By Jennifer Rizzo
The U.S. believes that China's radar-evading fighter jet will be operational in six years, a Pentagon official said Friday.
China is expected to have sufficient numbers of its J-20 fighter and enough pilots trained to conduct missions with the stealthy jet by 2018 but not any earlier, according to David Helvey, acting deputy assistant secretary of defense for East Asia and Asia Pacific affairs.
Chinese officials have said they expect the J-20 to be operational between 2017 and 2019.
Helvey spoke about the Defense Department's annual report to Congress regarding China's military developments.
Analysts believe that the J-20 will have the radar-evading capability of fifth-generation fighters produced by the United States, like the F-22 and F-35.
The report cited the J-20 as an example of China's emphasis on military modernization programs.
In March, China announced an estimated 11% jump in its military budget, to roughly $106 billion. The actual figure, which is probably much larger, is difficult to estimate due to the non-transparent nature of China's budget.
For example, Helvey said, the published military budget does not include several major categories of expenditures such as foreign weapons purchases, nuclear force modernization and research and development.
The Defense Department estimates that in 2011, China's total military-related spending ranged between $120 billion and $180 billion.
While the report says China's main focus is deterring conflict with Taiwan, the U.S. again made bold statements on the cyberthreat posed by China, accusing the nation of cyberattacks and economic espionage.
"Chinese attempts to collect U.S. technological and economic information will continue at a high level and will represent a growing and persistent threat to U.S. economic security," the report said.
Various sections of the report also mentioned the larger role China is playing around the globe with non-traditional security missions like humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations, non-combatant evacuation operations, military medical assistance missions and U.N. peacekeeping missions.
"For the first time in its history, the (People's Liberation Army) is going places and doing things and is at the incipient stages of taking on an expeditionary mindset," said David Finkelstein, who directs the China studies program at CNA, a nonprofit research institute in Alexandria, Virginia.
Finkelstein pointed to the navy's ongoing anti-piracy operation in the Gulf of Aden as a prime example.
"While some might call into question how operationally significant the mission is, no one should question the significance of the political decision made back in 2008 to take on the mission," he said. "Given China's growing set of national security interests and its expanding international footprint, this trend should come as no surprise, and the report points this out."
The themes surrounding a growing Chinese military were similar to those mentioned in previous reports. The most striking difference this year was the length of the report, coming in at half the size of previous versions.
The Pentagon says it consolidated the document to keep with agency-wide guidance on how to handle congressional reports, but one analyst sees the move as policy-motivated.
"The Chinese have complained bitterly about this report from its inception," Chinese military expert Richard Fisher said. "It is the most useful and comprehensive statement by any government on this planet about the capabilities and intentions of China's military. That is why the Chinese government screams so loud every time it's published. But they are going to be really happy that the U.S. government cut its length in half."
Fisher says the Obama administration is using the report as a way of appeasing the Chinese.
"Early in 2009, the Obama administration made a very direct and consistent effort to make nice with China and to make nice with the PLA," Fisher said. "And very early on, it seized on the opportunity to use this report as a way of signaling to the PLA that we want to make nice."
"The format, tone and minimal use of jargon in this year's report makes it, in my view, very effective in conveying to the Congress and the general public a basic understanding of what the PLA is trying to accomplish," he said.