield capacity to expand that number by hundreds.

Newer and more advanced aircraft make up a growing percentage of the inventory. The January 2011 flight test of China’s next-generation fighter prototype, the J-20, highlights China’s ambition to produce a fighter aircraft that incorporates stealth attributes, advanced avionics, and supercruise-capable engines.

China is upgrading its B-6 bomber fleet (originally adapted from the Soviet Tu-16 BADGER) with a new, longer-range variant that will be armed with a new long-range cruise missile. The PLA Air Force has continued expanding its inventory of long-range, advanced SAM systems and now possesses one of the largest such forces in the world. Over the past five years, China has acquired multiple S-300 battalions, the most advanced SAM system that Russia exports. It has also introduced the indigenously designed HQ-9.

China’s aviation industry is developing several types of airborne early warning and control system (AWACS) aircraft. These include the Y-8 MOTH and the KJ-2000, based on a modified Russian IL-76 airframe.

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