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Y-20 / Y-XX - Power Projection

An earthquake occurred 90 km (55 miles) WNW of Chengdu, Sichuan, China and 1545 km (960 miles) SW of Beijing, China at 12:28 AM MDT, May 12, 2008 (2:28 PM local time in China). Over 70,000 people were killed and 375,000 injured, with another 18,392 missing and presumed dead in the Chengdu-Lixian-Guangyuan area. More than 45.5 million people in 10 provinces and regions were affected. At least 15 million people were evacuated from their homes and more than 5 million were left homeless.

Prior to the earthquake, the PLA was hesitant to accept external help, but afterward allowed U.S. Pacific Command to send two C17 Globemaster III transport planes to Chengdudelivering upward of 200,000 pounds of disaster relief supplies.27 Russia dispatched 15 Il-76 military-use transport planes to deliver some 350 tons of humanitarian aid.

Nirav Patel wrote in Joint Forces Quarterly that "The Sichuan earthquake is a quintessential example of an airlift-dependent disaster relief operation. Roads, bridges, and tunnels were destroyed, limiting access to almost 40,000 square miles of earthquake-devastated lands. Despite President Hu directing Chinese resources to respond to the crisis, significant airlift capability gaps have hindered responses to relief operations, which require strong air-, land-, and seabased assets. Airpower is demonstrated not only by possession of air superiority fighters, but also by a full-spectrum composition of capabilities to respond to any challenge to a nations security. Airlift is a critical element of a nations ability to project power overseas, and Chinas shortcomings in this area highlight big gaps in its airpower. Many of the capabilities and assets required for large-scale disaster and humanitarian relief operations are also useful for direct action operations."

Only a "Panda-Hugger" would suggest that China developed the Y-20 solely for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations. Chinese capabilities to project military power in the areas around the immediate periphery of China are far superior to Chinese military capabilities in more distant areas. Formidable Chinese forces have long existed for operations in areas of Asia that are contiguous to China. Beyond this zone, Chinese military activities have traditionally been limited principally to military assistance. In the new century, however, Chinese military presence abroad has increased significantly. Chinese naval presence at very long ranges from China have emerged with counter-piracy operations off the coast of Somalia.

It is important to distinguish between "global military reach" and the more common notion of military "power projection." The essential distinction between military reach and power projection is the nature and scope of military operations envisioned under each concept. Military reach is associated with smaller scale operations, often in the context of supporting an ally in a regional crisis. Power projection envisions the deployment of major combined-arms formations, usually against substantial opposition.

Whereas the projection of US military power has long been regarded by many as vital to US security, Chinese defense has not required the deployment of substantial military forces abroad. Indeed, for the United States all major wars for more than a century have been fought beyond American shores, in the Eastern Hemisphere. Chinese wartime experience has been just the opposite. Therefore, it is not surprising that the two armed forces have been developed with differing requirements, and thus different capabilities.

The forces and operational concepts usually associated with power projection include pre-positioned equipment, rapid deployment and amphibious forces, foreign staging and logistic bases, aircraft carriers, and aerial refueling capabilities. These characteristics have generally been lacking in Chinese forces. Instead, Chinese military involvement abroad has been of a different nature. This involvement global reach includes provision of arms, dispatch of advisers, acquisition of air and sea access, and small-scale deployment of forces.

But as China increasingly acquires power projection capabilities, the temptation to project power, and to embark on initiatives which are predicated on the potential for power projection may grow. Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko said in 1971, that Soviet power had by then grown to the point that no question of substance can be decided without consideration of Soviet interests. And possibly China harbors similar ambitions. The appetite may grow with the eating.

In the 1960s US Secretary of Defense Robert MacNamara sought to augment American power projection capabilities with the C-5 cargo airplane and the Fast Deployment Logistics Ship, to carry cargo by sea. The Congress denied funding for the later on the grounds that it might tempt the United States to become the world's policeman. Senator Richard B. Russell (D-Ga.), chair of the senate Armed Services Committee, was a leading opponent of the FDLS. The Committee's report on the Pentagon's fiscal 1968 authorization bill concluded that "Beyond the cost, the committee is concerned about the possible creation of an impression that the United States has assumed the function of policing the world, and that it can be thought to be at last considering intervention in any kind of strife or commotion occurring in any of the nations of the world. Moreover, if our involvement in foreign conflicts can be made quicker and easier, there is the temptation to intervene in many situations." Or as Sen. Russell warned, "if it is easy for us to go anywhere and do anything, we will always be going somewhere and doing something."

Though Congress delayed the procurement of the FDLS, it funded the Air Force's C-5A. Two decades later, the FDLS was resurrected in the form of prepositioned cargo ships and fast sealift forces. And so it became easy for the US to go anywhere and do anything, and since the end of the Cold War the US has always been going somewhere and doing something.

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