A Chinese-built J-10 fighter jet is displayed Nov. 28 outside the Beijing offices of the Aviation Industry Corp. of China. Asia's neighbors have raised concerns about China's growing military strength. (MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images)
SINGAPORE — The Asia Pacific Security Conference debated a wide range of policy and modernization issues that are causing consternation and confusion in the region.
The conference, held in conjunction with the Singapore Airshow, looked at the dynamics and role that air power plays in Asian security.
Territorial disputes in the South China Sea and East China Sea have resurrected recently with a vengeance, said Barry Desker, dean of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, here. China’s rising military is a force to be “reckoned with,” he said.
A mix of complex factors that include the US Air Sea Battle concept and Asia strategic rebalance, together with China’s anti-access/area-denial strategy, further complicates this.
China’s rise will cause friction for regional countries, said Peter Ho, senior adviser, Centre for Strategic Futures, here. Areas of friction are the South China Sea, Northeast Asia, rising nationalism and the introduction of stealth fighter jets.
Another factor is population growth in the region, minus that of Japan, said Chan Chun Sing, Singapore’s second minister of defense.
“We are living in interesting times,” he said, as unchecked population growth increases competition among nations for resources. Further, this could undermine regional security, but “the key to solving these problems is leadership that will not succumb to nationalistic pressures and leaders who do not fall into the ‘might is right’ trap,” he said.
Chan, who retired as Singapore’s Army chief in 2011, said Asia spends more money than Europe on arms. There is a growing temptation to use air power to project supremacy during disputes, he said.
“A tactical miscalculation can spin out of control,” he said. “We need to network, communicate and exercise together.”
Chan cited Singapore’s annual Shangri-La Dialogue, put on by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies and the Asia Pacific Security Conference, as examples of dialogue that produces positive results. He warned that “poor military leadership can place political leaders in difficult positions.”
The Asia Pacific Security Conference, held the day before the start of the Singapore Airshow, was divided into two panels.
The first re-examined Sino-American strategies and implications for regional security. No bilateral relationship affects Asian security more than the emerging competition between China and the US.
Increasingly, this rivalry is taking on an unpleasant military dimension. If Asia is increasingly the theater for this contest, how will it affect security for other nations in the region?
At the same time, China and the US share many common security concerns in the region, including the Korean peninsula, sea lines of communication, territorial disputes in the East China and South China seas, and differing interpretations of the rule of law.
There also is the ambiguity in military policy and doctrine on the part of both China and the US, said Richard Bitzinger, senior fellow and coordinator of the Military Transformations Program at the Rajaratnam School.
China’s opaque system makes it nearly impossible to “fully fathom Chinese strategic intentions,” he said. “More to the point, its military modernization efforts of the past decade have been extremely worrisome, mostly because Beijing has done such a poor job justifying its actions to the outside world.”
The US is equally to blame, Bitzinger said, for failing to fully explain the meaning of its “return to Asia” or “pivot.”
“Even more disturbing is the whole issue of the US military’s so-called Air Sea Battle,” which the US military has embraced as a “novel approach to warfare intended to counter 21st century threats,” he said.
Central to the Air Sea Battle concept is overcoming the emergence of “anti-access/area-denial” challenges that threaten the operational freedom of the US Navy and Air Force. This would entail pre-emptive, standoff precision strike or networked, integrated attacks-in-depth. Both are are basically “blinding campaigns,” Bitzinger said.
This would mean US military forces would have to attack China’s air defenses and attack capabilities through stealthy long-range platforms, and conduct follow-on operations, such as “distant blockades,” to seize the operational initiative.
The US further upsets regional confidence by claiming the Air Sea Battle concept has nothing to do with China, he said. A case of denial exists inside the Air Sea Battle concept that fails to identify in a transparent fashion the true driver of Air Sea Battle discussions and debates; that is, China.
“Many US allies in the region are justifiably wary of Air Sea Battle, for instance, to a large part because the US has not clarified the link between Air Sea Battle and its ‘rebalancing strategy’ in the Asia-Pacific region, nor what particular aspects of Air Sea Battle will be relevant for future allied interoperability requirements and involvement,” Bitzinger said.
“Would the US really initiate deep strikes on Chinese territory, and, if so, under what conditions?” Bitzinger said. “How scalable is Air Sea Battle as a response, and how believable might Air Sea Battle be as a deterrent or response to lesser forms of Chinese aggression?”
Ruan Zongze, vice president of the China Institute of International Affairs, Beijing, said more needs to be done to communicate with each other. Ruan pointed out that 2014 marks the 35th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic ties between Beijing and Washington. This changed strategic relations in the region, he said.
Today, military-to-military relations are the most vulnerable of all US-China relations, but in 2013, there was a significant improvement, and this year, China will participate in the Rim of the Pacific exercise, the largest naval exercise in the world.
Ruan suggested the “rebalance” had encouraged US allies in the region to “pick a fight” with China over territorial claims in the East China and South China seas. Further, “China has every right to put forward an air defense identification zone in the South China Sea [as it did recently in the East China Sea], but I don’t think its part of the plan right now.” Ruan made no mention of Taiwan in his speech.
The second panel focused on airpower modernization trends and the impact of new technologies, like fifth-generation fighters, air-carried precision-guided weaponry, new sensors, and the means of fusing and distributing information.
Richard Aboulafia, a vice president with Teal Group, said there is debate in Asia over upgrading fourth-generation fighters or investing in fifth-generation aircraft.
“This is a budgetary tension that’ll exist for the time being,” he said.
Countries such as South Korea, Japan, Singapore and Australia will debate whether to have a smaller air force with procurements of costly F-35s, or to operate a larger air force with new fourth-generation fighters and/or upgrades to existing aircraft.
Any talk about avoiding the higher costs of complex fighters by procuring unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs) is beginning to change, he said. The more capable the UCAV becomes, the closer it comes to a fighter’s price tag.
China’s unveiling of the fifth-generation J-20 and J-31, real or not, was a pivotal moment in everyone’s perception of China, Aboulafia said.
A fifth-generation fighter, such as the F-35 or F-22, has the potential for solving a variety of problems, including unsolved Air Sea Battle issues, the tyranny of distance, volatility and the need for greater situational awareness, he said. This is one reason Australia, Singapore, Japan, South Korea and even Taiwan want the F-35, and why China is trying to play catch-up with its J-20/31 prototypes.
Mark Lorell, a senior political scientist with Rand Corp., said that despite US defense budget cuts, key air power programs will survive, such as the F-35; F-16 combat avionics programmed extension suite (CAPES) upgrades; upgrades to the B-1, B-2 and B-52 bombers; and acquisition of the KC-46A aerial refueling plane.
Aboulafia agreed because these are necessary programs, though they might be stretched or delayed.
Lorell said money for these US Air Force programs, along with future programs, will come from retiring the A-10 Warthog combat jet and older F-16s, transferring missions and aircraft to the Reserve and Air National Guard, overhauling and reforming the acquisition system, stretching the F-35, and what is now a noticeable decline in US congressional commitment to budget sequestration.
Key US programs in the works include a long-range strike/next-generation bomber, F-35, KC-46A tanker, T-X trainer jet to replace the T-38, Unmanned Carrier-Launched Surveillance and Strike aircraft, next-generation long-range standoff munitions, low-observable penetrating UAVs, and the US Navy’s P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft. These will most likely continue, Lorell said.
Further, he said he expects a sixth-generation fighter program and new C2ISR land, air and space assets within the next 10 years as new starts. ■