The report puts key concerns front and center: arguably, China's meteoric military progress in recent years has not simply narrowed the gap in limited niches, but has in fact pursued parity and even selective superiority to the degree that, broadly interpreted, "China is already ahead of the United States in certain areas."
My first impression is that this is the latest and greatest of the Pentagon’s China Military Power reports since their inception two decades ago. At 173 pages, it is quite possibly the longest and most substantive. A high-water mark in public analysis from the Office of the Secretary of Defense to date, it begins with a self-critical stocktaking of previous editions, yielding striking conclusions concerning the rapidity and relative comprehensiveness of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA)’s progress. This wake-up call regarding the current advanced state, and rapid forward advancement, of the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) military capabilities, should land loudly on the desk of Members of Congress and all other U.S. foreign policy and defense community stakeholders. Essential reading, indeed!
The report puts key concerns front and center: arguably, China’s meteoric military progress in recent years has not simply narrowed the gap in limited niches, but has in fact pursued parity and even selective superiority to the degree that, broadly interpreted, “China is already ahead of the United States in certain areas”:
- “Shipbuilding: The PRC has the largest navy in the world, with an overall battle force of approximately 350 ships and submarines including over 130 major surface combatants. In comparison, the U.S. Navy’s battle force is approximately 293 ships as of early 2020.
- Land-based conventional ballistic and cruise missiles: The PRC has more than 1,250 ground-launched ballistic missiles (GLBMs) and ground-launched cruise missiles (GLCMs) with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers. The United States currently fields one type of conventional GLBM with a range of 70 to 300 kilometers and no GLCMs.
- Integrated air defense systems: The PRC has one of the world’s largest forces of advanced long-range surface-to-air systems—including Russian-built S-400s, S-300s, and domestically produced systems—that constitute part of its robust and redundant integrated air defense system architecture."
One need not accept upfront the report’s assessment that “it is likely that Beijing will seek to develop a military by mid-century that is equal to—or in some cases superior to—the U.S. military, or that of any other great power that the PRC views as a threat.” But as this 7.5 MB tome documents with excruciating thoroughness the sea change in capabilities the PRC has achieved already, the following conclusion emerges cogently: “What is certain is that the CCP has a strategic end state that it is working towards, which if achieved and its accompanying military modernization left unaddressed, will have serious implications for U.S. national interests and the security of the international rules-based order.” That definitely merits the attention of all who value the peace and prosperity underwritten by the global system that has risen over seven decades from the ashes of devastating world war.
The report confirms larger achievements that have been openly visible for some time. By the overall conclusion of the report’s data compilation at the end of 2019, China had achieved:
- the world’s largest standing ground force,
- the world’s largest navy, already with 50+ ships more than its American counterpart,
- the world’s largest coast guard “by far,”
- the Indo-Pacific’s largest air forces,
- the world’s largest sub-strategic missile forces,
- one of the world’s largest and most sophisticated surface-to-air missile forces--part of an Integrated Air Defense System architecture that is “robust and redundant... over land areas and within 300 nm (556 km) of its coast,”
- and the world’s leading maritime militia.
Major Nuclear Developments:
As it has been doing for years, China is pursuing a nuclear weapons arsenal that is increasingly sophisticated, diverse, and regularly-updated. Some of the most significant examples of this pattern include the ongoing development of follow-on DF-5C and DF-31B ICBM variants. Beyond that, China’s nuclear weapons capabilities are developing in at least three big new ways.
First--as foreshadowed in a recent tweet by Secretary of Defense Dr. Mark T. Esper--the Pentagon projects that China’s nuclear warhead stockpile will “at least double in size” over the next decade from the current “low 200s.” This growing arsenal will be applied in part to the increasing of multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle (MIRV) capabilities. Meanwhile, “The number of warheads on the PRC’s land-based ICBMs capable of threatening the United States is expected to grow to roughly 200 in the next five years.” This Chinese nuclear buildup raises important questions about the significance of previously-reported items:
“China maintained a high level of activity at its Lop Nur nuclear weapons test site throughout 2019, according to the U.S. Department of State’s April 2020 Executive Summary of Findings on Adherence to and Compliance with Arms Control, Nonproliferation, and Disarmament Agreements and Commitments. The executive summary states, “China’s possible preparation to operate its Lop Nur test site year-round, its use of explosive containment chambers, extensive excavation activities at Lop Nur, and lack of transparency on its nuclear testing activities – which has included frequently blocking the flow of data from its International Monitoring System (IMS) stations to the International Data Center operated by the Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty Organization – raise concerns regarding its adherence to the ‘zero yield’ standard adhered to by the United States, United Kingdom, and France in their respective nuclear weapons testing moratoria.”
Second, China is pursuing a “nuclear triad” by developing a “nuclear-capable air-launched ballistic missile.” Such a weapon might be deployed on a succession of dual-capable bombers, first the H-6N and ultimately “the future H-20 flying wing stealth bomber.” This complements ongoing efforts to develop an undersea deterrent. Six Jin-class (Type 094) SSBNs have been built, with four going to sea and “two outfitting at Huludao Shipyard.” Neither the report itself nor Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense (DASD) for China Chad Sbragia’s earnestly engaging rollout presentation with the American Enterprise Institute was able to elaborate on the sensitive question of precisely what sort of patrols PLAN SSBNs have, or have not, engaged in thus far.
Third, China’s long-established approach of maintaining launchers, missiles, and warheads separated in peacetime may be changing in important ways, at least at the margins. The report states that “nuclear and conventional PLARF [PLA Rocket Force] brigades conduct ‘combat readiness duty’ and ‘high alert duty’ which apparently includes assigning a missile battalion to be ready to launch, and rotating to standby positions as much as monthly for unspecified periods of time. Authoritative PLA textbooks on strategy state ‘high alert duty’ is valuable for the defender in a nuclear war, recommending the PLARF adopt a high alert posture conceptually comparable to the claimed high alert posture kept by portions of U.S. and Russian nuclear forces, and that such a posture is compatible with the PRC’s active defense concept, NFU policy, and post-strike response approach.”
Additionally, public photos document the development of new missile silos, part of a broader set of indications that China “intends to increase the peacetime readiness of its nuclear forces by moving to a launch-on-warning (LOW) posture with an expanded silo-based force.” The report reasons as follows: “Commercial imagery from 2019 has revealed that China has constructed an ICBM silo at one of the PLARF’s Western training ranges that is smaller than China’s existing CSS-4 (DF-5) silos. According to state media, the CSS-X-20 (DF-41) ICBM can be launched from silos; this site is probably being used to at least develop a concept of operations for silo basing this system. There are also some indications that China may be building new CSS-4 (DF-5) ICBM silos.”
A Rocket Force to Be Reckoned With:
China’s enormous world-class rocket forces have benefitted, from, among other things, more ballistic missile testing and training launches “than the rest of the world combined” in 2019. The clear implication: watch that space!
Straddling the nuclear and conventional realm, itself a concerning area of growing emphasis for China, is the DF-26 intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM). It is designed to be able to attack both land targets (e.g., military facilities on Guam) and sea targets (e.g., a carrier strike group operating in the region). Intriguingly, the report states: “PRC strategists have highlighted the need for lower-yield nuclear weapons in order to increase the deterrence value of China’s nuclear force without defining specific nuclear yield values. A 2017 defense industry publication indicated a lower-yield weapon had been developed for use against campaign and tactical targets that would reduce collateral damage. The DF26 is China’s first nuclear-capable missile system that can conduct precision strikes, and therefore, is the most likely weapon system to field a lower-yield warhead in the near-term.” The author is neither able to find any open sources that elaborate on this point, nor is surprised at their apparent paucity or difficulty to access.
The inventory of this versatile, highly advanced missile is growing rapidly. In this regard, the following line from the report should grab policy-makers’ attention: “The PLA has fielded approximately 200 IRBM launchers and more than 200 missiles.” Since the only other PRC missiles universally-recognized as true IRBMs by range would be the few if any remaining DF-3s, it is reasonable to assume that the vast majority of these 200 IRBMs are DF-26s. That single system’s dominance of China’s arsenal within that set of operationally-important range parameters would seem to represent great confidence in it--no need to hedge Beijing’s bets with multiple types with broadly overlapping capabilities. It would represent extraordinarily fast production and deployment in highly-consequential numbers, itself a related sign of confidence, of a leading-edge weapons system.
The potential ramifications are nothing short of explosive: if China can successfully operate so many advanced missiles within that range category, it could well pursue a targeting doctrine that employed additional numbers of missiles fired to compensate for any remaining limitations in their accuracy. That math already has the potential to look problematic. Unfortunately, given its world-leading missile production capabilities and asymmetric advantage in making the most of them, it is scarcely plausible that China stopped producing DF-26s at the end of 2019. As early as next year’s report, we may receive worrisome news of further brigades’ worth of missiles added to the PLARF’s DF-26 arsenal.
Should China’s DF-26 inventory grow significantly larger still, what will the related operational equations look like then? At what point might exchange ratios begin to look so unforgiving for U.S. and allied navies as to impose highly-disruptive psychological effects of their own? U.S. officials will need to get out ahead of this potential crisis with solid answers to China’s missile challenge and the questions that it may soon generate. If there is one issue revealed in the report that policy-makers should follow up on immediately, this is arguably the one!
This raises a related point: given its determination to increasingly deter and thereby effectively restrict U.S. Navy operations along China’s contested maritime periphery and its Indo-Pacific approaches, it is no coincidence that the PRC has developed and deployed two major anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBMs): the DF-26 and DF-21D.
Consider their potential complementarity, as detailed by the Department of Defense: “The DF-21D has a range exceeding 1,500 km, is fitted with a maneuverable reentry vehicle (MARV) warhead, and is claimed to be capable of rapidly reloading in the field. The PLARF continues to grow its inventories of DF-26 IRBM, which it first revealed in 2015 and fielded in 2016. The multirole DF-26 is designed to rapidly swap conventional and nuclear warheads and is capable of conducting precision strikes in the Western Pacific, the Indian Ocean, and the South China Sea from mainland China.”
If Beijing increasingly believes that it has real prospects of targeting effectively U.S. and allied vessels (1) out to the First Island Chain with the DF-21D and (2) out to the Second Island Chain in the Western Pacific as well as into the Indian Ocean with the DF-26, what will be the ramifications? (My hunch: some increasingly strong version of “not good.”) All the more reason to digest and address the report’s key findings with alacrity.
Returning to the subject of China’s emphasis on systems that risk blurring the distinction between conventional and nuclear capabilities, particularly in complex real-time scenarios, the PLA Rocket Force is clearly investing heavily in hypersonic glide vehicles. In crisis conditions, the rapid maneuvering capabilities of such systems may frustrate the ready determination of precisely where they were launched from; and hence whether it was by a brigade known to have conventional or nuclear weapons (or both). Specifically, “China has placed a heavy emphasis on developing and testing hypersonic glide vehicles. In August 2018, China successfully tested the XINGKONG-2 (Starry Sky-2), which it publicly described as a hypersonic waverider vehicle. The PLARF also paraded the DF-17 missile for the first time as part of the PRC’s 70th anniversary parade in 2019”.
Tidal Waves: Naval and Other Overwater Capabilities:
Thanks to impressive shipbuilding, one of three areas of advantage for China emphasized upfront in the report, China has the world’s largest navy numerically at 350 ships. This is already at least four dozen more than the U.S. Navy, even if the equivalent figure of 293 that the report cites is replaced with the service’s current official figure of closer to 300 total deployable battle force ships. Moreover, the PLA Navy (PLAN) is not simply running up the numbers with flotillas of small craft: its total of 350 warships includes “more than 130 major surface combatants” (44).
And quality is riding shotgun with quantity. Consider the following analysis regarding the aforementioned major surface combatants: “The PLAN remains engaged in a robust shipbuilding program for surface combatants, producing new guided-missile cruisers (CGs), guided-missile destroyers (DDGs) and corvettes (FFLs). These assets will significantly upgrade the PLAN’s air defense, anti-ship, and antisubmarine capabilities and will be critical as the PLAN expands its operations beyond the range of the PLA’s shore-based air defense systems. In December 2019, China launched the sixth Renhai class cruiser (Type 055) and was set to commission the first hull of the class in early 2020. The Renhai [will] carry a large load out of weapons including ASCMs [anti-ship cruise missiles], surface-to-air missiles (SAMs), and anti-submarine weapons along with likely LACMs [land-attack cruise missiles] and ...ASBMs... when those become operational.” Recall the previous discussion of China’s DF-21D and DF-26 ASBMs, and now imagine multiple large PLAN warships with some form of ASBMs (even if range-limited by shipboard size restrictions) among their weapons load-outs.
Cruise missiles are a similarly potent area of emphasis for China: “The PLAN continues to emphasize anti-surface warfare capabilities in its force development. The PLAN’s frigates and FFLs [light frigates], as well as modernized older combatants, carry variants of the YJ-83/YJ83J ASCM (97 nm, 180 km), while newer surface combatants such as the Luyang II class DDGs [destroyers] are fitted with the YJ-62 (215 nm, 400 km). The Luyang III class DDGs and the Renhai class CGs [guided-missile cruisers] will be fitted with a variant of China’s newest ASCM, the YJ-18A (290 nm, 537 km). A few modernized destroyers have been retrofitted with the supersonic YJ-12A ASCM (250 nm, 285 km). Eight of the PLAN’s 12 Kilo-class SSs [diesel-electric submarines] are equipped with the Russian-built SS-N-27 ASCM (120-nm, 222-km). The PRC’s Song class SS, Yuan class SSP [air-independent propulsion-powered submarine], and Shang class SSN [nuclear-powered attack submarine] will field the PLAN’s newest domestic submarine-launched YJ-18 and its variants, which constitute an improvement over the SS-N-27 ASCM.”
Among cruise missiles, the impending introduction of land-attack versions will likely enable a significant transformation outward and upward in fleet capabilities and orientation: “As the PLAN continues to transition into a global multi-mission force, the addition of land-attack capabilities to its modern array of anti-surface and anti-air capabilities is a logical next step. In the coming years, the PLAN will probably field LACMs on its newer cruisers and destroyers and developmental Type 093B nuclear attack submarines. The PLAN could also retrofit its older surface combatants and submarines with land-attack capabilities as well. The addition of land-attack capabilities to the PLAN’s surface combatants and submarines would provide the PLA with flexible long-range strike options. This would allow the PRC to hold land targets at risk beyond the Indo-Pacific region.”
This concerted effort to increase long-range precision-strike capabilities has an important airborne component as well. In addition to the long-serving H-6G, “PLAN Aviation has begun operating the H-6J, a maritime strike version of the H-6K with six weapons pylons for ASCMs. This aircraft carries six supersonic long-range YJ-12 ASCMs and can attack warships out to the Second Island Chain – significantly extending PLAN Aviation’s reach. During the PRC’s 70th anniversary parade in 2019, the PLAAF publicly revealed the H-6N, a derivative of the H-6K optimized for long-range strikes. The H-6N features a modified fuselage that allows it to carry externally either a drone or an air-launched ballistic missile (ALBM) that may be nuclear-capable. The H-6N’s air-to-air refueling capability also provides it greater reach over other H-6 variants that are not refuelable in air.”
Looking forward, the PLAN continues to pursue a multiple-carrier, carrier-centric navy as the ultimate gold standard. China “continued work on its second domestically built aircraft carrier in 2019, which will be larger and fitted with a catapult launch system. This design will enable it to support additional fighter aircraft, fixed-wing early-warning aircraft, and more rapid flight operations and thus extend the reach and effectiveness of its carrier based strike aircraft. The PRC’s second domestically built carrier is projected to be operational by 2024, with additional carriers to follow.” The larger picture: “China’s aircraft carriers and planned follow-on carriers, once operational, will extend air defense coverage beyond the range of coastal and shipboard missile systems and will enable task group operations at increasingly longer ranges.” Underwriting these long-term efforts, “the PLAN now has a sizable force of highly capable logistical replenishment ships to support long-distance, long-duration deployments, including two new Fuyu class fast combat support ships (AOEs) built specifically to support aircraft carrier operations.” Further underscoring its importance and fleet centrality, as well as the systematic seriousness of PRC efforts, “The Renhai CG will be China’s premier carrier escort for blue-water operations. Four units are currently outfitting, with several more under construction.”
These findings regarding China’s naval shipbuilding and the fruits of its massive labors are sufficiently concerning to underscore the following further assessment on my part, which draws on a major research effort spearheaded by the Naval War College’s China Maritime Studies Institute (CMSI). I believe that, to the extent that any such thing is possible amid real-world complexity, PLAN force structure development is informed by a coherent, structured, well-articulated, executable strategy. It benefits from a world-class system and operations. Working off a well-thought-out plan for maintenance and modernization, China produces good ships at a good rate and maintains them. China’s maintenance capacity has not been tested in volume yet, but seems competent so far. (Whether China can continue to implement its maintenance plan effectively when midlife ship deadlines trigger massive increases in capacity requirements over the next few years remains to be seen.)
China boasts considerable shipbuilding capacity. It engages in such pragmatic, responsive practices as spiral development. For example, the Luyang I (Type 052B) destroyer was built in China of Russian descent (combat and weapons systems), then integrated with China’s own weapons systems. Successive iterations reached success in the Renhai CG, whereupon China started building significant numbers.
China has a unified effort, not a collection of programs competing against themselves. While the U.S. has downsized shipbuilding capacity in recent years, resulting in increasing bottlenecks, China has been greatly expanding its shipbuilding capacity, and it has thus far found an effective way to fund this buildup. While the relevant U.S. shipyards are military-only, virtually every Chinese shipyard is an integrated civil-military production facility. This provides valuable funding potential and flexibility. Basic infrastructure costs are spread out. For example, the development of the 300-ton graving docks at Bohai Shipyard in Huludao was not driven by navy requirements, yet the PLAN will benefit from them.
China’s rapid progress in naval shipbuilding and fleet expansion raises at least two vital questions:
- What is the U.S. Navy’s strategy?
- What ships are needed to fulfill that strategy?
Growing Overseas Presence and Power Projection
Returning to the text of the report itself, the Pentagon rightly emphasizes the Party’s continued focus on maintaining domestic security and advancing unresolved territorial claims along China’s periphery, particularly in the East and South China Seas. Beyond this core focus, however, Beijing is clearly adding an emerging layer of emphasis: increasingly employing the PLA as an indispensable tool to secure growing Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and PRC State interests around the world, in part by playing a greater role in supporting PRC foreign policy. Providing security for Xi’s signature foreign policy initiative since 2013, here termed “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR), is a vast area of PLA responsibility and new emerging missions.
The report addresses the prospects for expanding PLA access and basing with notable specificity: “The PRC has likely considered Myanmar, Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, United Arab Emirates, Kenya, Seychelles, Tanzania, Angola, and Tajikistan as locations for PLA military logistics facilities. The PRC has probably already made overtures to Namibia, Vanuatu, and the Solomon Islands. Known focus areas of PLA planning are along the SLOCs from China to the Strait of Hormuz, Africa, and the Pacific Islands.” Perhaps most tantalizing: “Cambodia declined a U.S. offer to pay to renovate a U.S.-donated building on Ream Naval Base in Cambodia. Cambodia may have instead accepted assistance from China or another country to develop Ream Naval Base. If China is able to leverage such assistance into a presence at Ream Naval Base, it suggests that China’s overseas basing strategy has diversified to include military capacity-building efforts. Both the PRC and Cambodia have publicly denied having signed an agreement to provide the PLAN access to Ream Naval Base.”
Despite the extensive PLA involvement in bilateral and multilateral exercises, and contributions to UN operations as well as humanitarian assistance and disaster relief around the world, China’s growing overseas military presence is already a source of tensions. At China’s first overseas facility in Djibouti, for example, “PLA personnel at the facility have interfered with U.S. flights by lasing pilots and flying drones, and the PRC has sought to restrict Djiboutian sovereign airspace over the base.”
Befitting an extension of PRC security interests across all regions and domains, a dedicated section on “China and the Arctic” outlines China’s efforts there as a self-described “near-Arctic State.” While China appears far from deploying a nuclear-powered icebreaker, it is interesting to note that its second icebreaking research vessel, Xue Long 2, “is the first polar research vessel that can break ice while moving forwards or backwards,” up to a thickness of 1.5 meters. As ice is broken, or gradually melts, along the “Polar Silk Road,” a more complicated obstacle may be Russia’s desire to impose restrictive policies along the Northern Sea Route. No stranger to such challenges, deep-pocketed China is investing in cooperation, having jointly established the Sino-Russian Arctic Research center in 2019 and footing 75% of the costs for a joint expedition that the institution is sponsoring this year.
The report devotes an important, sophisticated section explaining how all three of China’s armed forces work together with increasing frequency and effectiveness. The People’s Armed Police (PAP)’s recently expanded responsibilities include commanding China’s Coast Guard; and even, apparently, “since at least 2016” using Tajikistan-based PAP counterterrorism forces from Xinjiang to monitor and patrol the tri-border area among Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and China. Based in Xinjiang itself, the PAP’s Mountain Eagle Commando Unit apparently trains to operate in austere high-altitude terrain within the decidedly non-autonomous “Autonomous Region.”
A pithy section on China’s People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia (PAFMM) states with U.S. Defense Department authority findings long-documented by CMSI. PAFMM forces play “a major role in coercive activities” and have “played significant roles in a number of military campaigns and coercive incidents over the years” The report details how “by the end of 2016,” Hainan’s Sansha City Maritime Militia received “84 large militia fishing vessels with reinforced hulls and ammunition storage.” The “most professional” PAFMM unit, “Its forces are paid salaries independent of any clear commercial fishing responsibilities and recruited from recently separated veterans.”
Cyber, Space, and the Strategic Support Force:
Presumably, for reasons of classification, this year’s Pentagon report does not offer new details regarding China’s space and cyber systems in similar abundance to its offerings regarding their naval, air, and missile counterparts. After all, even the most secretive of PLAN wharves tend to be within the sight of populated areas and people with digital cameras more powerful than the devices Cold War spies wielded. Many airbases, or at least the aircraft flying from them, are similarly vulnerable to scrutiny. Networks of enthusiasts compare notes via the Internet. Major missiles are relatively few in type and of great strategic importance; Pentagon reports have tended to cover deployed systems systematically. But beyond publicly cataloged and generally-predictable Newtonian orbits, truly definitive descriptions of space and cyber assets tend to remain the province of the most capable governments and their relevant agencies. The complex nature of some space operations, and the challenge in attributing cyber activities definitely, accentuates this partial monopoly and raises the risk of revealing sources, methods, and operational planning assumptions by disclosing details. At least, that is this author’s conjecture…
This year’s Pentagon report certainly offers some concrete information on Beijing’s prodigious space activity: “In 2019, China launched 34 SLVs (of which 32 were successful) that placed more than 70 spacecraft into orbit including navigation, ISR, and test/engineering satellites, as well as satellites for foreign customers.” In these and related efforts, various state-owned and “private” enterprises debuted and tested a wide range of launchers. Of unclear civilian application but of obvious relevance to rapid replenishing of space assets to meet military needs, “state-owned commercial company Expace conducted two orbital missions using Kuaizhou-1A light-lift vehicles from the Taiyuan Satellite Launch Center within six hours of one another.”
As for orbital assets, the PLA “owns and operates approximately half of” China’s more than 120 reconnaissance and remote sensing satellites, “most of which could support situational awareness of regional rivals and potential flashpoints, while monitoring, tracking, and targeting an adversary’s forces.” With the 55th and final Beidou satellite launched successfully on 23 June 2020, the global coverage completion of China’s Beidou-3 positioning, navigation, and timing (PNT) system on schedule is widely-reported news. This milestone nevertheless merits emphasis here because it offers the PLA “additional command and control.” Finally, as Pentagon reports have explained for years, Beijing continues to pursue a wide range of counter-space capabilities to disable or destroy others’ on-orbit systems, including kinetic anti-satellite weapons, electronic warfare capabilities, and directed-energy weapons.
Perhaps the report’s greatest contribution in the space and cyber domains is an organizational analysis that is broadly useful, and telling in some details. A major section on the PLA Strategic Support Force (SSF) rightly describes it as “a theater command-level organization established to centralize the PLA’s strategic space, cyber, electronic, and psychological warfare missions and capabilities.” An important entity to understand, indeed!
The SSF’s organizational nuances are admittedly difficult to distill, and the section bears careful reading. Interesting nuggets include the following: “The Space System Department operates at least eight bases, including those whose core missions are the launch, tracking R&D [research and development], and operation of the satellites vital to China’s overhead C4ISR [Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance] architecture. The SSF runs tracking, telemetry, and command stations in Namibia, Pakistan, and Argentina.” While close Sino-Pakistan military cooperation is proudly proclaimed to all who will listen, it may be news to at least some Argentine citizens that the Patagonian deep space station near Las Lajas in the Andes foothills of Neuquén province is managed by China Satellite Launch and Tracking Control General, indisputably under SSF control.
The section immediately afterward provides a similar overview of the likewise-insufficiently-understood PLA Joint Logistic Support Force (JLSF). Its mission is less glamorous than that of the SSF, but this role is no less important: establishing and maintaining relationships among the many entities that ensure the flow and function of PLA goods and services. There is a vital civilian component to this, particularly as PLA efforts expand overseas on extended supply lines, sometimes discreetly, including through the use of foreign ports and other facilities.
Organization and Operations: Lingering Weaknesses, Determined Reforms.
This naturally raises a critical related issue: how well can China command and control these and other forces in practice? Many previous studies have suggested that while PRC military hardware has advanced rapidly since the late 1990s, the “software” of personnel and organization to operate under complex, high-intensity conditions has lagged considerably, with some particularly glaring weaknesses persisting. Given the complicated, constantly evolving nature of the gargantuan multivariate equation that represents Chinese military capabilities, even a report of this authority and extent cannot provide a conclusive answer.
On the one hand, the report acknowledges that China retains a range of military limitations, even as it is striving to address them: “major gaps and shortcomings remain.” China’s aviation industry remains “unable to produce reliable high-performance aircraft engines and relies on Western and Russian engines.” Other ongoing weaknesses include the fact that while “China is installing undersea monitoring systems,” it “continues to lack a robust deep-water anti-submarine warfare capability.” Overall PRC capabilities continue to diminish dramatically with distance and complexity of coordination: “Whether the PLA can collect accurate targeting information and pass it to launch platforms in time for successful strikes in sea areas beyond the first island chain is unclear.” On a related note: “The PLAN recognizes that long-range ASCMs require a robust, over-the-horizon (OTH) targeting capability to realize their full potential. To fill this capability gap, China is investing in reconnaissance, surveillance, command, control, and communications systems at the strategic, operational, and tactical levels to provide high-fidelity targeting information to surface and subsurface launch platforms.”
On the other hand, PLA “software” reforms are impressive not only in their ambition but also in their execution to date: “More striking than the PLA’s staggering amounts of new military hardware are the recent sweeping efforts taken by CCP leaders that include completely restructuring the PLA into a force better suited for joint operations, improving the PLA’s overall combat readiness, encouraging the PLA to embrace new operational concepts, and expanding the PRC’s overseas military footprint.”
Perhaps nowhere is this transformation more clearly manifested than in the PLA’s transformation of its organizing principle from seven army-based Military Regions to five joint Theater Commands. This is necessarily a work in progress, but the report enumerates significant effort and achievements. Additionally, some of the most effective advances may have come in the form of low-intensity gray zone operations that in no way represent apex military capabilities yet relentlessly yield incremental progress. “The Eastern Theater Command,” it states, “likely commands all China Coast Guard (CCG) and maritime militia ships while conducting Senkakus-related operations.” The PLA’s Hong Kong and Macau garrisons are the responsibility of the Southern Theater Command. Under the Southern Theater Command’s direction, in August 2019, “PLA and probable …PAP… forces deployed into Hong Kong by land, air, and sea from Shenzhen at night...” as part of a one-way rotation to bolster the presence of China’s armed forces in the Special Administrative Region.
Conclusion: Prospects for Parity?
This year’s Pentagon report to Congress makes an exceptional contribution to public knowledge of the capabilities and trajectory of China’s armed forces. Considered in conjunction with its post-2000 predecessors, it documents devastatingly just how much progress Beijing has made in two decades. Already a force to be reckoned with, the PLA and its allied services are poised to advance dramatically in the coming years. This latest assessment is so information-rich that the author simply cannot distill all the interesting data points here--ideally, you should read it in full yourself.
Two decades ago, many would have dismissed the notion that China’s armed forces could achieve parity with, let alone exceed, the American gold standard in any form save sheer numbers of personnel. Any potential threat to Taiwan was dismissed as a “million-man swim.” Today, the report makes clear, such discounting is entirely unwarranted. The report highlights three areas of PRC preponderance up front: shipbuilding, land-based conventional ballistic and cruise missiles, and integrated air-defense systems. To be sure, even here China is not uniformly superior. The more likely military scenarios--“home games” for Beijing--naturally place far greater stress on Chinese IADS than their American counterparts. Land-based conventional missiles have long been regarded as far less scenario-relevant to the United States, which is one reason that Washington shackled itself nearly unilaterally to the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty from 1987-2019, even as the one other signatory (Russia) cheated and China would not join. Washington should have unstrapped that costly straitjacket even earlier, in this author’s view. But naval shipbuilding is bound by no arms control regime akin to the 1930 London Naval Treaty, and could hardly be more relevant or useful to America’s global posture in defending a free and open system. The Pentagon’s underscoring of China’s relative progress in this critical area alone should be a profound wake-up call for U.S. policy-makers and all who support and wish them well in their efforts to preserve a Free and Open Indo-Pacific.
Moreover, China may well be adding more areas of advantage atop these three. While the report does not offer many details concerning PRC unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), its reference to their sheer scope and diversity as displayed in unprecedented abundance at the 2018 Zhuhai Airshow suggests impressive dynamism in that field. In the report’s review of China’s defense industrial base, major technological sectors, and global efforts to augment them by any means available even as American law enforcement and other guardians of foreign intellectual property strengthen defenses, it becomes clear just how hard China is working to dominate fields that are not yet firmly established today. In addition to its earlier mention of PRC efforts regarding hypersonics, the Pentagon emphasizes China’s systematic planning and prioritization of such areas as artificial intelligence, facial recognition, supercomputing, and human-machine teaming technologies. In light of the aforementioned post-2016 PAP presence in Tajikistan, the following merits attention: “PRC technology companies may also be collecting facial recognition data on Tajikistanis with the citywide facial recognition supplied since at least 2013, similar to the surveillance equipment installed in Xinjiang.” Additionally, in the field of quantum computing alone, “China conducted the first quantum-secured intercontinental videoconference in September 2017 and plans to have a satellite-enabled, global, quantum-encrypted communications capability operational by 2030. China is also reportedly building the world’s largest quantum research facility slated to open in the city of Hefei in 2020. China already has a 2,000 km secure quantum communication ground line between Beijing and Shanghai and plans to expand the line across China.”
One cannot predict with certainty how these technologies will develop, or how China’s efforts to harness them will play out, but if Beijing can already achieve superlative positions in such long-established areas as shipbuilding, missiles, and air defense systems, it should have even greater prospects of doing so regarding at least some technologies of tomorrow. There, by definition, no nation yet has an established position--and China itself may be the one to gain a valuable head start.
As DASD Sbragia emphasized commendably in his AEI presentation, this year’s Defense Department China report takes particular pains to review and explain China’s national and military strategy on its own terms. Distilling Beijing’s vision and policy framework reveals that it is important to distinguish between two distinct concepts: parity and parallelism. Under the CCP, China clearly aims for increasing parity with the United States, as measured in overall military capabilities, influence, and recognition. The Pentagon’s report shows what for some will be a shocking rapidity of progress toward parity in key areas, including its actual attainment therein, broadly speaking.
To be sure, China is nowhere close to achieving overall parity of military capabilities with the United States. Beijing faces not only a common uncertainty about the future, but also some clear downside risks moving forward. The report rightly concludes that PRC military-related spending is surely higher than the official figure, could already exceed $200 billion, and could rise to $270 billion by 2003 per current trends. Yet China’s economic growth rate is headed in the other direction, projected to halve “from 6.1 percent in 2019 to 3 percent in 2030, which could slow future defense spending growth.” Provided that Xi or his successor continues to prioritize military spending, however, there appears to be significant room to grow nonetheless.
Prospects for increasing but far from complete parity aside, China’s force posture and composition remains far from being fully parallel to that of the United States in many respects. Because of Washington and Beijing’s very different geography and geopolitical goals, this divergence is likely to hold true overall for years to come.
Unfortunately, what this means in practice is that Beijing is increasingly able to apply growing parity in increasing aspects of overall capabilities to its far more concentrated target set of national security priorities. As the report underscores at the outset, “Party leaders...argue that ‘full reunification’—unification with Taiwan on Beijing’s terms and completing Hong Kong and Macau’s integration by the end of 2049—is a fundamental condition of national rejuvenation.”
Nowhere are the consequences of Beijing’s unrelenting focus on realizing its “core” political-territorial claims by wielding military might more apparent than in the report’s ample coverage of Taiwan Strait force (im)balances and scenarios. Taiwan’s old military advantages are gone or fast eroding, its defense budget is 1/15 of China’s official expenditures, and its transition to an all-volunteer military remains an expensive struggle. Taiwan’s saving grace is that its wonderfully humane and dynamic capitalist democracy makes its own special contributions to the world and is well worth defending. It is finally pursuing more logically-asymmetric approaches to its own defense, which are indispensable and facilitate further worthwhile cooperation with the United States.
In this, as in other key areas, Sbragia’s Pentagon colleagues have their work cut out for them. They will need the full support of Congress, the Executive Branch, the American public, and international partners. By raising awareness of the states, this report has provided a signal service while there is still time to act. But there is no time to waste—none at all!
Next year’s report, which Sbragia’s team and contributors across the U.S. defense intelligence community will begin developing shortly, will record a whole new chapter in PRC military progress. Its contents will include significant developments that have already happened as of today--but, since they occurred after the end of 2019, proved too recent to curate and incorporate in the round just completed and released.
In conclusion, there is no better summary of the challenge before us than this excerpt from Xi’s speech at the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China on 18 October 2017: “The wheels of history roll on; the tides of the times are vast and mighty. History looks kindly on those with resolve, with drive and ambition, and with plenty of guts; it won’t wait for the hesitant, the apathetic, or those shy of a challenge.”
Dr. Andrew S. Erickson is a Visiting Scholar at Harvard’s John King Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies and a Professor of Strategy in the China Maritime Studies Institute at the U.S. Naval War College. He runs the research website www.andrewerickson.com.
This article appeared originally at The National Interest.