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China tests stealth fighter as Gates meets with Hu
Question of the Day
China carried out the first flight test of an advanced stealth fighter as visiting Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates raised questions about the jet during a meeting in Beijing with China's president.
Mr. Gates said the flight test led him to "directly" question Chinese President Hu Jintao about the timing. "And he said that the test had absolutely nothing to do with my visit and had been a preplanned test, and that's where we left it," Mr. Gates told reporters after the meeting.
China in the past has used missile tests and other military activities to send political messages to the United States, according to defense officials.
The test flight appeared to be a political message from the Chinese military directly meant for the defense secretary. "It was clear that none of the civilians in the room had been informed [of the test flight]," said a senior U.S. defense official describing the meeting between Mr. Hu and Mr. Gates.
Meanwhile, Mr. Gates will visit China's strategic-missile headquarters near Beijing during his four-day trip, matching a first visit there by Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld in 2005. Mr. Gates also will see the Great Wall on Wednesday before traveling to Tokyo and South Korea.
Mr. Hu said the Gates visit would be "very helpful in promoting mutual understanding and trust, and facilitate improvement and development of military-to-military relations between our two countries." Mr. Hu visits Washington later this month.
Chinese Defense Minister Liang Guanglie on Monday rebuffed calls for closer military talks on strategic nuclear and security issues. He said the proposal would be "considered and studied," which in Asian diplomatic parlance often means "no."
On Tuesday, Mr. Gates said China's military is "taking the proposal seriously." Pentagon officials are drawing up an agenda for possible future talks that could be held in next five months.
Earlier, Mr. Gates told reporters that North Korea is developing long-range ballistic missiles within five years that will directly threaten the United States.
"With the North Koreans' continuing development of nuclear weapons and their development of intercontinental ballistic missiles, North Korea is becoming a direct threat to the United States," he said.
On the new jet, the faster-than-expected emergence of China's Jian-20 (J-20) fifth-generation fighter comes at an inconvenient time for Washington and its allies in the Asia-Pacific region concerned about China's growing military power.
It follows recent disclosures of major war-game simulations that are producing the ominous perception among some Asian allies that U.S. airpower assets can no longer be assumed to be powerful enough to quickly vanquish Chinese jets — what the Pentagon calls "air supremacy" — in any future conflict with China's air force, known as the PLAAF, or People's Liberation Army Air Force.
Mr. Gates is in China trying to re-establish military ties between the Pentagon and China in time for a summit meeting later this month between Mr. Hu and President Obama.
U.S. allies in Asia, especially Japan and South Korea, where Mr. Gates visits next, are increasingly nervous about China and the J-20 rollout over the past several weeks.
The new J-20 was made public in Internet photos, videos and unofficial reporting. One video posted Sunday on a Chinese website showed a new taxi test of the J-20, a rare break with Chinese military secrecy.
Between early November 2010 and this month, the J-20 carried out at least four high-speed taxi runs, resulting in more than two hours of ground testing being completed on the airframe, according to reports from Asia.
Two J-20 demonstrator aircraft were spotted at the Chengdu Aircraft Design and Research Institute airfield, which adjoins Aircraft Plant No. 132, in southwest China's Sichuan province, where Monday's flight test took place.
Defense sources said two recent computer simulations that played out aerial conflicts between U.S. and Chinese forces showed disturbing results.
One was performed by the Rand Corp. for the U.S. Air Force, according to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, which analyzed and publicized the results. A separate simulation exercise was performed by an Australian defense contractor for the Australian military.
The exercises revealed Chinese successes at both the strategic and theater level, as well as in one-on-one aircraft engagements against the PLAAF, according to intelligence and military officials in Asia.
Assuming a shoot-down ratio of six Chinese jets to every U.S. fighter and that each high-tech U.S. air-to-air missile fired would take out its Chinese target with no misses or misfires — both optimistic assumptions — "the PLAAF would still carry the day because of sheer numbers," said the Australian defense contractor.
U.S. air forces currently are "more than just jet pilots wearing white scarves doing battle with one another in the skies," said the Australian contractor, who is a former fighter pilot with the Royal Australian Air Force and is involved in current assessments of the Chinese military.
"Today, there is increased reliance on battle-management assets like the [Boeing E-3 AWACS] Sentry aircraft, [the RC-135] Rivet Joint and Combat Sent platforms, plus tankers," he said. "All of the available simulation data has the PLAAF — even after these loss-exchange ratios — still having enough numbers to take out these assets, whereby the U.S. air-battle capability collapses."
The Australian contractor also said that what makes the simulation results more alarming is that their war-gaming input data was based on China's top-line aircraft in the future being the Russian-designed Sukhoi Su-35, a "four-plus" generation jet with fewer stealth features and assessed to be less capable than a jet like the J-20.
If the new Chinese aircraft enters service by 2017 as PLAAF officials have previously stated, "the numbers become even more unpleasant for the U.S. side," said the Australian analyst.
U.S. intelligence and defense agencies sought to play down the J-20 program, asserting that difficulties with the jet's engines and the long periods required for Chinese fighter development are factors.
Director of the Office of Naval Intelligence Vice Adm. David J. Dorsett told reporters on Jan. 5 that the J-20 will not be fully operational for years and is in "early development." Adm. Dorsett said the new jet was not a surprise, but added, as did Mr. Gates, that the speed of China's progress was "underestimated."
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