China's test flight of a prototype stealth fighter will help insulate U.S. weapons spending against deeper cuts sought by deficit hawks and add momentum to efforts by Defense Secretary Robert Gates to redirect precious budget dollars to future threats.
After years of shining a laser-like focus on winning "today's wars," Gates shifted gears when he mapped out spending cuts and new investment priorities in the 2012 budget at a marathon news conference earlier this month.
Funding for a new generation of long-range nuclear bombers, new electronic jammers and radar, and rockets to launch satellites would help the U.S. military maintain its competitive edge even as China flexes its growing military muscle, Gates told reporters during his recent trip to Asia.
Revival of those projects -- which Gates largely halted in April 2009 -- would be good news for big U.S. defense companies like Lockheed Martin Corp, Boeing Co and Northrop Grumman Corp, which are scrambling for new work now that defense spending is beginning to taper off.
For the past two years, Gates had focused -- perhaps too much -- on land wars while deferring investments in long-term capabilities aimed more at possible enemies like China, said Patrick Cronin at the Center for a New American Security.
"You have to walk and chew gum at the same time," he said, adding, "Gates may have tilted too far, but he has indeed made some adjustments with this latest plan."
U.S. defense officials say the fiscal 2012 budget plan, which was nearly a year in the making, is not a knee jerk reaction to China's military buildup, and Pentagon budgets have factored in Chinese military ambitions for many years.
The new budget reflects a swing of the pendulum toward future challenges now that the U.S. military has begun pulling troops out of Iraq and has set 2014 as a date for withdrawal from Afghanistan, said the officials.
THREAT POTENT, BUT CHINA NOT "10 FEET TALL"
Defense officials also caution against overplaying the importance of China's J-20 stealth fighter and a new anti-ship ballistic missile since both still need years of testing. China also lacks an integrated intelligence and surveillance system and anti-submarine warfare weapons, they say.
"We see them progressing rather dramatically across a variety of areas. But ... I don't view them as 10 feet tall," Vice Admiral David Dorsett, director of naval intelligence, told reporters earlier this month.
A top Chinese official agreed, writing in a recent Foreign Affairs Review article that the United States would remain "unbeatable for the next 20 to 30 years."
Despite warnings to keep the Chinese threat in perspective, experts say defense contractors and lawmakers seeking to keep manufacturing jobs in their districts could still capitalize on fears for their own gain.
William Hartung, author of "The Prophets of War: Lockheed Martin and the Making of the Military-Industrial Complex," said China's military buildup would be used to justify continued U.S. investment in big-ticket weapons.
"A lot of it is just institutions within the military and the contracting community trying to keep money flowing in the style to which they've become accustomed," he said.
Lockheed has already said news of the J-20 could fuel demand for its stealthy F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, and some Lockheed backers are urging the Pentagon to reexamine its cancellation of Lockheed's stealthy F-22 fighter last year.
"Having recently reversed himself on the bomber ... the defense secretary also needs to revisit his decision on F-22," wrote Loren Thompson of the Virginia-based Lexington Institute, who is also a consultant to Lockheed.
Republican Representative Randy Forbes met with nine other members of the Congressional China Caucus Tuesday to share concerns about China's new "carrier killer" missile.
He said lawmakers would need more data on how the Pentagon's proposed spending cuts would affect the U.S. military's ability to respond to China before approving Gates' spending cuts.
"This is a democracy and Congress should be part of that dialogue," Forbes said.
He questioned the decision to halt production of the F-22 at 187 planes and focus on the less capable F-35, noting that some military experts had concluded that China's J-20 could be "decisively superior" to the F-35.
Shutting the F-22 production line meant the United States could no longer "produce them if we want to," he said.