|Photo Credit: Flight Global|
As is typical with China's annual defense budget announcement, there were no details about specific programs. China is, however, engaged in a major effort to upgrade both its air force as well as the aviation arm of its navy. The Peoples' Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) continues to replace older types with the Chengdu J-10 and Shenyang J-11, as well as the Sukhoi Su-30. It is also reportedly interested in obtaining the Su-35 from Russia.
China is also adding modern helicopters, improving its airlift capabilities, and improving niche, but essential, capabilities such as airborne early warning and control. Meanwhile, development continues on the J-20, a large aircraft optimized for low observability that analysts feel is well suited to the long-range strike role. Rumors abound on Chinese aviation web sites of one or more development programs for advanced fighters that have low observability characteristics.
The Peoples' Liberation Army Navy is also in the process of developing its aviation arm. The aircraft-carrier capable J-15, a local copy of the Su-33, is still undergoing testing. It will eventually be deployed on the former Soviet carrier Varyag, which is now undergoing sea trials after being re-fitted in Dalian. In 2011, photographs emerged of a Shaanxi Y-8 transport aircraft that was modified for the maritime patrol and anti-submarine warfare role.
Apart from developing advanced capabilities, a good deal of any R&D funding is bound to go towards developing reliable fighter engines, so that China can reduce its heavy dependence on Russian engines. It will also continue to develop aircraft sensors and precision weapons. Richard Bitzinger, senior fellow of the Military Transformations Programme at Singapore's Rajaratnam School of International Studies, believes that about 10% of China's overall budget for 2012 will be spent on aircraft procurement and R&D.
He notes that in defense white papers, China has indicated that its budget is divided roughly between three main areas: personnel, operations, and procurement (which also includes R&D).
He dismisses the often-cited belief that China's military spending is up to double the stated figure. "It is one thing when you have an official budget of $10 billion and another $10 billion is off the books, but going from $100 billion to $200 billion is much bigger." Given the ambiguities around China's defense spending and its increasing stridency with regard to territorial claims in the South China and East China Sea, its neighbors will likely continue acquiring new aircraft and upgrade existing types, namely the Lockheed Martin F-16,
At the recent Singapore Airshow, a senior executive at a major US defense contractor said that nations do not buy capabilities for the threats they face today, but as insurance against possible threats in 10-15 years.