China could declare its first stealth fighter operational this year as it also develops long-range bombers capable of carrying nuclear weapons, part of a regional buildup by Beijing that the US is closely monitoring, US Pacific Air Forces Commander General Charles Brown said.
In an interview at Bloomberg’s headquarters in New York this week, Brown said that the stealth J-20 fighter could “possibly” be operational this year, a move he said would signal “greater threat, greater capability” for China in the Pacific.
He said that US efforts to counter those developments include rising deployments of next-generation F-35 jets and continuing overflights of strategic areas such as the South China Sea.
“My sense of the way the Chinese operate is somewhat incremental. They’ll continue to push the envelope to figure out does anybody say or do anything — if you don’t push back, it’ll keep coming,” Brown said.
Fielding the J-20 would add to what is already the region’s largest air force and world’s third-largest, with more than 2,500 aircraft including 1,700 combat fighters, strategic bombers, tactical bombers and multimission tactical and attack aircraft, the US Defense Intelligence Agency said in a report earlier this year.
China’s J-20 fighter is part of a modernization effort that has been “closing the gap with Western air forces across a broad spectrum of capabilities, such as aircraft performance, command and control and electronic warfare,” the report said.
Brown also said he thinks China is moving to develop dual-use bombers that would be “similar to our bombers” in terms of being able to carry nuclear weapons and non-nuclear precision-guided weapons.
Acting US Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan, in a statement on Wednesday for the US House Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense, said that a Chinese long-range bomber “if successful, would make it only one of three nations” to “possess a nuclear triad” of land, sea and air-based nuclear capabilities.
Brown, a four-star general who has logged more than 130 combat flight hours out of 2,900 overall, was on the US east coast this week to speak with Asia experts about the challenges facing his command.
A key issue for Brown in his latest post is “how do I gain a greater understanding of how China operates — not only their equipment capability — but how they operate, how they command and control. I want to understand what makes their blood pressure go up” to avoid miscalculations, he said.
“Their propensity to fly out over the water has increased over the years,” Brown said.
It is not just the US noticing the increased Chinese capability, he said, touching on the US Department of State and Pentagon’s review of a potential sale of new F-16s to Taiwan.
US President Donald Trump’s advisers encouraged Taiwan to submit a formal request for the jets.
That request would need to be converted into a formal proposal by the defense and state departments, and then the US Congress would have 30 days to decide whether to block the sale.
“There’s been a little increase in tension there recently, which may be the impetus” behind Taiwan’s request, Brown said.
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