The stealthy Chengdu J-20 fighter could enter operational service by early 2018 and join a rapidly improving Chinese military armed with long-range strike weapons, new unmanned air vehicles and command and control aircraft fleets, the US Department of Defense says in an annual assessment.
The J-20 is "still in a prototype phase," says David Helvey, the acting deputy assistant secretary of defense for East Asia for the US Department of Defense.
"So we'd like to be able to continue to monitor it--to continue monitor developments on that to understand exactly what China may intend to use it for, and I wouldn't want to speculate at this point for what those specific missions would be," he adds.
But the report itself says that the J-20 reflects "China's ambition to produce a fighter aircraft that incorporates stealth attributes, advanced avionics, and supercruise-capable engines."
©China Global Times
The first J-20 prototype started flight tests in January 2011 and a second example started flying earlier this month. But the US government is adamant that the aircraft will not enter frontline squadron service until much later this decade.
"We expect the J-20 to achieve an effective operational capability no sooner than 2018," Helvey says. "That reflects our judgment and interpretation of how far they are along in doing the research and development and flight testing of the prototypes," he adds.
Operational capability as the DoD defines it means that there should be enough aircraft, weapons and trained air crew to conduct real-world missions, Helvey says.
The DoD also believes that the Chinese have an interest in developing new unmanned aircraft.
"We know that China is interested in developing unmanned air systems, and they have in the past acquired a number of different types of UAVs," Helvey says. "This report doesn't make a net assessment between China's capabilities for unmanned air systems and US capabilities, but that is an area that China is interested in developing."
China has a number of unmanned aerial vehicles including the Israeli-made Israel Aerospace Industries Harpy and a number of domestic types.
Meanwhile, the People's Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) is not neglecting its long-range strike capabilities. The country is upgrading its Tupolev Tu-16 Badger-derived Xian B-6 bomber fleet with a new, longer-range variation, which will be armed with new long-range cruise missiles, the report says.
The Chinese are also developing several types of airborne early warning and control system (AWACS) aircraft. These include the Shaanxi Y-8 Moth, based on the Antonov An-12, and the KJ-2000, based on the Ilyushin IL-76 airlifter, the report says.
Meanwhile, China's navy is moving on getting its first aircraft carrier into service. The refurbished Soviet-built ship started sea trials last August, but it not yet operational.
"This aircraft [carrier] could become operationally available to China's navy by the end of this year," Helvey says. "But we expect it'll take several additional years for an air group to achieve a minimal operational capability aboard the aircraft carrier."
The report also indicates that China is probably designing and possibly building in own indigenous carriers.
While China's public statements on its defence budget about $106 billion for 2012, the DoD estimates that the Chinese will actually spend more than $180 billion.
Helvey says the DoD believe that many aspects of China's military modernization actually comes from different spending accounts rather than the main defence budget. Foreign acquisitions such as Russian-built fighters are counted the same way.
"For example, we think that some of their nuclear forces modernisation occurs off budget," he says. "So when you add all of that together, that helps us to develop, I think, a more accurate estimate of what the totality of the military expenditure is."