Washington and Beijing continue to eye each other warily as they try to assess if the other is a friend and potential ally or a politically unpredictable and culturally confusing foe.

Distrust is generated by two factors—the uncertainly of world politics and the speed with which technology is changing.

“I would be a lot happier if I knew exactly the intent [of the Chinese,]” says U.S. Air Force Gen. (ret.) Bruce Carlson, director of the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO). “Theirs is an incredibly modern society, with a military philosophy that goes back 4,000 years. They believe in deception, so I remain concerned.”

A development of great interest is China's organization of a nascent fourth fleet that is to include the nation's primary offensive maritime force of aircraft carriers, air defense ships, submarines and high-speed transports. The new fleet—an independent strike force—is under direct command of the Central Military Commission, which makes it a strategic asset on a par with the Army's ballistic missile force.

“The [Pacific] region presents significant security challenges,” agrees Gen. Gary North, commander of Pacific Air Forces. “Notable in that [prediction] is what capability [is needed] over time to face China's increasing engagement and its expansive claims into the South China Sea. Recent incidents have raised tensions among the countries that lay claim [to the largely unpopulated, but mineral-rich area],” he says.

“I also wish I knew North Korea's intent,” Carlson says. “They are very clever and work hard to deceive us. They are always [readying another surprise]. I have a full-time liaison with the combatant forces [in Asia and the Pacific] to make sure they have every product [they need]. We also work hard with the Global Hawks and U-2s to help [the troops focus] their efforts.”

The U.S., for example, wants to track exports of sophisticated weapons from China and nuclear and ballistic missile technology from North Korea.

The U.S. capability in greatest demand for this type of situation is advanced intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) gathering. That category of assets includes next-generation manned and unmanned bomber and strike airborne platforms. The manned aircraft are expected to serve as standoff intelligence gatherers, while unmanned designs will shoulder the task of penetrating sophisticated detection systems to collect even more-detailed information. Cyberprobing and mapping of foreign networks—which also can be conducted from aircraft—will be one of the new staples of ISR, and, of course, all that gathered intelligence must be fused and retransmitted in real time.

“The need to share [intelligence] is absolute,” says Letitia Long, director of the National Geo-Spatial Intelligence Agency (NGA). “We learned our lesson from 9/11, where we weren't sharing some information for myriad technical, cultural, legal and policy reasons. We [must share] if we're going to stay ahead of the opposition.

“Where we're driving to [in intelligence analysis] is 'one infrastructure, one desktop' so [an analyst] can log in at the National Security Agency, Defense Intelligence Agency, NRO or NGA from any location and have access to everything for easily collaboration,” Long says.

But concerns about China aren't limited to the South and East Chinas seas. U.S. commanders regard China's actions in the Pacific and Africa as sending mixed messages—sometimes threatening, sometimes helpful. U.S. officials focused on Africa believe the Chinese are acting more responsibly than the Russians when it comes to selling advanced military technologies.

Many of China's military imports to Africa—usually paid for with energy exports—are actually products that help the nations involved and are approved of by the U.S.

“It is very clear that the Chinese are engaged in supporting African militaries with equipment, but I don't see that as a military competition between us and China,” says Army Gen. Carter Ham, chief of U.S. Africa Command. “For example, the Chinese have provided the Democratic Republic of Congo a number of riverine [water] craft for their security forces. I think that's helpful. A number of African countries [also] fly Chinese aircraft and operate maritime patrol vessels.”

By comparison, Russian companies have sold top-of-the-line SA-24 man-portable air-defense missile systems (Manpads) to Libya and SA-18s to Eritrea that were subsequently supplied to Somali rebels, who used them to shoot down cargo aircraft. As to Chinese sales of arms to Libya, the evidence is murky.

“It's uncertain whether China was involved in arms sales to Libya,” Ham says. “The Chinese have been asked. I don't know the response. I don't know of any specific instances of the Chinese introducing Manpads to Africa. I know China and other nations have been asked to report sales to allow establishment of an accurate baseline.”

In the forefront of Washington's ISR buildup in the Pacific is the new reconnaissance Hawk facility at Andersen AFB, Guam, where three Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawks are the only operational aircraft permanently stationed on the island. Planners intend to further upgrade capabilities with introduction of the Block 40 aircraft, which carries the MP-RTIP active, electronically scanned array radar (AESA).

“There's a lot of water out here, [so] it pays to have the best technology,” says General North. “If you can contribute and fuse information into a database that can facilitate tracking surface platforms, we are enhancing our capability. So we're anticipating what the MP-RTIP [offers for] day-to-day operations.”

The Guam-based unit will receive the Block 40s in fiscal 2014 and take responsibility for working out the tactics, techniques and procedures for the new sensors. However, the technology will not be linked to a specific situation such as monitoring the disputed South and East China seas.

“Any synthetic-aperture-generated capability for identifying moving objects on the ground or at sea enhances a commander's ability to [offer] a more-effective mission set and [deliver] more situational awareness,” North says. As to flexibility of basing, “We have the processes in place if we have to put an airplane into a non-primary location for any reason,” he says.

For now, Global Hawk is ideally situated at Andersen because of the unmanned aircraft's long range and Guam's status as the western-most extent of sovereign U.S. territory, Air Force officials say. It is also ideally positioned to foster joint operations with the Navy's unmanned MQ-4C and manned P-8 patrol aircraft.

“I think they have the operational capability to be interchangeable,” North says. “We are already working on how we will interleave and interoperate the platforms . . . to ensure the coverage needed from a theater-wide perspective.”

Other intelligence sources also span the manned-unmanned gap. The AESA will be part of the advanced radars and electronic-attack systems.

“AESA [arrays] across the fleet are going to give us enhanced capabilities,” North says. “In the fighter fleet, particularly, they will allow us to do 21st-century targeting and improve our electronic capabilities as we [watch] development of our adversaries' countermeasures and electronic jamming.”

Global Hawk's long endurance solves a lot of problems for operational commanders.

“You don't have to put the Global Hawk forward to do the mission set,” North contends. “It stays airborne for more than 30 hours. If we need to, we can conduct a demonstration [someplace more distant] or divert to an alternate location and fly it out of there on demand.”

Having Global Hawk on Guam also would allow South Koreans to train with the U.S. if the Asian nation completes its plans to introduce the advanced UAS into its air force.

Seoul is negotiating for delivery of four Global Hawks in 2015-16 as part of a $850 million sale. The Missile Technology Control Regime complications were avoided because the Global Hawk is never armed, a stipulation of many countries and one that allows the U.S. to use foreign bases and airspace. In fact, Japan requested Global Hawk surveillance of areas affected by a devastating earthquake, tidal wave and nuclear meltdown last year.

“The key part of that was the information sharing,” North says. “The data was rapidly fused into U.S. forces, Japan and the Japanese leadership.