Any analysis of China’s military must start with the understanding that the country’s ultimate aim is to be the world’s leading superpower. China’s leaders, embodied by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), are convinced that the country has earned this status due to its great human, intellectual, industrial and political potential. And thanks to decades of nationalist propaganda, the Chinese people share this view.
In addition to these aspirations, the CCP views the West, and the United States in particular, as the primary roadblock in its path to this well-deserved geopolitical dominance. How do we know this? In part, our understanding of how China views the world comes from the Chinese government itself. While it is easy to be cynical about information from government sources, you can learn a surprising amount through careful parsing of official statements, speeches and documents. To understand a communist regime’s intentions, one should learn to hear not only what they say, but also what they don’t, and to read between the lines. Fortunately, the PRC has recently published a white paper entitled “China’s National Defense in the New Era” that offers some insight into its military worldview:
The U.S. has adjusted its national security and defense strategies, and adopted unilateral policies. It has provoked and intensified competition among major countries, significantly increased its defense expenditure, pushed for additional capacity in nuclear, outer space, cyber and missile defense, and undermined global strategic stability.
It is clear that China is couching its expansionist ambitions as a reaction to what it sees as America’s hegemonic policies. As a result, actions such as forcefully “reunifying” with Taiwan or supporting a North Korean bid to unify the Korean peninsula with tanks rather than diplomacy would be explained as reactions to America’s aggressive policies, which left the PRC no choice.
Interestingly, the citizens of Taiwan as well as dissidents in Tibet are commonly called “separatists,” and the document says that they are “posing threats to China’s national security and social stability.” So, according to this line of reasoning, any forceful attempt to bring separatists under the PRC’s banner would be considered as countering the threat to national security and social stability. “China must be and will be reunited.”
Clear enough. However, the white paper also reveals China’s intent in more veiled ways: “We will not attack unless we are attacked, but we will surely counterattack if attacked.” At first blush this might seem like another straightforward statement eschewing offensive war. Having lived under a communist regime (albeit a different one), we believe the statement gives the PRC cover to launch a war of its choosing based on the word “attacked.” Knowing communism all too well, we believe that China’s leaders would feel free to decide what constitutes an attack at their convenience.
“One of the missions of China’s armed forces is to effectively protect the security and legitimate rights and interests of overseas Chinese people, organizations and institutions,” the document states. We all know what protecting people abroad means. Both Nazi Germany and post-Soviet Russia used the “need to protect” its nationals in other countries as pretexts for expansionist actions. There are many nations in Asia, such as Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and Singapore, with significant ethnic Chinese populations that often affect local politics. Also, China’s political and economic expansion through business investment as well as the Belt and Road Initiative place significant numbers of Chinese citizens and assets around the world.
If your goals are corralling separatists, counterattacking enemies, and protecting Chinese people and assets overseas, then you are going to need a world-class military to accomplish them. Is China creating land, sea and air forces capable of supporting the CCP’s policies, stated and unstated?
Modernizing China’s Military
The last decade has seen huge reforms of China’s armed forces in almost all areas: management, structure, training and equipment. In the command-and-control area, Soviet-era methods have been replaced by the Western model of dividing responsibilities for field operations, logistics and supply, and personnel administration into separate groups.
Some things haven’t changed. At the top of the armed forces hierarchy remains the Central Military Commission (CMC) through which the CCP leadership maintains control. The commission is chaired by Xi Jinping, who also happens to be CCP secretary general and China’s president. Firmly in power for 10 years and poised to begin another five-year term, Xi is the final political and military authority in the country.
Directly reporting to CMC is the Joint Staff, which exercises control over the four equal services of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA)—the PLA Army, PLA Air Force, PLA Navy and PLA Rocket Force—and a separate service responsible for organizing, preparing, training and sustaining troops, the PLA Strategic Support Force. The PLA also has undergone major equipment modernizations, which has greatly increased its combat capabilities. A lot of obsolescent equipment has been stored or is gone altogether, while troops have received new types of military hardware in virtually all categories, ranging from small arms to strategic bombers. Perhaps most importantly, the Chinese military has moved toward computerized and networked forces.
In its quest for a leaner and more professional fighting force, the PRC is emphasizing quality over quantity for its military. The training and discipline of PLA personnel also has been improved. A survey of numerous Chinese articles dealing with the problem of morale and effectiveness shows that the CMC has put special emphasis on these important areas.
China is developing such tools for a purpose. Its foreign policy is clearly expansive, with the use of economic initiatives and investment, power-backed diplomacy, aggressive informational activity and occasionally soft military power (spying, cyberattacks, military aid to allied countries) to grow its influence in Asia and Africa and generally to play an increasingly significant role in the world. In this respect, the possibility of a significant Chinese-U.S. military clash is becoming more and more likely. The question then becomes, how do the two countries armed forces stack up against each other?
Defending the Homeland
Since a U.S.-led land invasion of mainland China is not seriously contemplated, we can dispense with a thorough examination of the PLA Army. Suffice it to say that it is large and relatively well-equipped. The quality of Chinese ground forces continues to improve, not only because of technical modernization and serious efforts to improve training, but also due to the reorganization policies outlined above. The old heavy and sluggish army of old has been replaced by units that are much smaller, more mobile, more flexible and easier to support. The only thing the PLA Army lacks is combat experience, something we can only hope they will have few opportunities to gain in the future.
U.S. airpower capabilities remain peerless. In global precision strike, air defense penetration, and round-the-clock, adverse weather fighting, the United States is at least a generation ahead of its rivals. At the same time, Chinese air defense capabilities have become quite sophisticated and would present a challenge to U.S. airpower.
China has a tremendous radar network, which continues to grow and can be used to monitor the whole eastern half of the country, where most of China’s population (and potential military targets) are located. Indeed, along the coast, the radar coverage forms a continuous chain that can detect objects from very high altitude down to the Earth’s surface. Recently China developed a wide range of new, sophisticated radars with phased array antennas and advanced digital processing technologies.
China has been incorporating the islands it has built for itself in the South China Sea as elements of its integrated area defense network. Cmdr J. Michael Dahm, a retired U.S. Navy intelligence officer and now a senior national security researcher at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, has written a series of white papers on China’s military capabilities in the South China Sea. In “Air and Surface Radar” published in 2020, he offered this excellent description of the comprehensive nature of the new Chinese air surveillance radar systems:
Detection threats from the PLA radar network to foreign military ships and aircraft lie not in the strength of any one system. The radar threat on the Chinese outposts are found in the diversity, redundancy, and overlapping frequency coverage that are characteristic of Chinese capabilities focused on control of battlespace information.
China has also made great strides in its stealth detection capabilities. The United States has made tremendous investments in stealth aircraft, including the F-22 air superiority fighter, F-35 strike fighter and B-2 Spirit strategic bomber. China has made countering this technology a priority. For example, the huge JY-27A radar uses synthetic aperture radar to accurately track stealth aircraft at reasonably long distances. China is probably the first country in the world to have such a system deployed and potentially available for export.
According to Justin Bronk, an analyst at the U.K.-based Royal United Services Institute for Defense and Security Studies, China has also been investing heavily in a range of multispectral sensors that use reflections from background electromagnetic emissions, such as mobile phone networks, and other advanced techniques to detect airborne targets. “China’s efforts to uncloak American stealth aircraft are already surpassing those undertaken by Russia,” he wrote in his 2020 report “Modern Russian and Chinese Integrated Air Defense Systems.” The ground-based radars in the PLA’s air defense network are supplemented by a growing number of airborne warning and control aircraft that greatly enhance China’s surveillance capabilities.
When it comes to surface-to-air missiles (SAMs), the Chinese also possess very advanced capabilities. Indeed, Chinese missiles can engage enemy aircraft, as well as cruise and ballistic missiles and drones. China not only managed to purchase the most modern Russian SAMs, like S-300PMU-2 and S-400 systems, but has also developed domestic equivalents. The Chinese HQ-9, which is an improved version of the Russian S-300PMU-2, has already entered service and is deployed around some strategically important targets. Both the S-300PMU-2 and Chinese HQ-9 are roughly equivalent to the U.S. Patriot system and in some areas exceed its capabilities, especially in engagement range and altitude.
The PLA is about to field an even more advanced air defense and anti-ballistic missile defense system known as HQ-19. The HQ-19 system is comparable to the U.S. Terminal High Altitude Air Defense system. It is also worth mentioning that China has developed a wide range of highly effective medium-, short- and very-short-range SAM systems. Taken together, the entirety of the PLA’s air defense network forms sophisticated, multilayer kill zones that fully support the nation’s anti-access/area-denial strategy aimed at keeping U.S. forces at bay.
China has also made impressive progress with its fighter programs. It is even fielding a fifth-generation fighter with stealth characteristics, the J-20, in advance of Russia’s corresponding Su-57 program. Although still only available in modest numbers—about 60—this is shaping up to be a potent force eventually, particularly when armed with the new PL-15 air-to-air missile, which is reputed to have nearly three times the range of the AMRAAM, the U.S. equivalent.
The PLA Air Force also operates approximately 1,000 quite modern fourth-generation fighters, with types roughly equivalent to the U.S. F-15 Eagle, F-16 Falcon and F-18 Super Hornet fighters. It is important to note that the number of U.S. land-based fighters available to face China would be restricted to the bases of allies such as Taiwan, Japan and South Korea, which would be subject to suppression by PLA attacks and possibly even made unavailable due to political considerations. There is no hope for America to achieve numerical advantage over the PLA Air Force without deploying the balance of its aircraft carrier fleet, which would be vulnerable to China’s anti-ship missiles, which are numerous and of great variety and capability.
All in all, considering the PLA’s air defense and fighter strength, the PRC may consider itself secure on its eastern flank against air attack, even if pressed by America’s preeminent airpower. The U.S. may find itself playing defense in any conflict in the Western Pacific, forced to contend primarily with protecting its allies in the region.
Many of China’s defensive capabilities also can be used for offensive operations. For instance, the country’s fighters can strike many targets in the “first island chain,” the archipelago stretching from Japan in the north to Indonesia in the south, including notably Taiwan. And long-range SAM systems extend the PRC’s air dominance over the inland seas. Moreover, the PLA is increasing its stock of ballistic and cruise missiles and bombers to project power even farther.
Victory at Sea
If the PRC must be regarded as a formidable, if not the foremost, power in the Indo-Pacific, the question remains whether this aspiring superpower has a global reach to match its strategic goals and ambitions. In the short term, the answer is no. Even with the growing size of the PLA Navy, there is no comparison with the power and capability of the U.S. Navy, especially when the latter’s allies are taken into consideration.
Naval capability is the key instrument of global power due to its potential dominance of global oceanic trade, and ability to reach inland far enough to account for most of the world’s population. The PLA Navy is the second-strongest in the world; however the gap in capabilities between it and the U.S. Navy, which has held first place since the early 1940s, is very large and probably will never be closed.
China already operates two large aircraft carriers, Liaoning and Shandong. The first, commissioned in 2012, is based on the hull of an unfinished Soviet carrier. It serves as a training vessel and a means for China to gain experience in carrier operations. The second ship, commissioned in December 2019, represents a much-improved version of the first vessel and was designed and built in China. A third carrier is under construction, and the fourth is now under development. Each of these ships can be seen as an evolutionary improvement over the last. The third carrier would be the first using steam catapults to assist aircraft launches, while the fourth one will be nuclear-powered, providing true global range and duration.
The Liaoning is roughly the equivalent of the Russian Admiral Kuznetsov and can accommodate 26 J-15 fighters and 14 helicopters. The slightly larger Shandong can accommodate 32 J-15 fighters and 12 helicopters. The combat load of the jets is limited by the ships’ “ski-jump” flight decks. With the third and fourth carriers, steam catapults will enable aircraft to launch from the flight deck with a full combat load of fuel and weapons. Another advantage of the newer carriers is that they will be able to carry more aircraft. While the Shandong can support only half as many aircraft as a typical American supercarrier, the fourth, nuclear-powered Chinese ship is expected to carry almost as many aircraft.
The PLA Navy also operates 37 modern destroyers armed with capable missile systems, comparable to U.S. Aegis destroyers. Most of them have vertical-launch systems with 64 cells, able to accommodate long- and medium-range air defense missiles, anti-ship missiles, land attack missiles and rocket-assisted anti-submarine torpedoes. All have sophisticated electronic systems, including actively scanning phased array radars and electronic countermeasures. The newest destroyers are to be equipped with HHJ-19 missiles (a shipworthy version of the HJ-19 mentioned above) with considerable anti-ballistic missile capabilities.
China also operates 49 slightly less capable frigates and 44 smaller corvettes (70 are planned), which can be used for escort and coastal defense duties. Those forces are supported by more than 90 conventional and 30 nuclear submarines armed with torpedoes. Many are also armed with anti-ship missiles that can be fired from the torpedo tubes.
China’s amphibious force consists of two landing helicopter dock ships (eight planned), seven large amphibious transport docks (eight planned) and 63 medium-size landing ships. Such force may be deemed more than adequate to conduct a major amphibious operation against Taiwan.
Can these ships endanger an American carrier strike group? We believe that when combined with submarines and land-based naval attack fighters, they could seriously challenge U.S. forces, which have grown accustomed to having their way in the world. China represents the most significant threat to U.S. naval supremacy since World War II. The PLA Air Force and Navy have the ability to launch a massive missile strike against a U.S. carrier group that is unprecedented. Massive, joint firepower is the cornerstone of Chinese military doctrine.
At the same time, China has no hope of matching U.S. power away from its own shores. There is little or no prospect of the PLA Navy wresting control of the Central Pacific or Indian Ocean—let alone the North Atlantic—from America. However, it is extremely easy to envision a PLA Navy task force with one or more carriers, amphibious warfare ships, destroyers and submarines operating off a foreign coast in Asia or Africa to protect China’s interests.
The PLA is now transforming into a world-class military force. A huge leap forward has already been accomplished. The modernization of weapons and equipment is well advanced, already placing China ahead of Russia in this field. Prior training inadequacies have also been addressed, and we can expect that training will greatly improve in the near future. As much as it may pain the West to consider, China’s military might must now be factored into any geopolitical calculations the U.S. and its allies make in the Western Pacific.