How Good Are They? The Latest Insights into China’s Military Tech
It’s that time of year again, and the end of an era. On Friday, the Obama Administration released the last annual Pentagon China report under its watch. Working the China military observers’ graveyard shift this weekend, I published analyses of the report’s overall content, and its key omissions — namely, any mention whatsoever of China’s maritime militia of “little blue men” trolling for territorial claims. Here, I’ll focus on the report’s greatest comparative advantage: insights concerning Beijing’s military technology and its applications that no other public source offers with such official backing or reliable details.
Defense Industrial Dynamics
The Pentagon’s report offers extensive coverage of China’s defense-industrial sector, including key policies and trends. Beijing clearly seeks a comprehensive indigenous defense industrial base, with strong commercial underpinnings. To that end, it is launching its third major round of post-Cold War reforms. Informed by extensive policy documents and a hierarchy of priority subjects, Beijing is funding extensive research, development, and acquisition throughout its sprawling defense industry and related organizations. Emphases include the widespread Chinese approach of civil-military integration and acquiring foreign technology by any means necessary — including extensive cyber and human espionage — while absorbing it and developing indigenous technology and systems in parallel. Characteristic of President Xi Jinping’s structural reform efforts more generally, a new high-level advisory body will oversee these efforts: the Strategic Committee of Science, Technology, and Industry Development for National Defense. One indication of progress: $15 billion in arms export agreements signed between 2010 and 2014.
This systematic explication enhances the credibility and utility of the 145-page report. But what most of its most avid consumers really want to know is: How good is the military hardware that China can produce? And how do performance parameters and quality vary by type of weapon system? It is in the totality of such information that the report really shines.
However, in meeting its obligations to Congress, and, by extension, the public, the Pentagon’s annual report had to address a wide range of disparate issues concerning Chinese military and security development. It had to do so in a format largely shaped by its previous 14 iterations. Allow me, therefore, to summarize and reconfigure its key findings to best address these pressing questions. I have worked here to distill insights into just how good various types of Chinese military hardware have become.
Comprehensiveness, Converging Sectors, and Remaining Gaps
Observers of China’s defense industry have long noted a hierarchy of proficiency across its subsectors. Nearly every major arms supplier has its strengths and weaknesses. However, as I’ve written in my previous analysis of China’s aerospace industry, factors specific to China have shaped its disparities in this regard. Early in the Cold War, Mao prioritized the rapid development of nuclear weapons for deterrence and great power status. Military aviation took off, propelled by a brief Soviet-aided crash program to support Beijing’s Korean War effort, but this proved a flash in the pan. Brilliant aerospace engineer Qian Xuesen, expelled from the United States to China in 1955 just as roughly one hundred other leading technologists likewise returned from overseas, convinced Mao to also emphasize the development of ballistic missiles as the best nuclear delivery systems, with some effort devoted to satellites as well. Initial Soviet assistance bolstered missile development in particular. Mao’s disastrous domestic campaigns, which included a massive effort to disperse military industries to virtually inaccessible hinterlands, further baked in this unevenness. The aviation industry enjoyed far less protection than the nuclear and missile industries from debilitating political disruption. While the shipbuilding industry did not enjoy top protection, it could only be moved upriver—not fully inland. This would position it to recover rapidly during coastal province development in the early 1980s.
In recent years, convergence has been a key trend. By the Cold War’s end, China became the first developing country to achieve significant capabilities across the board in armaments. Moreover, the Soviet Union’s collapse unlocked access to technology that saved China years of effort, particularly with respect to its beleaguered aviation industry. As the Pentagon documents, some of the worst defense sectoral disparities are narrowing: “China has made dramatic improvements in all defense industrial production sectors” over the past decade. Nevertheless, some degree of hierarchy persists: China “is comparable to other major weapon system producers like Russia and the European Union in some areas”—but not all.
While a rising tide of investment and technology is raising boats across all Chinese defense industrial sectors, a distinct pecking order persists among them. In descending order of favor and results: missiles and space, shipbuilding, aviation, and ground-forces materiel.
Missiles and Space
Already China’s lead defense sector, the missile and space industry continues rapid growth and development. In recent years, primary assembly and rocket motor production facilities have received upgrades. The space launch vehicle (SLV) industry is expanding, in part to support “rapid satellite launch services”—an area with important military applications. Here the Pentagon offers a well-founded endorsement that Chinese stakeholders should find flattering:
The majority of China’s missile programs, including its ballistic and cruise missile systems, are comparable to other international top-tier producers.
One indication of the importance of ballistic missiles to China’s military development is organizational: the PLA Rocket Force (PLARF), which controls them, has just been renamed and elevated to a full-fledged service. It has been well known for years that Beijing boasts the world’s largest and most diverse arsenal of sub-strategic conventional ballistic missiles. In addition to constant upgrading and as part of an effort to evade missile defenses, China’s Rocket Force is currently “developing and testing several new classes and variants of offensive missiles, including a hypersonic glide vehicle.”
Now the Pentagon has revealed that the PLARF’s nuclear inventory has risen to somewhere between 75 and 100 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) – a force to be reckoned with. Other nuclear highlights include the road-mobile, solid-fueled CSS-5 Mod 6 (DF-21) medium-range ballistic missile “for regional deterrence missions.” Unveiled in the September 2015 Beijing military parade, the DF-26 intermediate-range ballistic missile may threaten ground targets as far away as Guam. A nuclear version, “if it shares the same guidance capabilities, would give China its first nuclear precision strike capability against theater targets.”
For years, China has clearly been a leading power in space and counter-space capabilities, but the Pentagon has provided unprecedented details. With respect to space capabilities, in 2015 China launched 19 rockets bearing 45 diverse spacecraft, including navigation, surveillance, and test satellites. China introduced the “next generation” Long March (LM)-6 and the LM-11 SLVs. Of military relevance, the LM-11 is a “quick response” system to orbit a small payload. In another sign of sophistication, a single LM-6 orbited 20 “CubeSats” (small satellites), including four Xingchen femto-satellites weighing only 100 grams each.
Meanwhile, China’s Beidou/Compass positioning, navigation, and timing (PNT) satellite network is on track to span the globe by 2020. It is behind the U.S. GPS system, but more versatile than Russia’s GLONASS and further along than Europe’s Galileo. The space security expert Michael J. Listner has suggested an important implication of one of the reports data points to the author: By launching another geosynchronous (GEO) satellite, China appears to be increasing the resilience of its Phase I PNT system, which offers regional coverage; even as it rapidly builds out its Phase II medium-earth-orbit (MEO) system that will soon offer global coverage. This approach suggests Beijing is building strong military contingency options into its PNT system, even as it is making that system far more user-friendly and commercially viable than Russia’s GLONASS.
Counter-space capabilities are often difficult to prove conclusively using open sources. This challenge stems from the inherent dual-use nature of much space technology, and the fact that there is no equivalent in space of people with digital cameras taking pictures of Chinese naval facilities and ships. In devoting far more space to documenting potential offensive Chinese space technologies and tests than many previous iterations, this year’s report makes a particularly strong and detailed contribution.
It is widely known that China has developed and deployed directed energy weapons, satellite jammers, and kinetic kill vehicles; a major reason Beijing purports to champion space arms control, but categorically refuses to consider initiatives that restrict ground-based anti-satellite (ASAT) capabilities. While China appears to have learned from widespread international outcry following its January 11, 2007 ASAT test — the largest human creation of space debris in history — it continues to test ASAT and other counter-space capabilities in quieter ways. Playing catch-up after relative Pentagon silence in recent years, the 2016 report notes multiple tests.
A non-debris-generating 2013 ballistic missile test to over 30,000 kilometer altitude “could have been a test of technologies with a counter-space mission in geosyncronous orbit.” As Michael Listner and I have discussed in recent correspondence, this altitude is more than sufficient to cover the orbits of U.S. GPS satellites in medium-earth-orbit (MEO), and appears within striking distance of the altitude of many strategically important U.S. government satellites. These include missile warning satellites (Defense Support Program/DSP and Space-Based Infrared System/SBIRS) essential to the stability of nuclear deterrence; Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) communications satellites; NASA’s Tracking and Data Relay Satellites (TDRS); and intelligence-related, civilian communications, and weather satellites. The Pentagon also judges that an ASAT missile system tested in summer 2014 has likely enjoyed subsequent progress. Additionally, as part of increasingly-complex orbital operations, China is “probably testing dual-use technologies in space that could be applied to counterspace missions.”
Since the late 1990s China has been building an increasingly-sophisticated, modern naval fleet. The world’s top commercial shipbuilder by volume, China has expanded and modernized its civilian and military shipyards. Its two largest state shipbuilding conglomerates collaborate with increasing efficiency. Propulsion is now one of the few areas of remaining limitation, and consequent reliance on foreign systems and technology.
China’s navy offers tangible proof its shipyards aren’t producing junk. Quality is improving even faster than quantity, with older vessels swapped for bigger, better “multi-mission ships equipped with advanced anti-ship, anti-air, and anti-submarine weapons and sensors.” Already this adds up to an impressive result: “The PLAN now possesses the largest number of vessels in Asia, with more than 300 surface ships, submarines, amphibious ships, and patrol craft.”
Submarine force modernization — a technologically demanding area — remains a top Chinese priority, with its navy projected to possess “between 69 and 78 submarines” by 2020. The Pentagon judges that four Jin-class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) are already “operational” and surmises that during the next decade “up to five may enter service before China begins developing and fielding its next-generation SSBN, the Type 096.” The Type 096 will boast the follow-on JL-3 submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM). During that time, China also “may construct a new Type 095 nuclear-powered, guided-missile attack submarine (SSGN), which not only would improve the PLAN’s anti-surface warfare capability but might also provide it with a more clandestine land-attack option.” As for nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSNs), “four additional SHANG-class SSN (Type 093) will eventually join the two already in service.”
To ensure continued progress in its consistent focus area of anti-surface warfare, China is modernizing its anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCMs) and over-the-horizon targeting needed to ensure their effectiveness at long range. In a typical example of China improving on Russian systems that it accesses, digests, and emulates, Song– and Yuan-class conventional submarines as well as Shang-class SSNs will be equipped with its “newest indigenous submarine-launched ASCM, the [supersonic] YJ-18 and its variants.”
A Cold War laggard, China’s aviation industry is finally progressing expeditiously. Driven by a national priority to build its first major commercial jetliner, the C919, China’s commercial aircraft industry is exploiting mandatory joint ventures and foreign acquisition to tool up and learn leading edge production processes. As part of a consistent emphasis on civil-military integration, as literally embodied in eight major national aviation science and technology parks, China works consistently to “spin on” civilian aviation technology to its military sector. The one major enduring weakness: as in the marine sector, propulsion. Chinese civil and military aviation “remains reliant on foreign sourcing for dependable, proven, high-performance aircraft engines.” It is finally investing financially and organizationally to make major progress, but mastering such an apex technology — the province of a mere handful of companies worldwide — is inherently difficult and time consuming.
As with warships, China is prioritizing qualitative over quantitative improvements in military aircraft. Replacing old platforms with new, improved ones, it is “rapidly closing the gap” vis-à-vis Western counterparts “across a broad spectrum of capabilities from aircraft and command-and-control (C2) to jammers, electronic warfare (EW), and datalinks.” As “the only country other than the United States to have two concurrent stealth fighter programs,” China is developing “fifth-generation aircraft, which could enter service as early as 2018.” Strongly emphasizing unmanned systems, “China is advancing its development and employment of UAVs.”
With the standard of “good enough” generally being a far lower bar to reach than the previous three sectors discussed, this more mundane field of tanks, armored personnel carriers, and artillery remains a lower priority for Chinese innovation and achievement. Even in this relative backwater, however, “China is capable of producing ground weapon systems at or near world class standards.” To be sure, “quality deficiencies persist with some export equipment,” but arms producers almost never sell their very best abroad; and the majority of China’s customers are still developing nations that either lack good political or financial options, or both.
What it All Means
In releasing authoritative information that no other organization is capable of, or willing to, provide, the Pentagon has performed a commendable public service. This section on Chinese counter-space activities and capabilities alone is worth far more than the $95,000 in taxpayer dollars spent in preparing its 2016 report.
The real world applications of Beijing’s manifold military improvements are numerous and troubling. “China’s multi-decade military modernization effort has eroded or negated many of Taiwan’s historical advantages” in self-defense, the report stated. Specifically, mainland China has deployed no fewer than 1,200 short-range ballistic missiles, the majority across from Taiwan. At its rollout to the media on Friday, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for East Asia Abraham Denmark elaborated from a U.S. policy perspective: “we believe that Taiwan does need to increase its spending, but also needs to make investments in asymmetric capabilities….” After eight years of relative quiescence, cross-Strait relations are heating up as Beijing’s expectations have increased just as President-elect Tsai Ing-wen is poised to assume office advocating a different approach to their management. Much attention is focused on what she will say about relations with mainland China in her inaugural address this Friday, May 20.
Such issues will undoubtedly hang over the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore in early June, not long after which the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague will likely announce its verdict concerning the legality of Beijing’s “nine-dashed line” claim over the South China Sea and related issues under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Initiated by the Philippines, the case involves China directly; yet, despite its clear legal responsibility as a party to UNLCOS to accept the verdict, Beijing categorically rejects the arbitration and refuses to participate or acknowledge the results.
Note well: Beijing has a habit of timing and publicizing the unveiling and testing of new weapon systems to signal capabilities and resolve. Looking forward, there are many potential instances for it to send such a message.
Fortunately, in its latest report, the Pentagon has at least contributed to public understanding of key Chinese military dynamics. These will be influencing regional and international security for a long time to come. So stay tuned, and fasten your seat belts. It’s going to be a bumpy ride for all concerned.
Dr. Andrew S. Erickson is Professor of Strategy at the U.S. Naval War College and Associate in Research at Harvard’s Fairbank Center. He blogs at www.andrewerickson.com. The views expressed here are his alone, and do not represent the policies or estimates of the U.S. Navy or any other organization of the U.S. government.