We underestimated China, US official says after reports of J-20 stealth fighter

China has launched a test run for what appears to be its first J-20 stealth fighter plane, days ahead of trip by Defense Secretary Robert Gates to Beijing.

What is reported to be a Chinese stealth fighter, is seen in Chengdu, Sichuan province, Jan. 5. The US military believes the aircraft is a J-20 stealth fighter prototype.

As Defense Secretary Robert Gates prepares for a trip to Beijing starting Sunday in an effort to repair stressed relations with America’s biggest military rival, senior Pentagon officials are warning that the Pentagon has been “pretty consistent in underestimating” Chinese military advances.

This week, China quite publicly launched a test run for what appears to be its first J-20 stealth fighter plane, capable of evading radar detection. This development comes on the heels of a new anti-ship ballistic missile.

Although the United States miscalculated the speed with which China is capable of developing its defense technology, Vice Adm. David “Jack” Dorsett, head of Navy intelligence, told reporters Wednesday that accounts China has been hard at work building a stealth fighter are “not a surprise.”

At the same time, military analysts caution that China’s defense capabilities can be overestimated. “There does tend to be some tendency to take a Chinese asset – whether it is a particular type of missile or boat or radar or whatever – and ascribe to the Chinese the same capability that we would have if we had the same item,” says Dr. Kenneth Lieberthal, director of the John L. Thornton China Center at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

“We have enormous experience on how to use these things. We have tested them in combat,” he says, while China has not. “And that makes an enormous difference.”

For his part, Dorsett said that the Pentagon “certainly would not have expected them to be as far along as they are today” in technology – and that the Pentagon needs to refine its intelligence on military matters in China. “We’ve been on the mark on an awful lot of our assessments, but there have been a handful of things we have underestimated,” he said.

Another thing that’s been underestimated is the development of the new anti-ship ballistic missile. That weapon “has increased their probability of being able to employ a salvo of missiles to be able to hit a maneuvering target,” Dorsett said. This includes aircraft carriers, for example. But such moving targets are tough to hit, he emphasized. “The chances of hitting a carrier with a ballistic missile are pretty remote,” he said.

Still, Dorsett said, “Yes, they have increased their proficiency in hitting a moving target. How proficient? They don’t know – and we don’t know.” To the Pentagon’s knowledge, China has not yet test-fired a ballistic missile “over water with moving targets,” he added.

More troubling is the dexterity that China has “clearly” shown in cyberwarfare, said Dorsett, who called it the area he is “most concerned about.”

With Secretary Gates going to Beijing, the Pentagon will be closely examining how to increase military-to-military ties, which are imperative when tensions over maritime territorial disputes crop up, says Dr. Lieberthal. The potential for such disputes degenerating into violence remains high, he adds.

“Ideally, when these problems arise, we should use mil-to-mil channels rather than cutting them off,” he says.

In the meantime, is the US military underestimating China’s war-fighting capabilities? Dorsett said he doesn’t think so. Senior Pentagon officials are focused not just on where China’s military is today, but also on where it would like to be years from now – namely, Dorsett says, a global power. “They’re pragmatic,” he said. “They have a game plan that deals in decades.”

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