Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Russia's $650 billion rearmament plan

By Fred Weir – Mon Feb 28, 4:22 pm ET
Moscow – The graying bear is getting a make-over. Russia's military is launching its biggest rearmament effort since Soviet times, including a $650 billion program to procure 1,000 new helicopters, 600 combat planes, 100 warships, and 8 nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines.
Analysts say Russia, while already the world's fifth-largest military spender, needs strong conventional forces to reduce its overreliance on its aging Soviet-era nuclear missile deterrent. Valentin Rudenko, director of the independent Interfax-Military News Agency, says it could create "a whole new ballgame."
"For about two decades we've had no real modernization, at least not like what's being proposed now," he says. "Russia will finally have a modern, top-level armed forces that are capable of protecting the country."
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Deputy Defense Minister Vladimir Popovkin last week announced the unprecedented new outlays, which will see a massive re-equipping of Russia's strategic nuclear deterrent as well as its conventional forces. The Defense Ministry today said the "modernization drive" will begin this year with the deployment of new generations of air defense and antimissile weapons by Russian ground forces.
The impressive shopping spree comes on the heels of a painful military reform that severely downsized Russia's conscript Army, eliminating 9 out of 10 Soviet-era units and cutting 200,000 officers. The goal now, experts say, is to equip Russia's new lean-and-mean, largely professional armed forces to face 21st-century threats. These are mainly considered to be regional conflicts such as the brief 2008 Russo-Georgian war, which highlighted military shortcomings.
Skepticism over spending
Much of the new spending will go toward revamping Russia's naval forces, which are slated to receive new submarines, 35 naval corvettes, 15 frigates, and 4 Mistral-type helicopter-transporting amphibious assault ships. Two of the $750 million Mistrals will be purchased from France, and two are to be constructed in Russian shipyards.
Some experts are deeply skeptical of the expenditures – especially the expensive purchase of Mistral helicopter carriers, which are designed to project power around the globe rather than fight the defensive and local wars that Russian military doctrine declares as the country's main priority.
"It's hard to see what our Navy needs these Mistral money pits for," says Viktor Baranets, a former defense ministry spokesman who's now military correspondent for the Moscow daily Komsomolskaya Pravda. He says they may be prestigious, "but they require a huge amount of protection. At any time, half the Russian Navy may be employed just escorting these ships around the world."
The new submarines will be designed to deploy a brand-new long-range nuclear missile, the Bulava, which has failed half of its flight tests so far. "Defense ministers can make promises, but no designer or engineer can promise that the Bulava will be operational in time," says Mr. Baranets.
Uncertainty over new stealth fighter
Experts point out that most of the new weaponry to be procured is actually based on old, Soviet-era designs, including the Mi-28 helicopter gunship, the Mi-26 transport helicopter, and the Sukhoi Su-35 multirole fighter plane.
"These are all designs from the late Soviet period, and not really new at all," says Alexander Golts, military expert with the online newsmagazine Yezhednevny Zhurnal. "The lack of fresh designs shows the underlying weakness of our military-industrial complex."
The only truly new weapons being rolled out, says Mr. Golts, are the trouble-plagued Bulava missile and the much-hyped "fifth-generation" fighter plane that Russia is reportedly developing with India.
"We don't know enough about this Russian fifth-generation fighter to tell whether it is the real thing" – a futuristic stealth fighter comparable to the US Air Force's F-22 and F-35 warplanes – "or if it's just a jumped-up version of something old," says Golts.
Critics say that despite the huge sums of money slated to be injected into the rearmament program, it is far short of the amounts needed to revive Russia's moribund military-industrial complex, which has lost the vast network of subcontractors that existed in Soviet times.
"This is not the first time the Kremlin has talked about military modernization," says Golts. "But all previous programs have failed."

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

US admiral: China carrier killer won't stop US Navy

YOKOSUKA, Japan – A new "carrier killer" missile that has become a symbol of China's rising military might will not force the U.S. Navy to change the way it operates in the Pacific, a senior Navy commander told The Associated Press.

Defense analysts say the Dong Feng 21D missile could upend the balance of power in Asia, where U.S. aircraft carrier battle groups have ruled the waves since the end of World War II.

However, Vice Adm. Scott van Buskirk, commander of the U.S. 7th Fleet, told the AP in an interview that the Navy does not see the much-feared weapon as creating any insurmountable vulnerability for the U.S. carriers — the Navy's crown jewels.

"It's not the Achilles heel of our aircraft carriers or our Navy — it is one weapons system, one technology that is out there," Van Buskirk said in an interview this week on the bridge of the USS George Washington, the only carrier that is home-based in the western Pacific.

The DF 21D is unique in that it is believed capable of hitting a powerfully defended moving target — like the USS George Washington — with pinpoint precision. That objective is so complex that the Soviets gave up on a similar project.

The missile would penetrate defenses because its speed from launch would not allow enough time for carriers or other large ships to complete countermeasures.

That could seriously weaken Washington's ability to intervene in any potential conflict over Taiwan or North Korea, as well as deny U.S. ships safe access to international waters near China's 11,200-mile (18,000-kilometer) -long coastline.

Van Buskirk, whose fleet is responsible for most of the Pacific and Indian oceans, with 60-70 ships and 40,000 sailors and Marines under its command, said the capabilities of the Chinese missile are as yet unproven. But he acknowledged it does raise special concerns.

"Any new capability is something that we try to monitor," he said.

"If there wasn't this to point to as a game changer, there would be something else," he said. "That term has been bandied about for many things. I think it really depends in how you define the game, whether it really changes it or not. It's a very specific scenario for a very specific capability — some things can be very impactful."

The development of the missile comes as China is increasingly venturing further out to sea and is becoming more assertive around its coastline and in disputes over territory.

Late last year, China and Japan were locked in a heated diplomatic row over several islands both claim in the East China Sea, an area regularly patrolled by U.S. Navy vessels. A flotilla of 10 Chinese warships, including advanced submarines and destroyers, passed through the Miyako Strait last April in the biggest transit of its kind to date.

Experts saw it as an attempt by China to test Japan and the United States and demonstrate its open water capabilities.

China has also expressed strong displeasure with U.S. carrier operations off the Korean Peninsula, saying that they posed a security risk to its capital.

Still, van Buskirk said the Navy has no intention of altering its mission because of the new threat and will continue to operate in the seas around Japan, Korea, the Philippines and anywhere else it deems necessary.

"We won't change these operations because of this specific technology that might be out there," he told The AP while the USS George Washington was in its home port just south of Tokyo for repairs last week. "But we will carefully monitor and adapt to it."

The faster-than-expected development of the missile has set off alarm bells in Washington. Further, China is developing a stealth fighter jet that could be used to support its navy in a potential conflict and hopes to deploy its first aircraft carriers over the next decade.

Before visiting Beijing last month, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he has been concerned about the anti-ship missile since he took office.

In December, Adm. Robert Willard, the head of the U.S. Pacific Command, told Japan's Asahi Shimbun newspaper he believed the missile program had achieved "initial operational capability," meaning a workable design had been settled on and was being further developed.

The missile is considered a key component of China's strategy of denying U.S. planes and ships access to waters off its coast. The strategy includes overlapping layers of air defense systems, naval assets such as submarines, and advanced ballistic missile systems — all woven together with a network of satellites.

At its most capable, the DF 21D could be launched from land with enough accuracy to penetrate the defenses of even the most advanced moving aircraft carrier at a distance of more than 900 miles (1,500 kilometers).

To allay regional security fears, van Buskirk said, China needs to be more forthcoming about its intentions.

"It goes back to transparency," he said. "Using the United States as an example, we are very clear about our intent when conducting routine and normal operations in international waters ... That is what you might expect from other nations that might operate in this region.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Chinese Stealth Fighter J-20 On Air

BEIJING—The first clear pictures of what appears to be a Chinese stealth fighter prototype have been published online, highlighting China's military buildup just days before U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates heads to Beijing to try to repair defense ties.

The photographs, published on several unofficial Chinese and foreign defense-related websites, appear to show a J-20 prototype making a high-speed taxi test—usually one of the last steps before an aircraft makes its first flight—according to experts on aviation and China's military.

The exact origin of the photographs is unclear, although they appear to have been taken by Chinese enthusiasts from the grounds of or around the Chengdu Aircraft Design Institute in western China, where the J-20 is in development. A few experts have suggested that the pictured aircraft is a mock-up, rather than a functioning prototype of a stealth fighter—so-called because it is designed to evade detection by radar and infrared sensors.

But many more experts say they believe the pictures and the aircraft are authentic, giving the strongest indication yet that Beijing is making faster-than-expected progress in developing a rival to the U.S. F-22—the world's only fully operational stealth fighter.

China's defense ministry and air force couldn't be reached to comment on the latest photos. Even without official confirmation, however, the photographs are likely to bolster concerns among U.S. officials and politicians about China's military modernization, which also includes the imminent deployment of its first aircraft carrier and "carrier-killer" antiship ballistic missiles.

Such weapons systems would significantly enhance China's ability to hinder U.S. intervention in a conflict over Taiwan, and challenge U.S. naval supremacy in the Asia-Pacific region.

Gen. He Weirong, deputy head of China's Air Force, announced in 2009 that China's first stealth fighters were about to undergo test flights and would be deployed in "eight or 10 years." But there was no clear physical evidence of their existence until the latest photographs emerged.

Chinese authorities who monitor Internet traffic in the country appear not to have tried to block the J-20 pictures.

"The photos I've seen look genuine," said Gareth Jennings, aviation desk editor at Jane's Defence Weekly.

"It's pretty far down the line," he said. "The fact that its nose wheel is off the ground in one picture suggest this was a high-speed taxi test—that usually means a test flight very soon afterwards. All the talk we've heard is that this could happen some time in the next few weeks."

U.S. officials played down Chinese advances on the plane, which American intelligence agencies believe will likely be operational around 2018. "We are aware that the Chinese have recently been conducting taxi tests and there are photos of it," said Pentagon spokesman Col. David Lapan. "We know they are working on a fifth-generation fighter but progress appears to be uneven."

Col. Lapan said it appears the Chinese are still seeking engines for a fourth-generation fighter from Russia, an indication that they are "still encountering problems" with development work toward the fifth-generation aircraft, the J-20.

But the 2018 estimate suggests U.S. officials believe China's development of the fifth-generation fighter has accelerated. In 2009, Mr. Gates predicted that China wouldn't deploy a fifth-generation fighter until 2020. U.S. officials said the latest disclosures wouldn't affect any U.S. aircraft-development programs.

China has made rapid progress in developing a capability to produce advanced weapons, also including unmanned aerial vehicles, after decades of importing and reverse engineering Russian arms. The photographs throw a fresh spotlight on the sensitive issue of China's military modernization just as Washington and Beijing try to improve relations following a series of public disputes in 2010.

Defense Secretary Gates is due to begin a long-delayed visit to Beijing on Sunday—almost exactly a year after China suspended military ties in protest over U.S. arms sales to Taiwan.

China's President Hu Jintao is then due to begin a state visit to the U.S. on Jan. 19. President Barack Obama joined in preparatory talks at the White House on Tuesday between his national security adviser, Tom Donilon, and Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi. During the meeting, Mr. Obama said he was committed to building a bilateral relationship that is "cooperative in nature," the White House said.

The two countries clashed last year over issues including the value of the Chinese currency, China's territorial claims in the South China Sea and vocal U.S. support for a jailed Chinese dissident who won the Nobel Peace Prize.

The U.S. was also frustrated by China's refusal to condemn two North Korean attacks on South Korea, while Beijing was angered by a U.S. decision to respond to the second attack, the shelling of a South Korean island in November, by sending an aircraft carrier to take part in joint naval exercises with Seoul near China's coast.

The U.S. and its Asian allies have also been alarmed by China's naval maneuvers and more forceful stance on territorial issues, while China's military strategists have accused the U.S. of trying to "contain" China—most recently by sending two more aircraft carriers to the region in December.

"The U.S. wants to retain its global hegemony and also preserve its regional interests. It is not comfortable with China's military rise," Senior Col. Han Xudong, a professor at China's National Defense University, was quoted as saying in the Global Times newspaper Tuesday.

Experts who said they thought the photographs were authentic included Andrei Chang of the Canadian-based Kanwa Asian Defence Monthly, and Richard Fisher, an expert on the Chinese military at the International Strategy and Assessment Center in Washington.

Several experts said the prototype's body appeared to borrow from the F-22 and other U.S. stealth aircraft, but they couldn't tell from the photographs how advanced it was in terms of avionics, composite materials or other key aspects of stealth technology.

They said that China was probably several years behind Russia, whose first stealth fighter, the Sukhoi T-50, made its first flight in January 2010, but that Beijing was catching up faster than expected.

The U.S. cut funding for the F-22 in 2009 in favor of the F-35, a smaller, cheaper stealth fighter that made its first test flight in 2006 and is expected to be fully deployed by around 2014. The F-22 has mainly been used for exercises and operations around U.S. airspace, but some have been deployed to Guam and Okinawa to help maintain the U.S. security umbrella in the Asia-Pacific region.

The Chinese prototype looks like it has "the potential to be a competitor with the F-22 and to be decisively superior to the F-35," said Mr. Fisher. The J-20 has two engines, like the F-22, and is about the same size, while the F-35 is smaller and has only one engine.

China's stealth-fighter program has implications also for Japan, which is considering buying F-35s, and for India, which last month firmed up a deal with Russia to jointly develop and manufacture a stealth fighter.