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Institute for National Strategic Studies

Strategic Trends in China

Defense Policy and Posture I


RICHARD FISHER, The Heritage Foundation
PAUL H. B. GODWIN, National War College

Richard Fisher: In terms of its current capabilities, the PLA today is just beginning to turn the corner in emerging from broad obsolescence in terms of equipment, doctrine, training, and logistics. However, domestically produced Chinese ground, air, and naval systems still do not compare favorably with either U.S. forces currently deployed in Asia or even with those of other nations in the region, including Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea. The PLA in fact, would be hard pressed to challenge even the armed forces of Malaysia in a battle for the Spratly Islands.

Chinese military activity in the region reflects a PLA understanding of these limited capabilities. In 1995, the PLA occupied a Philippine-claimed island in the Spratlys in part because the Philippines do not have an air force or a navy. While the exercises last year near Taiwan did show an increased understanding of joint warfare, they also made clear that the PLA has a "long way to go."

China's only area of competence remains missile technology. The DF-15 (or M-9) and DF-21 (or M-11) systems are unique in Asia and represent the sole area of PLA superiority over its neighbors. Even the United States does not have comparable ballistic missile systems in Asia, although U.S. forces do make up for this deficiency in cruise missiles and precision-strike aircraft.

In light of the PLA's current glaring inadequacies, meaningful discussions of Chinese military power should focus on the future of the PLA. As China's military modernization efforts are broad ranging, it is vital to determine which are the most worthwhile avenues of exploration. Without question, the centrality of doctrine, advances in training, logistical support, and other so-called "soft side" capabilities are critical to an understanding of future Chinese military capabilities. A study of acquisition trends however, does shed some light on developments that may clarify some of the PLA's goals for the future. Naturally, such an analysis assumes a degree of risk in accepting the veracity of reporting on pending or potential arms deals.

Although acquisition trends are only one measure of future developments in the PLA, the success of PLA modernization goals will depend, in large part, on PLA ability to acquire and absorb foreign technologies. This is true because, on its own, China can produce neither the individual technologies nor the systems that will confer the military capabilities it desires-they must be acquired from foreign sources. In addition, the examination of hardware as part of studies of acquisition trends presents a starker, more quantifiable reality than assessments of soft-side capabilities, despite their importance to overall understanding of capabilities.

Projections in this analysis are centered on the 2010-15 timeframe and are contingent on either a Communist or a post-Communist Chinese Government sustaining nationalist regional political-military goals. PLA mission priorities are:

  • To deter American attac

  • To deter U.S. support for Taiwan in the event of a confrontation

  • To build the kind of military power that can be used, if not to invade Taiwan, to force the island into a diplomatic accommodation on Beijing's terms

  • To enhance Chinese influence in the South China Sea (China's increasing antagonism toward U.S. alliances in the region raises the question whether Beijing would not welcome their disappearance).

The PLA places particular emphasis on space and missile forces. The Second Artillery is developing two new ICBMs-the DF-31 and DF-41-which will most likely be solid-fueled and mobile and may also have a MIRV capability. The TELs for these missiles may be based on the SS-20 TEL that China reportedly acquired from Belarus.

IRBMs include the DF-3 (which is being phased out) and the DF-21, which is in production and is being modernized. Reports from the 1996 Zhuhai Airshow indicate that China is working on a terminal guidance system for the DF-21. Global Positioning System (GPS) guidance technology is also being applied to the DF-15 (M-9) short-range ballistic missile (SRBM).

Early in the next decade, according to the U.S. Department of Defense, China will produce a new class of long-range land attack cruise missile that incorporates Israeli and/or Russian technology. Chinese engineering literature indicates the PLA is working on combined tercom, inertial GPS guidance systems for these new cruise missiles.

China is also working to acquire the space and airborne reconnaissance systems necessary to provide the precise targeting information required by IRBMs and cruise missiles. China has an active domestic RADARSAT program and is seeking Russian and perhaps European help in this area. In addition, China can be expected to exploit commercial satellite imaging for military purposes and to develop better imaging satellites of its own.

Nor will Beijing allow the uncontested use of space. China is probably working on ASAT and missile defense systems. The purchase of the S-300 and the possible acquisition of a PATRIOT missile may well be assisting the Chinese HQ-9 SAM program. It is also logical to assume that China is investing heavily in military laser technology: China already markets a dazzler and has ample opportunities to obtain advanced Russian technology.

The critical question, of course, is whether China will be successful in developing these systems and whether it can "marry" reconnaissance and strike systems to produce a useful whole. Although the jury is out, it is clear that they are making every effort to achieve this goal.

The PLA-Air Force (PLAAF) is largely obsolete, but it has begun to receive a greater proportion of resources relative to other services. The initial purchase of SU-27s has led to a co-production agreement for 200 more. The next batch of 21 SU-27s, possibly in kit form, has greatly improved radar and will be configured to carry the R-77, an AMRAAM-type missile. Negotiations are reportedly underway for the SU-30, a deal that would make sense in light of the difficulties experienced in the development of the FB-7 attack aircraft. If the PLA-Air Force acquires the SU-30, it is also likely to purchase large numbers of precision-guided munitions (PGMs) so as to optimize SU-30 capabilities.

China and Israel continue to cooperate on the J-10 fighter program, and Israel is reported to be competing with Russia to provide China with a new, helmet-sighted, air-to-air missile. Israel may also be offering China its PYTHON-4 missile, which uses the same Elba helmet display as the American AIM-9X missile slated to enter U.S. inventories in the next decade. The Office of Naval Intelligence assesses that China has a stealth fighter program and is also attempting to build its fleet of support aircraft. Israel and Russia are cooperating on a joint venture to provide AWACs to China, while Britain has already sold SEARCHWATER AEW radar to the PLA-Air Force. The Russians are also trying to sell the IL-78 tanker aircraft, in addition to the small number of IL-76 already purchased by the PLA-Air Force.

China is attempting to build a high-tech, all-weather, air interdiction and air superiority air force based largely on Russian and Israeli equipment. Provided China can effectively assemble and integrate all the necessary components, the PLA-Air Force may have a Desert Storm-like air power capability by 2010. While the United States may be able to oppose this force, it will present a more serious challenge to China's neighbors.

Turning to naval advances, while some uncertainty remains regarding China's aircraft carrier program, interest in domestic development or foreign acquisition of aircraft carrier technologies continues unabated. Funding appears to be the main obstacle in this regard.

The PLA-Navy (PLAN) continues its modernization drive in two other central areas-submarines and antiship cruise missiles (ASCMs). The PLA-Navy has already purchased four KILO-class submarines from Russia, two each of both the less capable 877 export model and the more sophisticated 636 model. Domestically, the SONG SS is in production, and future versions of this submarine may benefit from Russian and other foreign technology. China is also developing a new class of SSN submarine, the 093, according to the Office of Naval Intelligence, and this SSN submarine may approach the Russian VICTOR III-class in terms of capabilities. The 093 is also to be the basis for the next Chinese SSBN submarine, the follow-on to the XIA-class SSBN submarine. These new submarines may well be equipped with long-range, land-attack cruise missiles or new Russian super-sonic cruise missiles. China may indeed be the first to deploy the Russian YAKHONT super-sonic ASCM, which is small enough to backfit on existing Chinese frigates and destroyers, unlike its larger cousin, the SUNBURN). When they undergo scheduled maintenance cycles, China's KILO-class submarines may also be backfit with the YAKHONT.

China is also purchasing the MOSKIT or SUNBURN SS-N-22 ASCM to be on the SOVREMMENY DDG. Two SOVREMMENY DDGs may be delivered to China by 2000. Again, while the U.S. Navy may be able to shoot down this missile with the AEGIS ship defense system, it is nearly impossible for the PHALANX point defense system to defeat it.

This has clear implications for the Taiwan Navy, equipped as it is with PHALANX system. This problem will only compounded if the PLA-Navy acquires the YAKHONT. When China acquires the SOVREMMENY, the PLA-Navy will also acquire its first dedicated, purpose-built ASW helicopter, the KAMOV-27 (KA-27). KA-27 radars could help China's supersonic cruise missiles achieve over-the-horizon targeting, as could Israeli or British radars.

The PLA-Navy will doubtless encounter tremendous training and logistical difficulties in absorbing this equipment, as illustrated by PLA-Navy experience with the LUHU DD. A large number of foreign systems on one hull presented doctrinal, training, and even language problems for the PLA-Navy. These difficulties, however, resulted in PLA-Navy officers redoubling their efforts. Moreover, the extensive capabilities of this new equipment forced PLA-Navy commanders to study the principles of joint warfare more closely.

PLA ground forces have undergone substantial reduction, while a small number of select units have been chosen for modernization. Until recently, the ground forces received little of the money slated for purchase of high-tech foreign systems; this year, however, may mark a change. According to unconfirmed reports, the PLA has acquired the Russian BMD airborne, air-droppable tank. The PLA is also reported to be purchasing the SMERCH multiple launch rocket system (MLRS), NONA SVK mortar, and laser-guided shells. Taiwanese sources assert that China has reached a co-production agreement with Russia for the SHMELL, a shoulder-launched, fuel-air explosive with the advertised power of a 122-mm artillery shell. China plans to co-produce 10,000 units of this system. Additionally, the PLA is said to be buying the SA-15 surface-to-air missile, reportedly capable of defeating subsonic PGMs.

The PLA remains very dependent on foreign sources for helicopter acquisitions. Following the termination of the U.S. BLACKHAWK program, the Chinese turned to Russia, purchasing the Mi-8 and the Mi-17. The PLA lacks a dedicated attack helicopter but probably plans to build one.

Whether PLA ground forces can successfully integrate these new systems to achieve all-weather maneuver warfare remains to be seen. The challenges the PLA faces are well illustrated by the SMERCH MLRS: to fully utilize the system will require successful "netting" of airborne, space, and UAV reconnaissance systems.

The U.S. response to these developments should contain elements of engagement and deterrence. Deterrence should include the continued modernization of U.S. forces: the defense of U.S. space assets, countering improved PLA missile forces, ensuring that U.S. air assets can effectively challenge PLA-Air Force SU-27s and SU-30s, and the creation of small and affordable defense systems to defeat super-sonic ASCMs. Engagement should include confronting our friends and allies who are assisting PLA modernization efforts, which are, after all, aimed at U.S. forces. Interaction with the PLA should also be a part of engagement, from the working level (at institutions like NDU) up to arms control negotiations, provided the political context is suitable.

In conclusion, data on Chinese acquisitions are troubling. If policy makers do not confront new information about the PLA, be it on weapons acquisitions or future warfare doctrine, we only diminish our understanding and diminish our ability to prepare for what we may face in the future.

Paul Godwin: This overview of Chinese defense policy and posture contains three parts: a brief historical overview, a sense of the types of problems the Chinese talk about when they think about defense modernization, and finally, an estimate of the trajectory of Chinese military developments.

An historical overview of developments in the Chinese military sphere is necessary to make judgments about future trends. The long decline in China's military capabilities began with the end of the Kangxi Emperor's establishment and consolidation of the Chinese empire in the latter part of the 17th century and the early part of the 18th. During this period, China's military forces deteriorated to the point that they could no longer defend China or even hold the empire together. Of equal importance, China did not participate in the industrial revolution of the 19th century, and its defense establishment therefore was unable to incorporate the technological innovations that resulted from the industrial revolution.

Secondly, despite protestations to the contrary, if there are unique Chinese ways of warfare that give Chinese forces in the field advantages unmatched by other armies, they have not proven effective for at least 300 years. Instead, what one sees is an unbroken string of military defeats inflicted on China by the West and Japan.

In the latter part of the 19th century, when China began its defense modernization programs as part of the Self-Strengthening movement, it used Western principles, Western technologies and Western advisors to build its new military. Japan followed a similar path but was far more successful at adapting to Western technologies than were the Chinese, as is amply demonstrated by Japan's military successes against China.

The two most successful modernizers were Chiang Kai-shek and Mao Zedong. Chiang Kai-shek's forces were trained and equipped by the Soviets in the 1920s, the Germans in the 1930s, and finally by the Americans in the 1940s; they subsequently remained under U.S. patronage. Mao Zedong may have had more Chinese characteristics than Chiang but if one examines his works on protracted revolutionary war, one finds more Clausewitz and Jomini than Sun Tzu.

When Mao decided to modernize the Chinese Armed Forces after confronting the world's most powerful industrial state during the Korean War, he did so with help from the USSR. Mao's military strategists and logisticians were trained at the Voroshilov Academy and the Frunze Military Academy. China's defense industrial base was built by the Soviet Union as was its defense R&D infrastructure. In fact, the Chinese adopted Soviet force structure, organization, weapons, and doctrine.

China's defense industries and its R&D infrastructure have yet to recover from the damage inflicted by the Sino-Soviet split in 1959 and 1960. By the time China's defense modernization efforts began in the 1970's, its entire defense establishment was in disarray. The inability of the PLA to conduct effective operations against Vietnam in 1979 clearly demonstrated their dire circumstances. In 1975, Deng Xiaoping, Chief of Staff and Vice-Chairman of the Central Military Commission, captured the state of the PLA well when he called it "arrogant, lazy, overstaffed, and incompetent to fight modern warfare."

Since 1979, Chinese military modernizers have used the U.S. Armed Forces as their measure of merit. They do not expect to attain the same level of capabilities as the United States, but given the kinds of operations they wish to conduct, they look to the United States as a benchmark of comparison.

China's modernization objectives remain essentially the same as they were in 1978: to build armed forces such that China cannot be intimidated by a superior military power. At the operational level, by the first part of the 21st century the PLA wants the capability to conduct major offensive joint operations. When they discuss these objectives, however, Chinese military thinkers point to five major obstacles to their goals:

  • China has no experience with maritime strategy. The Song and Ming dynasties conducted only merchant operations. Such experience as the Chinese Navy does have is from the Young School of the Soviet Union of the 1950s. This is a sea-denial strategy designed for a weak navy to defend against a stronger navy seeking sea control.

  • The Chinese Navy has no experience with offensive operations, offensive carrier operations, or amphibious or submarine operations.

  • PLA-Air Force has no experience with offensive air operations. Until very recently, the Chinese Air Force based its doctrine on local air defense, itself modeled on Soviet doctrinal principles of the 1950s. The PLA-Air Force has no experience with air campaigns, close air support, air interdiction, or, obviously, strategic bombing.

  • The PLA as a whole lacks any experience with joint warfare. Initial training for joint warfare began only in 1992-93. China does not have C3I, logistics capabilities, or any other elements necessary for joint operations.

  • The PLA's lack of experience, shortage of modern equipment, and insufficient training mean that China can not sustain expeditionary forces any distance from China for any length of time. The PLA has defined this problem as one of "short arms and slow legs."

What does all this mean for the Chinese military? First, China is trying to overcome all these deficiencies, but it will take the PLA a long time to do so, as the PLA itself points out. Recognizing the enormity of the task ahead, for the past decade, the PLA has sought to develop elite units capable of responding quickly and effectively to unanticipated military contingencies. These same forces began China's first attempts at joint military exercises.

China does not have the defense research and development (R&D) capabilities or the defense industrial base to develop and build advanced weaponry, which means the PLA must import it all. China can not simply import the weapons systems, however. In the case of SU-27, if the Chinese want to begin series production it will be necessary to import the tooling and the expertise, a very expensive proposition.

Current and near-term capabilities (in the next 10 years) do not permit the PLA to anticipate success in a major offensive war with any of its potential adversaries. Taiwan is too far away, is too well prepared, and is under a protective U.S. umbrella. Japan is far too strong and is allied with the United States. The PLA-Navy can sustain a presence in the South China Sea but cannot sustain combat operations for any length of time. Simply put, China does not have the capability now, and will not in the next 10 years, to be anything more than a nuisance. Of course, that is all that is necessary, for the time being, to achieve what Beijing appears to be seeking in the South China Sea and Taiwan.

Over the next 10 to 15 years there will be gradual, steady improvements in the PLA across the board. The rest of Asia, however, will not be standing still. Barring a U.S. withdrawal from the Western Pacific, therefore, China's emerging military capabilities will not destabilize the regional military balance or threaten the U.S. military preponderance. The only uncertainty remains in the Taiwan Strait.


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