The US Defence Department's annual report on Chinese military capabilities has underlined the evolution of Chinese airpower.
The report looked at all aspects of Chinese military power, including the traditional pillars of the land, air, and sea forces, as well as emergent capabilities such as electronic warfare and cyber warfare.
"The [People's Liberation Army Air Force] continues to modernise and is closing the gap rapidly with Western air forces across a broad spectrum of capabilities," says the report. "This development is gradually eroding the significant technical advantage held by the United States."
The Pentagon estimates that the People's Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) has 2,700 aircraft, making it the world's third largest air force. It continues to induct fourth generation fighters, while developing new types such as the Chengdu J-20 and Avic FC-31.
FIFTH GENERATION BOMBER
Work is also underway on upgrading the nation's bomber fleet. This includes a new bomber that will appear around 2025.
"These new Chinese bombers will have additional capabilities with full-spectrum upgrades over the current bomber fleet, and will employ many fifth-generation technologies in their design."
Beijing's fleet of Xian H-6s will also continue to be upgraded, with an emphasis on standoff weapons. The latest variant of the aircraft, originally based on the Tupolev Tu-16 Badger, is the H-6K, which has improved turbofans and capacity for six long-range standoff weapons.
A map detailing ranges of various Chinese weapons systems shows that H-6K's with land attack cruise missiles can prosecute targets 3,300km away. Airborne early warning & control (AEW&C) assets are also being further integrated, and China continues to develop its unmanned aircraft system (UAS) capabilities – both armed systems and ones dedicated to intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance.
Pentagon officials expect China's second aircraft carrier to be ready in 2020, but contend that its ski-jump configuration will limit the payload capacity of its air arm.
In addition, Chinese airpower is likely to benefit from major structural reform in the overall Chinese military, which is marked by a gradual decentralisation of control. The PLAAF will also benefit from increasingly rigorous and realistic training.
The report reiterated known issues with China's military aerospace sector. While it has become increasingly advanced, and is now capable of producing a range of fighter and transport aircraft, it still suffers key technological weaknesses, namely in the crucial area of jet engines.
Nonetheless, Beijing is committed to advancing key technologies and a section of the report deals with Chinese espionage.
"China very likely uses its intelligence services and employs other illicit approaches that violate U.S. laws and export controls to obtain key national security and export-restricted technologies, controlled equipment, and other materials unobtainable through other means," says the report.
It lists several cases in which individuals attempted to obtain sensitive US technologies and export them to China, including one case involving fighter engines.