China is modernising its air force on an “unprecedented” scale and is “rapidly closing the gap with Western air forces”, the Pentagon said on Thursday in its annual report on the capabilities of the Chinese military.
The improvements in the Chinese air force were apparent not only in its aircraft, but also in its use of jamming communications and electronic warfare, said the report. China also appeared to be operating a drone for reconnaissance at sea.
The Pentagon said that China’s headline defence budget of $119.5bn was understated by about 20 per cent, with the real figure for spending on the military closer to $145bn.
The report is an annual publication by the Pentagon which is mandated by Congress. However, it comes at a time of increasing military tensions between China and the US and its allies in Asia.
US and Chinese officials sparred verbally at a major regional security conference at the weekend, with Chuck Hagel, US defence secretary, accusing China of using coercive tactics in its maritime disputes while Wang Guanzhong, deputy chief of the Chinese general staff, said that Mr Hagel’s comments were “full of hegemony”.
China’s dispute with Vietnam in the South China Sea has escalated in recent weeks after China started drilling for oil in an area claimed by both countries while Chinese and Japanese fighter jets twice came dangerously close to each other in the East China Sea.
According to the Pentagon report, China conducted its “largest open sea exercise to date” last September when its three navy fleets took part in drills in the South China Sea – one of the growing number of signs that China’s military focus is shifting beyond its traditional emphasis on Taiwan.
The section on the air force provided the most new detail. The Pentagon said that within a few years, the air force would use largely fourth-generation fighter aircraft. The report also claims that China is trying to buy Su-35 aircraft from Russia which has a sophisticated radar system and which would allow it to undertake longer patrols in the East China and South China Seas.
The Pentagon said that it was “probable” that China used a drone for a reconnaissance mission in the East China Sea in 2013 and it had revealed details of four different drones under development. It cited another Pentagon report that claimed the China drones programme enjoyed “unlimited resources” and “might allow China to match or even outpace US spending on unmanned systems in the future”.
While the US Justice department in May filed charges against five Chinese military officers for allegedly stealing trade secrets of US private companies, the latest Pentagon report did not provide any new details on Chinese cyber activities.