U.S. analysts have been surprised repeatedly by China’s speed in developing sophisticated new weapons, partly because of Beijing’s secrecy and misinformation, according to a study published Thursday.
Other factors include an outdated view of China’s defense industries and a failure to pay enough attention to academic and technical publications written in Chinese, says the study, written by staff of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission.
“The [People's Republic of China, PRC] exercises secrecy over many aspects of its military affairs, and in some instances puts forth false or misleading information,” the study notes.
“U.S. observers should not take at face value statements from the Chinese government on military policy,” it says. Such statements could be deliberately “deceptive, or simply issued by agencies” such as the foreign ministry “that have no real say over military matters.”
The report, based on public information, looks at the development of four sophisticated Chinese weapons systems: the Jian-20 stealth jet fighter, the Yuan-class attack submarine, a satellite-killer called the SC-19 and the Dongfeng-21D anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM).
When the Jian-20 was unveiled with a dramatic public test flight in January 2011, U.S. intelligence officials and private-sector China specialists appeared surprised, the report says.
Just 15 months earlier, then-Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said China would need a decade to develop jet fighters in the same class as the United States’ F-22 and F-35.
After the first public test flight of the Jian-20, Mr. Gates had to admit that Beijing “may be somewhat further ahead in the development of the aircraft than our intelligence had earlier indicated.”
U.S. intelligence has known at least since 2004 that China was developing a land-based ship-killer ballistic missile. That year, a Chinese military publication described the planned Dongfeng-21D as an “assassin’s mace” for use against U.S. aircraft carriers.
However, it seems that China was able to field the missile much more quickly than expected.
The United States “has been pretty consistent in underestimating the delivery … of Chinese technology, weapon systems. They’ve entered operational capability quicker than expected,” said Vice Adm. David J. Dorsett, head of U.S. Navy intelligence from 2008-11, according to the report.
There are no “universal trends” in the cases studied. But the report says that with the ASBM and the stealth fighter, there were “identifiable miscalculation* regarding U.S. assessments on the development speed of Chinese indigenous weapons systems.”
“These predictive errors carry with them serious geopolitical consequence,” the report concludes.
“Why were these surprises?” asked commission member Larry M. Wortzel. “One must ask whether there is any inherent bias in the analysis, leading our personnel to underestimate China’s capabilities to field and develop” high-technology new weapons systems.
The report suggests that many U.S. analysts were stuck in outdated and inaccurate thinking about Beijing.
“It is clear that much of the conventional wisdom about China dating from the turn of the century has proven to be dramatically wrong,” it says.
One reason might be the degree to which China’s commercial and military cyberespionage has aided their research and development capability.
“The intelligence community and Congress should explore the extent to which technology transfer and/or forms of espionage helped China’s military develop systems faster that government estimates,” said Mr. Wortzel.