A US Department of Defence report has underlined China’s determination to develop its airpower capabilities.
In its Annual Report to Congress about China’s military, the DoD notes that Beijing continues to develop its anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) capabilities. These capabilities are mainly designed to deter US intervention in a conflict.
The report also highlights key shortcomings in Chinese aerospace technologies, such as engines and avionics, that the country hopes to redress through the crossover of commercial aerospace technologies to the military sphere.
Key technologies where China’s defence sector has benefited from close ties to the commercial sector include hot section technologies for engines, avionics, and flight controls.
“Differentiating between China’s civil and military end-use remains a challenge due to opaque corporate structures, hidden asset ownership, and the connections of commercial personnel with the central government,” says the report.
In addition, China “has used its intelligence services and other illicit approaches to collect sensitive US information and export-controlled technology in violation of US laws and export controls.”
The report sheds little new light on specific Chinese aerospace programmes, but notes that the Chengdu J-20 is likely to enter service in 2018. It reflects the uncertainty prevalent in published sources as to whether the Shenyang J-31 fighter is intended for use by the mainland, or as an export competitor to the Lockheed Martin F-35.
It also notes that China is eager to obtain the Sukhoi Su-35 from Russia along with its IRBIS-E passive electronically scanned array (PESA) radar. The DoD says the advanced type could enter Chinese services in 2016 or 2018.
The report also makes mention of China's efforts to upgrade its H-6s (based on the Tupolev Tu-16) to carry long range cruise missiles, providing a valuable standoff attack capability. The H-6G has four pylons, while the H-6K has six. The H-6K also has new turbofan engines that extend its range.
Although China is building its capabilities, it still has a number of major capability gaps, according to the DoD. One of these is its long-range antisubmarine warfare capability.
The DoD also highlights the uncertainty around China’s defence budget. It estimates that Beijing spent $145 billion on defence in 2013, 21% greater than the official number of $119.5 billion.
“It is difficult to estimate actual PLA military expenses due to China’s poor accounting transparency and incomplete transition from a command economy. China’s published military budget omits several major categories of expenditure, such as procurement of foreign weapons and equipment.”