China’s rising military prowess is a cause for concern among those of its neighbours unfortunate enough to be locked in territorial disputes with Beijing, but also increasingly for the US armed forces and any number of Western companies trying to export their equipment around the globe.
Long renowned for an ability to obtain technology that can be copied by local industry – such as its Sukhoi Su-27-inspired Shenyang J-11 and J-15 fighters – China seems to be making a better job of developing its own products these days. Indeed, in a recent review of its military advances, the Rand Corporation argues that it is not merely content with catching up with the USA, but is flying ahead.
While Beijing’s newest star turn, the Chengdu J-20, has more than a hint of Lockheed Martin F-22 and F-35 about its basic design, initially dismissive assessments from the West have been replaced with more measured consideration of the type’s likely roles and operational performance. Now entering limited use, it appears to be a serious advance.
Our new World Air Forces directory shows how far Beijing lags behind Washington in numerical terms: its almost 3,200 military aircraft compare with roughly 13,400 operated by the USA. Continued generous funding will go some way towards closing this gap, but is it truly getting nearer to achieving near-peer status?