Senior U.S. officials told a House panel on Jan. 13 that China continues modernizing its missile, naval and fighter aircraft arsenals at a rapid rate, but they raised new concerns about the Asian giant's efforts to develop new offensive cyber and space assets.
"U.S. military and government networks and computer systems continue to be the target of intrusions that appear to have originated from within [the Peoples' Republic of China]," Adm. Robert Willard, U.S. Pacific Command chief, told the House Armed Services Committee. "Although most intrusions focus on exfiltrating data, the skills being demonstrated would also apply to wartime computer network attacks," he said.
Beijing shows no signs of slowing what Willard described as a decade-long "aggressive program of military modernization" tailored to "achieve campaign objectives across a broad spectrum of operations."
And increasingly, that includes new tools designed to project Chinese power across greater distances, striking American information networks, and developing what the Pentagon believes are offensive space systems, according to Willard and Wallace Gregson, assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific security affairs.
China's Peoples' Liberation Army is making "significant strides" in developing cyberwarfare concepts that range from defending Chinese networks to conducting "offensive operations against adversary networks," Gregson told the committee.
The latter, he said, is seen by the Pentagon as part of a broader effort by Beijing "of developing an advanced information warfare capability to establish control of an adversary's information flow and maintain dominance of the battlespace."
While the officials testifying said it remains unclear if the Chinese military was behind attacks on U.S. networks that were launched from China, Gregson called such electronic strikes "consistent with authoritative PLA military writings on the subject." Beijing also is expanding its activities beyond the Earth's atmosphere, the U.S. officials told the lawmakers.
"We are seeing China's emergence as an international space power," Gregson said. "China is investing heavily in a broad range of military and dual-use space programs, including reconnaissance, navigation and timing, and communication satellites, as well as its manned program."
The PLA also is working on tools designed to deny potential foes the ability to use their own satellites, he said, via a "a robust and multidimensional counterspace program featuring direct ascent anti-satellite weapons, directed energy weapons and satellite communication jammers."
Gregson cited China's January 2007 satellite shot-down as an example of its "growing" ability to take out space systems.
The Asian power's cyber and space efforts are part of a broader military build-up Washington and the rest of the world contends remains behind Beijing's steel curtain of secrecy.
Gregson noted China's announced 2009 defense budget topped out at $70.6 billion. Pentagon brass think the number actually comes in around $150 billion, or more, Gregson said.
Willard added: "The PRC's stated goals of a defense-oriented military capability contributing to a 'peaceful and harmonious' Asia appear incompatible with the extent of sophisticated weaponry China produces today."
According to 2009 data the Pacific Command chief presented the House committee, that weaponry includes 27 destroyers, 48 frigates, more than 70 patrol crafts armed with missiles, 55 amphibious vessels, 40 mine warfare ships and 50 support crafts.
What's more, "modernization programs have included development of sophisticated shipboard air defense systems, as well as supersonic sea-skimming anti-ship cruise missiles," Willard said.
China also possesses what he called "the largest conventional submarine force in the world, totaling more than 60 boats" to go along with "a number of" nuclear-powered fast attack and ballistic missile subs. The PLA, Willard contended, is also developing a new submarine-launched ballistic missile, the JL-2, which is "capable of reaching the West Coast of the United States."
The U.S. officials told the lawmakers China could have an operational aircraft carrier by 2012. Gregson raised concerns that "China may be interested in building multiple operational aircraft carriers by 2020."
The PLA also has a "growing number" of multimission fighter aircraft, Willard said, adding the Chinese are focused on improving pilot skills in "multiplane scenarios, including operations over water." He said China has put "considerable effort" into fielding air-to-air and anti-air systems, and has developed an anti-ship ballistic missile to target aircraft carriers.
A larger portion of the Chinese Air Force are its own F-10s and Russian-made aircraft. These fourth-generation fighters, as well as China's improved air defenses, "have reversed Taiwan's historic ability to maintain dominance of the airspace over the Taiwan Strait," Gregson said.
This reversal will be further bolstered in coming years, he said, when the PLA fields even more modern aerial combat assets, such as aerial tankers that can refuel its fighter jets.
Panel members voiced concerns about China's build-up, as well as the Pentagon's plans for combating the Asian powerhouse.
Several lawmakers questioned the executive branch officials on whether the Obama administration was taking the potential threat from China's military seriously enough. Others sounded alarms about Beijing's recent moves to purchase control of vast amounts of the resources key to America's economic might, including rare earth minerals and oil.
The witnesses did not directly answer many of those queries, taking several, including one on rare earths, for the record.