Saturday, July 10, 2010

DTN News: Chinese Air Force Among The Most Capable, Analyst Says

Defense News: DTN News: Chinese Air Force Among The Most Capable, Analyst Says
(NSI News Source Info) TORONTO, Canada - July 10, 2010: The US-based The Diplomat magazine and Jane's Defence Weekly in the UK published stories this month expressing concerns about the buildup of China's air force, respectively titled "China Air Force Steps it Up" and "Chinese military aircraft: up and coming."
So why the growing interest abroad in China's air force? Where do the concerns stem from?
The Global Times' correspondent, Sun Wei, conducted a question-and-answer session by e-mail Wednesday with Craig Caffrey (Caffrey), the author of "Chinese military aircraft: Up and coming."
GT: Why are you concerned about the Chinese air force in particular? The Diplomat magazine said China is "building a force that will be without rival in the Asia-Pacific." What do you think of such a comment?
Caffrey: China's emergence as a global power is one of the most important geo-political issues at present, and this process has a number of significant implications in the defense and security sector. The modernization of the Chinese air force is a key aspect of an ongoing improvement in the capabilities of the Chinese military.
My article's focus is on the key military aircraft programs that are central to this modernization process, within the military as a whole, and demonstrate the increasing capabilities of both the air force and the aerospace sectors in China.
There have been a number of key developments over the past few years, and the article aims to identify these developments and analyze their impact upon the programs themselves, the capability of the air force itself and, to a lesser extent, the impact upon the wider global defense aerospace market.
While it was a coincidence that The Diplomat article was published at roughly the same time as the Jane's article, this is certainly indicative of a growing interest in the modernization of the Chinese military over recent years.
I do not agree entirely with the statement above, as the US is well aware of the development process that the Chinese military has embarked upon. However, I do believe that the modernization of the Chinese air force will inevitably have an increasingly significant impact upon US defense policy and planning assumptions in the region.
With China retiring its large inventories of obsolete aircraft and replacing them with modern, highly capable combat aircraft, the Chinese air force is already one of the most capable air forces in the region. At present, though, the capability to project this power beyond its borders and throughout the region is extremely limited due to a lack of tanker and transport aircraft and basing outside of China.
GT: In your article, you said "Only the US and Russia provide a more comprehensive portfolio of domestically produced military aircraft." In Chinese eyes, however, Chinese aerospace manufacturing is still far behind the West. What do you think of the gaps?
Caffrey: I think the speed with which China has been able to indigenously produce modern combat aircraft with comparable capabilities to similar Western designs is extremely impressive, even if there are still a number of issues that need to be addressed.
If you consider that the air force is expecting the first flight of a 5th-generation combat aircraft to be achieved less than 10 years after the first indigenously produced fourth generation aircraft entered service, then the progress has been remarkable.
In terms of how this has been achieved, the scale of government investment in the sector has been hugely important, while the technical support offered by other countries, particularly Russia, has also been crucial. Reforms within the aerospace sector and the leveraging of techniques and expertise from the civil sector into the defense sector have also been important.
It is certainly true that the Chinese aerospace industry is significantly behind that of Europe or the US in terms of capability, but that does not detract from the speed with which it has been able to develop over recent years.
The key area where progress is required is in the production of aero-engines, where performance has perhaps been slightly disappointing over this period and has held up a number of programs. Until this can be rectified, China will remain reliant, at least to some extent, on external suppliers.
Further improvements with regards to systems integration, avionics, complex mission systems and the use of composite materials are also likely to be required if China is to truly compete in the global aerospace market.
GT: How do you evaluate the capability of the Chinese air force? What do you think of the level of their training, and their capability of cooperation with other combat arms, especially compared with China's neighboring countries?
Caffrey: As I mentioned in my answer to the first question, the Chinese air force is already highly capable, although there are obviously elements that can be improved upon. Power projection is one of the key deficiencies at present.
Progress appears to be being made in the quality of training and the ability to conduct joint operations, and there appears to be an increasing focus upon these aspects. However, these are certainly two areas in which the Chinese air force lags far behind other leading air forces, such as the US.
Another key aspect in this regard is a lack of operational experience that can be applied to improve training and tactics. I would say at present that the air force still needs to make significant progress in these elements if it is to be considered truly without rival in the Asia-Pacific.
GT: The air forces in the Asia-Pacific region have welcomed a booming update of military aircraft. To what degree do you think it is because of China?
Caffrey: I certainly think that the enhanced capabilities of the Chinese air force will increasingly factor into the modernization plans of other air forces in the region. However, to date, I think evidence of such a trend is limited.
Fighter programs are underway in Japan and South Korea; however, these new aircraft are being acquired to replace aging fleets rather than to defend against a perceived Chinese threat.
Having said that, if you look at the trend in Europe and the US, then the number of combat aircraft operated by their air forces has been steadily decreasing over the last decade, while in Asia this has been less pronounced. This again, though, has been influenced by a general improvement in the capabilities of air forces in the region rather than specifically in response to China.
If the Chinese air force continues to improve its capabilities at the pace it has done over the last decade, then there is certainly the potential for further sales of military aircraft to neighboring countries in response. However, this would likely have to be coupled with a deterioration of relations with Beijing or a perceived increase in the assertiveness of the Chinese military in the region.
*This article is being posted from Toronto, Canada By DTN News ~ Defense-Technology News, contact:
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