About 25 years ago, an American intelligence officer was asked how far the Chinese could project military power. His terse answer: “About as far as their army can walk.”
Today, that statement is most assuredly no longer true.
China has accomplished perhaps the most remarkable expansion of military power since the US geared up for World War II. In the last 15 years it has deployed nuclear and conventional missiles that can reach US forces from the western Pacific to Washington, D.C.
China’s military is also assembling a set of capabilities designed to avoid or offset traditional US advantages. This is sometimes referred to as a high-end asymmetric threat. Specifically, the Chinese are assembling a cyber apparatus intended to gather intelligence from US telecommunications and, if hostilities erupt, to close down US electronic communications and computers.
A Chinese soldier points to targets at Shenyang training base in China.(DOD photo by SSgt. D. Myles Cullen)
Beijing has fielded an array of advanced jet aircraft, anti-aircraft missiles, radar, anti-air and anti-submarine ships, and minelayers intended to deny US air and naval forces access to Chinese skies and waters.
The Chinese have started building a blue-water Navy capable of projecting power toward Alaska, toward Guam and Hawaii, and particularly to patrol the sea-lanes in the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean. This expansion has been fueled by the surging Chinese economy that has provided double-digit annual increases in Beijing’s military budgets.
As Adm. Robert F. Willard, commander of US Pacific Command, testified in January, China has developed “robust power projection capabilities.” The buildup of that power, Willard said, calls into question Beijing’s claim that modernizing the People’s Liberation Army, which comprises all of China’s armed forces, is only for defense.
A high priority for the PLA is to prepare for a swift conquest of Taiwan and prevent the US from arriving in time to help drive off an invasion.
To accomplish this, the Congressional Research Service said in a recent study, the PLA is assembling a broad array of weapons and seeking to knit them together and to deny US access to the skies and waters around Taiwan. This arsenal includes anti-ship ballistic missiles, anti-ship cruise missiles, land-attack cruise missiles, surface-to-air missiles, mines, aircraft, submarines, and other weapons.
In fact, the right to employ “non-peaceful means” to force reunification is written into Chinese law.
During the 60th anniversary parade for the People’s Republic of China on Oct. 1, 2009, new weaponry was prominently displayed. The PLA has more than 1,500 ballistic missiles capable of hitting the island, with more continually being added.
China’s failure to explain the goals of its military buildup is a source of frustration for senior US commanders. “Our goal is to understand China’s military intentions and capabilities. … We do need to understand their intent,” said Gen. Gary L. North, head of Pacific Air Forces, in a November speech.
Pointing to a potential threat from China, Willard said, “It is critical that we maintain the readiness of our postured forces; continually reinforce our commitment to our allies and partners in the region; and meet each challenge by the [People’s Republic of China] in a professional manner that is consistent with international law.”
The director of national intelligence, Dennis C. Blair, a retired admiral and PACOM commander from 1999 to 2002, told Congress the People’s Liberation Army had acquired missiles “capable of hitting foreign military bases and warships in the western Pacific,” where the only foreign bases and warships are American.
Blair said China has improved its “ability to execute an anti-access and area-denial strategy in the western Pacific.” This fact is increasingly factored into US military planning in the region, and the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review made an explicit point to call for greater hardening and redundancy at bases threatened by anti-access capabilities.
A B-52 bomber takes off from Andersen AFB, Guam. USAF keeps a continuous bomber presence on the island to shore up US military power in the Pacific region.(USAF photo by SrA. Christopher Bush)
To deter China, the US has been shifting the weight of its air and sea power from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Six of 11 aircraft carriers and 29 of 52 attack submarines now operate in the PACOM area of responsibility.
The Pentagon has similarly been realigning US forces in South Korea and Japan, particularly on the island of Okinawa, to make them more flexible.
The Air Force maintains a constant bomber presence at Andersen Air Force Base on Guam in the central Pacific, and F-22 Raptors frequently rotate to Guam or Okinawa. The Global Hawk unmanned, long-range, high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft is scheduled to be deployed to Guam before year-end.
Ballistic missile defenses have been successfully tested against simulated North Korean missile launches. As 10 percent of the 300,000 American soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen in PACOM have been rotated to Iraq and Afghanistan, they have been temporarily replaced by units from the continental US.
In the PACOM headquarters above Pearl Harbor, China consumes about 30 percent of the staff’s time. Willard told reporters, however, that “it would be a mistake to talk about China as an enemy. We need to manage our relations with them.”
Willard’s predecessor at PACOM, now-retired Adm. Timothy J. Keating, was similarly moderate, saying he was not worried about the Chinese—although he watched them closely.
“The Chinese are behind us,” he said. “Unmistakably, they know it. In their words—I’m quoting some of them—they’re 25 years behind us.” Then he relented a bit, acknowledging that “I don’t know that these differences can be quantified simply in terms of years ahead or behind.”
Perhaps the greatest concern is that PLA leaders have grown overconfident of their military capabilities—to a point bordering on arrogance. That, coupled with ignorance of the US armed forces, could cause the Chinese to miscalculate.
PACOM commanders from Adm. Joseph W. Prueher, who dealt with the Chinese when they fired missiles at Taiwan in 1996, through Willard have cautioned the Chinese not to overstep.
Prueher said in a 1998 interview that PACOM need not engage in “breast-beating” about the strength of US military forces. Still, he acknowledged it was occasionally “useful to demonstrate a data point.”
Willard is said to have calmly made a similar point to a senior Chinese general during his visit to PACOM last fall. While emphasizing the need for dialogue, Willard asserted that PACOM would continue to operate where it has traditionally, and would protect sea-lanes vital to the US.
To further dialogue, PACOM has eagerly supported military exchanges with China. The communist nation has broken off these exchanges with the US on several occasions, however, most recently after the US at the end of January announced the approval of a $6.4 billion arms sale to Taiwan that had been languishing for years.
A Dong Feng intercontinental ballistic missile awaits launch at Taiyuan Missile Test Center. China is investing heavily in new missiles, some of which, like this Dong Feng, can reach the continental US.(Photo via Sinodefence.com)
Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communist Party established the PLA in 1927 as the military arm of the party. To this day, the People’s Liberation Army owes its allegiance to the party—not to a government.
As a guerrilla army, the PLA fought the Japanese halfheartedly in World War II, saving its strength to drive the Nationalist Chinese out of the mainland to Taiwan in 1949. The PLA invaded Tibet in 1950, and then fought the US in the Korean War. In addition to limited border clashes with the USSR and India, the PLA invaded Vietnam in 1979 after the country’s invasion of Cambodia—but stalled and soon withdrew.
About this time, China’s leader, Deng Xiaoping, laid down his “Four Modernizations” in which the armed forces fell behind agriculture, industry, and technology. Since that time, the PLA has generally been quiet—except for being called to violently end the Tiananmen Square uprising in Beijing in 1989.
In the meantime, China’s economy raced along and party leaders eventually turned their attention to the PLA. China’s President and party general secretary, Hu Jintao, became chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC) in 2005, and the leaders of the PLA Navy, PLA Air Force, and the Second Artillery (missile forces) were added to what was an Army-dominated CMC. The CMC combines functions similar to those held by the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Secretary of Defense, and the National Security Council.
For power projection, China has opted for missiles rather than bombers, with the PLAAF now cut to 100 bombers from 500 in 1995. The Second Artillery, formed in 1966, is a separate service within the PLA and serves as a strategic force under the direct command and control of the CMC. It is mainly responsible for deterring other countries from using nuclear weapons, while the conventional missile force is charged with conducting medium- and long-range precision strikes against key strategic and operational targets of the enemy—read: US bases in South Korea, Japan, and Guam.
Sorting through the Chinese missile programs is no easy task. GlobalSecurity.org, an independent military research institute, notes the diversity of the missile programs, with complexity compounded by a bewildering array of designations attached to each missile.
Declared Chinese nuclear doctrine precludes launching a first strike. The Chinese have deployed about 1,300 short-range and 600 medium-range ballistic missiles, most with conventional warheads. These could hit US forces in South Korea and in Japan, including Okinawa. Some medium-range missiles could also hit Guam’s Andersen Air Force Base.
The Second Artillery has relatively few long-range missiles, but some use solid fuel, are mobile, and can be launched on short notice.
The main nuclear missiles in the Chinese arsenal are the Dong Feng (East Wind) 31, which with a range of 5,000 miles can hit Alaska, Hawaii, and the West Coast, and the Dong Feng 5, with a range of some 8,000 miles, which can hit anywhere in the continental US.
China is now developing a long-range next generation missile, the Dong Feng 41, a solid fueled, mobile missile which can travel 7,400 miles with greater accuracy. Willard reported China is also developing a new submarine-launched ballistic missile, the JL-2, capable of reaching the West Coast of the US.
Significant hardware modernization notwithstanding, a main shortcoming for the PLA today is personnel. A majority of Chinese soldiers, sailors, and airmen have only ninth-grade educations, which barely qualifies them to maintain high-tech equipment. Moreover, the PLA is a conscripted rather than a recruited force, in which young men and women serve for only two years. This forces Chinese officers to do the work of noncommissioned officers—or even their junior enlisted equivalents in Western armed forces.
The PLA leadership has begun putting greater emphasis on recruiting educated young people, on retention, and on expanding educational programs.
Just as China’s missile programs counter the strength the US derives from its global basing presence, the PLA is pursuing other asymmetric capabilities designed to neutralize American military advantages.
“This is a strategy for the weak, not the strong,” one China scholar asserted. Even so, the Chinese have US officials worried—especially on the cyber front.
One area where the Chinese have already invested heavily is to secure the people and devices needed to hack into US government, military, and civilian information systems. China is pursuing these cyber attack capabilities not only to disrupt US systems, but also to cause allies to lose confidence in the US security guarantee.
“I’m often asked what keeps me up at night. No. 1 one [is] the cyber threat,” said Deputy Secretary of Defense William J. Lynn III. “If we don’t maintain our capabilities to defend our networks in the face of an attack, the consequences for our military, and indeed for our whole national security, could be dire.”
Officials are reluctant to discuss the cyber threat, as many details of the Chinese capabilities and possible US responses are classified.
The staff of the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, set up by Congress in 2000, has produced a study of the Chinese operation. The Chinese goal, the report said, “is to establish control of an adversary’s information flow and maintain dominance in the battlespace.”
The Chinese call this “informationization.” It tasks the PLA to attack targets such as intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance systems with an array of jamming and anti-satellite weapons. The commission’s report said computer network tools would be widely employed in the earliest phases of a conflict, and possibly pre-emptively against an enemy’s information systems to delay US deployments and reduce effectiveness of troops in the region.
To do this, the PLA is reaching out across a wide swath of the Chinese civilian sector to meet the intensive personnel requirements to support its burgeoning information warfare capabilities, the report states, incorporating people with specialized skills from commercial industry, academia, and possibly select elements of China’s hacker community.
China is also likely using its maturing network capabilities to support intelligence collection against the US government and industry. The information gained could benefit a nation’s defense industry, space program, high-technology industries, foreign policymakers interested in US leadership thinking on China, and foreign military planners building an intelligence picture that could be exploited in a crisis.
When Keating visited China in 2007, a Chinese admiral noted his nation was beginning to build aircraft carriers and suggested that China and the US split the Pacific Ocean. The proposal was for the Chinese Navy to secure the western portion of the Pacific, with the Americans withdrawing to the east.
Keating chuckled, said no thank you, and reaffirmed the US intention to stay in Asia.
Yet while ambitious, building a blue-water Navy may be the least advanced element in China’s military expansion.
China bought an unfinished Russian aircraft carrier in 1998 and started renovations in 2002. Willard said he expects the carrier to become operational around 2012, and that it will be used to develop basic carrier skills. China’s refurbished carrier displaces 55,000 tons and could take 28 airplanes aboard. Analysis indicates it will be decades before China can build carriers which could compete with the US Navy’s nuclear-powered carriers carrying 85 or more aircraft.
China may be acquiring an aircraft carrier as much for political as military reasons. Many Chinese see Japan and India as rivals with greater sea power; a carrier would help close the gap. China has also proclaimed most of the South China Sea to be its territory. A carrier would back up Beijing’s claim, and is seen within the PLA as a way to help defend a lifeline transiting the Strait of Malacca and Indian Ocean.
This sea line is a critical transit channel for oil and raw materials for China’s industry. China is building a naval base on Hainan, the island facing the South China Sea, and another in Gwadar, Pakistan, to gain access on the Indian Ocean.
Underwater, the PLA Navy has put to sea 53 attack submarines driven by diesel-electric engines. These were first assigned to coastal defense, but now venture farther out. China has built six nuclear-powered attack submarines which may eventually sail to the South China Sea and the Pacific and Indian Oceans. The Shang class of boats is similar to the Los Angeles class of attack submarine, displacing 6,000 to 7,000 tons and capable of 40 mph.
The Chinese may not have mastered joint operations, however. A gathering of experts on China sponsored by the National Bureau of Asian Research concluded the PLA has not yet acquired the capability to carry out integrated joint operations, for example when PLA anti-aircraft batteries, PLAN ships and aircraft, PLAAF aircraft and radar, and Second Artillery missiles would all be engaged. Coordinating this would be a monumental task.
Richard Halloran, formerly a New York Times foreign correspondent in Asia and military correspondent in Washington, D.C., is a freelance writer based in Honolulu. His most recent article for Air Force Magazine, “Bullet Vs. Bullet,” appeared in the March 2009 issue.