Much has been written over the past few days about how the Chinese military’s decision to flight-test its new J-20 fighter during a visit by U.S. defense secretary Robert Gates was an embarrassment for China’s civilian leaders. Apparently, nobody in the Peoples Liberation Army had bothered to mention the flight to President Hu Jintao, so Gates was the first person to give him a heads up. Imagine how it feels to find out from a visiting foreign dignitary what your own military is doing — the military that you supposedly lead.
But the person who should really be embarrassed is Secretary Gates, because apparently the former anticommunist hardliner has been so lulled into complacency about high-end security threats by his tenure at the Pentagon that he failed to grasp the rapidity of China’s military build-up. Gates terminated production of the Air Force’s next-generation F-22 air superiority fighter in 2009 at barely half the service’s stated warfighting requirement, saying that China wasn’t likely to field something similar before 2020. He may yet turn out to be right, but the fact the PLA is flight-testing a plane that looks a lot like the F-22 only 20 months later doesn’t say much for Gates’ sources — or his judgment.
Gates defenders will counter that although the Chinese J-20 looks a lot like an F-22 in its forward aspect, side and rear views suggest an airframe that is nowhere near as stealthy. Well maybe so, but balanced against that is the fact that China is probably more interested in using the new jet for striking U.S. naval assets, since it won’t be feasible for U.S. fighters to sustain a continuous presence in Chinese air space (there aren’t enough nearby bases). Forward-aspect stealth is more important in strike missions than whether you are visible from behind after bombs have been released. The J-20 also looks like a fine tool for threatening neighbors like Japan, which practically begged the Pentagon for years to sell it the F-22. Now it looks unlikely to have anything comparable to the J-20 that it can field for its homeland defense.
Gates has spent much of his tenure focusing on the unfixable problem of Afghanistan, which is one of the most corrupt countries in the world. During that time U.S. forces have done a very effective job of destroying Al Qaeda — the terrorist band that first drew America into the Afghan quagmire — but the distraction of trying to also fight a civil war in the backward country has led Gates & Company to make some poor choices about how to prepare for more important challenges. On one day in spring of 2009, Gates killed the F-22, the Air Force’s next-generation bomber, its future secure-communications satellite, and its replacement search-and-rescue helicopter. Now he says he wants to revive the bomber program, but the nation’s security would have been better served if he had grasped the significance of the decisions he was making two years ago.
In recent years, China’s military has demonstrated the ability to destroy U.S. reconnaissance satellites, tested a maneuvering ballistic missile that can disable U.S. aircraft carriers, and now flown an aircraft with stealth features similar to America’s best fighters. How obtuse do our leaders need to be to miss this pattern? They have wised up about China’s predatory trading practices, but they just don’t seem to grasp that all those unmanned aircraft they’re buying for combating insurgency in Southwest Asia would be gone in the first week of a real fight with China. Instead of buying more stuff that’s only suited for dealing with enemies who lack air forces, they ought to be thinking about what the China threat might look like in 20 years. Refocusing there will inexorably lead to the conclusion that our Air Force needs to have more F-22s — the only plane optimized for dealing with the kind of air power China seems to be pursuing.