2014-06-23 By Richard Weitz
The most recent Defense Department report on Chinese military power describes a comprehensive and unrelenting buildup of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
The sheer magnitude of this buildup should, if continued, propel China to superpower status in a few decades. This buildup occurs despite Beijing’s improved relations with Taiwan and the Pentagon’s drawdown, which has led to the cancellation of various projects useful for countering Chinese military power. Overall, one recalls the observation of former U.S. Defense Secretary Harold Brown about the Soviet Union: when we build, they build, yet when we stop building, they keep going.
According to the Chinese government’s own declared figures, the PRC has the second-largest defense budget in the world, well ahead of that of Russia, Japan, or any European country.
Beijing has been annually announcing major increases in its defense spending during the past two decades. In March 2013, China declared it would spend $119.5 billion on defense, a 5.7 percent rise over the official figure for the previous year.
The Pentagon, using 2013 exchange rates and prices, estimates China’s 2013 defense budget at $145 billion, or 21 percent higher than the declared budget. The DoD figure for 2013 is also 12.2 percent higher than it offered for 2012, marking yet another double-digit rise in China’s annual defense spending.
The official Chinese defense budget figure excludes major spending categories, such as expenditures on nuclear arms, purchases of foreign weapons, and China’s military research and development.
There are also subjective factors such as how to assess purchasing power parity, China’s limited defense transparency, and how to differentiate between China’s civilian versus military sectors in a country that has many dual-used enterprises and still retains a partial command economy. In the past, this uncertainty led the Pentagon to give wide estimates for China’s actual defense spending.
The DoD now claims that U.S. intelligence has a better sense of how much China is spending on defense.
In any case, the magnitude of China’s military buildup is impressive. In terms of aggregate capabilities, the PLA continues to discard antiquated Soviet-era systems and replace them with more modern-generation weapons that allow China to project power at greater distances and with a greater impact. This buildup encompasses China’s air, sea, and ground forces and its long-range strike capabilities, which include ballistic and cruise missiles, cyber weapons, and outer space and electronic warfare systems.
The PLA Navy continues to make major acquisitions.
In 2013, the navy commissioned nine new stealthy Jiangdao-class (Type 056) corvettes armed with anti-ship cruise missiles. The vessels are designed for high maneuverability and close-to-shore combat. The PLAN is also upgrading the air defense capabilities of its guided-missile destroyers and frigates. The PLAN is deploying a new nuclear-powered attack (Type 095) and more strategic (Jin-class SSBN) submarines.
The Pentagon anticipates that Chia will commence its first SSBN deterrence patrols after it obtains its fourth Jin later this year. In addition to conducting further tests and training with the Soviet-built Liaoning aircraft carrier, the Pentagon believes that China will construct its own aircraft carriers and that the first one will become operational within the next decade.
The PLA Air Force (PLAAF) is already the third largest in the world and the largest Air Force in Asia.
According to the Pentagon, the PLAAF is aggressively modernizing “on a scale unprecedented in its history and is rapidly closing the gap with Western air forces across a broad spectrum of capabilities.” The report’s authors expect that, in the next few years, the PLAAF will transition from a force with mostly third-generation combat planes to one in which fourth-generation planes predominate. For example, the PLAAF is developing two fifth-generation planes, the J-20 and J-31.
China is also negotiating the possible purchase of Russian Sukhoi-35 Flankers along with IRBIS-E passive electronically scanned array radar systems. China may also acquire Russia’s S-400 (“Triumf”) surface-to-air defense system, which is a more advanced version of the S-300s China bought from Russia in the 1990s. These would supplement China’s indigenous SAM system, the HQ-9. Although the PLAAF lacks a strategic bomber, China is upgrading the H-6 bomber fleet with a variant (H-6K) that has a new turbofan engine and longer-range cruise missiles, giving the PLAAF “a long-range stand-off offensive capability with precision-guided munitions.”
The PLA ground forces remain the most influential of the services in terms of the Army’s General Officers holding the most senior PRC military commands.
According to the Pentagon, the Army is seeking “the ability to deploy campaign-level forces across long-distances quickly.” To this end, China has begun testing a new Y-20 military transport plane that can fly Army units farther and more quickly than China’s current fleet of Russian-made Il-76 strategic airlift planes.
Other ground-force improvements include more capable attack helicopters with precision-guided missions, improved command-and-control systems, better air-ground coordination, and “transforming from a motorized to a mechanized force.”
In addition to procurement of the Jin-class submarines, which carry the 7,400-km range JL-2 submarine ballistic missile, the PRC is taking other measures to enhance China’s nuclear deterrent.
For example, it is developing a more effective command and control systems that will give Chinese commanders more secure means to launch multiple strategic missiles simultaneously. To increase survivability, China is working on the Dong Feng-41 (DF-41), a new road-mobile ICBM that might carry as many as 10 multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles (MIRV). The DF-41 could replace the road-mobile DF-31A. Another PRC line of effort is to increase the ability of Chinese ballistic missiles to overcome adversary missile defense systems, such as those the United States is constructing with Japan, by improving the missile’s penetration aids and other means.
A major PLA procurement priority, involving “unlimited resources,” is developing more and better unmanned systems, such as reconnaissance drones.
Last year alone the PLA revealed four drone R&D programs, including three capable of carrying weapons and one (“the Lijian”) that would become China’s first stealth drone. Another priority is expanding the number and capabilities of the PLA’s cruise missiles at a time when U.S. R&D regarding defending against such weapons, or developing better U.S cruise missiles, is lagging outside the U.S. Navy. The Second Artillery command is also acquiring yet another conventionally armed medium-range ballistic missile. China is also developing offensive cyber and electronic warfare systems designed to attack adversary C4ISR systems with non-kinetic means.
Not only has each PLA service improved its major weapons systems, but the PLA has been improving its capacity to integrate these service contributions.
The Chinese military has been making its C4ISR (Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) enablers more reliable, survivable, interoperable, and integrated. For example, China tested its first rapid launch vehicle, the Kuaizhou (“quick vessel”), last year, and is developing another space launch vehicle, the LM-11, for rapidly deploying or replacing small satellites over areas of sudden interest, such as where natural disasters are occurring or where potential combat operations might occur.
China has already successfully tested the capacity to destroy satellites, and may want the means to rapidly replace its own satellites should it engage in an anti-satellite war with the United States, whose military is more reliant on space-based networks.
In terms of operations, the PLA continues to operate at ever-greater distances from Chinese territory.
Many of these developments are for benign purposes, such as combating pirates or providing humanitarian assistance/disaster relief (HA/DR). But PLAN warships can increasingly be found in the waters of the East and South China Seas, where Beijing has territorial disputes. For example, the Liaoning carrier, which entered service in September 2012, deployed to the East China and South China Seas in November 2013. Whereas Beijing previously lacked military means to enforce its claims, this is no longer the case.
The Chinese armed forces are also engaging in larger and more complex exercises and training “under realistic combat scenarios.”
One major exercise last October, titled “Maneuver-5,” included warships from all three PLAN fleets in the Philippine Sea. It was the largest PLAN open-ocean exercise ever. Last fall’s “Mission Action” exercise series involved six weeks of large multi-service drills along China’s southern and southeastern coasts. In terms of foreign exercises, Russia is the PLA’s most frequent exercise partner. The Russian military joined three of the seven bilateral and multilateral exercises that China anticipated in last year. .
China’s acquisition policies and operational practices make evident that the PLA would try to exploit the U.S. military’s heavy reliance on global communications and information support networks by developing means to attack them.
For example, the PLA would like to be able to impose a temporary “information blockade” on U.S. military forces. By impeding their access to cyber and outer space systems, the PLA would hope to degrade the U.S. Military ability to resist a Chinese military seizure of Taiwan or some other objective, presenting Washington with a fait accompli. The report relates that China has already been conducting many cyber attacks against DoD systems, presumably to probe U.S. defenses in preparation for actual battlefield operations as well as to acquire U.S. military secrets that might assist Chinese defense industries.
U.S. officials are not concerned about of any single Chinese weapon system or exercise, but by the comprehensive and sustained nature of China’s military buildup, which is having destabilizing effect in the Asia-Pacific region.
For example, the Pentagon notes that China’s growing military power has been associated with a more assertive stance regarding Beijing’s territorial disputes with Japan, the Philippines, and other countries.
The Pentagon believes that the PLA still focuses its development efforts on winning short-duration high-intensity wars in regions near China.
Like Russia, however, the Chinese have shown skill in applying coercion through means (e.g., using paramilitary naval forces such as maritime law enforcement ships) and at a level (e.g., harassment operations and creeping encroachments) that would not trigger a military response from the targeted country or the United States.
For example, last year China declared an air defense identification zone in the East China Sea as a means of bolstering its territorial claims there against Tokyo.
The PLA’s ballistic missiles, cyber capabilities, and other instruments of deterrence and disruption are giving the PLA formidable anti-access, area-denial (A2/AD) capabilities against the U.S. military.
For example, the PLA is developing space-based reconnaissance and communications systems and over-the-horizon radar capabilities that can better identify and track U.S. forces at greater distances from the Chinese shore. This longer warning time and more accurate tracking capacity could make U.S. Navy warships more vulnerable to China’s CSS-5 Mod 5 (DF-21D) anti-ship ballistic missile, which China is arming with a 1,500-km range and a maneuverable warhead.
The cross-strait military balance continues to shift against Taiwan, which is facing more than one thousand PLA short-range missiles and aircraft as well as the Chinese efforts described above to use A2/AD capabilities to impede U.S. military intervention on Taipei’s behalf.
The Pentagon also expects the Chinese Navy to acquire improved amphibious assault capabilities to address a longstanding shortfall in Beijing’s capabilities, though the PLA could also use civilian ships and planes to move soldiers to Taiwan should Beijing decide to go beyond a missile blockade or other measures short of direct PLA military occupation. Taiwan desperately needs a more modern air combat plane like the F-35 to counter China’s growing capabilities.
The author wishes to thank Justin Blaszczyk, Josepaolo Huelgas, Brittany Mannings, Liz Skokan, Lii Inn Tan, and Daniel Urchick for their research assistance on this article.