China is speeding its efforts to build a nuclear triad on a par with that of Russia and the United States, and it’s building its own version of America’s still-nascent joint all-domain command and control (JADC2) system, according to the Pentagon’s congressionally mandated annual report on the Chinese military. The Pentagon is now taking a longer view of Beijing’s military plans and development, shifting from a near-term focus to mid-century, when China plans to be the world’s dominant superpower.
The latest installment of “China Military Power” came out in late November, less than a week after the release of the long-delayed National Defense Strategy, which officially anointed China as America’s “pacing military threat,” rather than a “global competitor.”
The 170-page Pentagon report acknowledges that the People’s Republic China (PRC) has a multi-decade plan to become the world’s greatest nuclear and conventional military superpower, first by achieving parity with the U.S. circa 2035, and becoming unchallenged by mid-century. The Pentagon had been measuring its ability to deal with China by the capabilities each side would have circa 2027, when it’s expected that China would have the means to make a quick and successful invasion of Taiwan.
However, a senior defense official, briefing the press on the report in December, said the Pentagon does not expect an invasion of Taiwan in the near term.
“I don’t see any imminent indications of an invasion,” the official said.
Instead, the Pentagon is focused on China’s “intimidating and coercive military behavior,” such as large-scale aviation incursions into Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone, he said, or its island-building projects to establish physical control over disputed areas of the South China Sea and elsewhere. There are also tactical provocations “we would highlight as being dangerous,” he added, including unsafe aircraft intercepts, close passes by Chinese military ships, reckless use of lasers, and generally “unprofessional behavior” in the international commons.
The report delves into China’s “intensified” all-of-government campaign to invoke Sun Tzu’s principle of winning without fighting. Beijing is applying not only political and military pressure against Taipei, but economic and media pressure to “legitimize PRC coercive actions against Taiwan,” by convincing the world the U.S. and China agree that Taiwan is merely a breakaway province from the mainland. By convincing the world that China’s “One China” policy is essentially the same as the U.S. policy by the same name, it hopes to convince others that the United States is an aggressor for supplying Taiwan with weapons and offering to come to its military aid.
For the long term, China has been overt in recent years saying it seeks to “revise the international order in support of Beijing’s system of government and national interests,” the report noted, meaning that China plans to reshape the world to its own benefit, and using its more powerful military as a backstop to that effort.
Challenging boundaries and military exercises meant to threaten adversaries are part of China’s “new normal,” the defense official said. Consequently, the U.S. military must seek to deter China on a decades-long basis.
A Dash for Nuclear Parity
China is rapidly building silos for intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), and may have about 1,500 nuclear warheads by 2035, the Pentagon said. Compared to 2020, that represents “a dramatically accelerated pace” of nuclear weapons construction, the senior defense official said: a “rapid buildup” that is “too substantial to keep under wraps.”
China’s inventory of about 400 nuclear warheads is only a fraction of that wielded by the U.S. and Russia, which have about 3,700 and 4,500 nuclear warheads, respectively. But the PRC has added some 100 warheads in the past year or so, and shows no sign of slowing down, the report notes. The PRC has indicated repeatedly that it has no interest in joining U.S.-Russian strategic arms treaties. China likely won’t even entertain the idea until it has achieved rough parity in nuclear arms.
China recently built some 300 new ICBM silos. In 2021, China test-launched 135 ballistic missiles, more than the rest of the world combined. To complicate its deterrent threat, some of China’s ICBMs will be road-mobile.
Chinese nuclear activities “exceed” its previous efforts “in terms of the scale, the numbers, and also the complexity and technological sophistication of the capabilities,” the official said.
China is fielding its first nuclear-capable bomber, the H-6N, which will be able to refuel while airborne, the Pentagon said. While the H-6N is derived from a 1970s-vintage Soviet design, China is also developing a stealthy long-range “flying wing” bomber, the H-20, with a range nearly as great as the U.S. Air Force’s B-2. It is also developing smaller, medium-range stealth bombers and submarines capable of launching nuclear weapons.
China is also making strides in cyber, space, and electronic warfare weapons, the Pentagon said. Senior defense officials have acknowledged that China is ahead in electronic warfare and, broadly, in “full spectrum” and “information” warfare.
A JADC2 for the PLA
A new PLA (People’s Liberation Army) doctrine, or “core operational concept,” published in 2021 is “multi-domain precision warfare.” Clearly patterned on the what the U.S. military now calls joint all-domain command and control, the new construct calls for more elaborate sensor-to-shooter networks, and the use of artificial intelligence to identify key targets and strike them with whatever weapons are best positioned and suited to achieve the desired effects. By linking capabilities across the surface, subsurface, air, space, and cyber domains, China aims to impose targeting problems on its adversaries, just as JADC2 does for the United States.
China’s concept is also called “systems destruction warfare,” the U.S. official said, and it seeks to target vulnerabilities in the American kill chain.
“Basically … they’re thinking about looking across domains to identify vulnerabilities in an adversary’s operational system,” and exploit those vulnerabilities with both kinetic and nonkinetic means “to cause its collapse,” the official explained.
Pentagon acquisition and sustainment chief William LaPlante said last fall that China has become “really good” at modern warfare.
“They can do the kill chain,” he told attendees at a Potomac Officers Club seminar in October. “They’ve figured that out.”
The U.S. military has touted JADC2 as the key capability in a potential conflict with a more robust Chinese military. If China also deploys such a system, many American command and control advantages could be negated.
Perhaps more explicitly than the U.S. National Defense Strategy, China is seeking all-of-government approaches to achieving its objectives in a “coordinated and mutually reinforcing” way to achieve “the ambitious objectives Xi Jinping has laid out” for 2049, the official said. Economic, political, social, and military capabilities will be used “in pursuit of [China’s] regional and global ambitions,” he added.
China’s Military Spending Continues to Grow
China’s stated military spending—along with undisclosed investments—continues to grow. China increased defense spending 6.8 percent in 2021, to $209 billion, or about 1.3 percent of its gross domestic product. This “continues more than 20 years of annual defense spending increases” and makes the PRC the second-largest military spender in the world after the U.S., according to the assessment. Indeed, from 2012 to 2021, China’s defense spending doubled.
China does not disclose spending on military espionage, investment in its defense industrial base or research and development, or its foreign weapon procurement spending. Nor does it disclose military space investment, among other secret aspects of its national security program. And because China spends a fraction of what the U.S. spends per service member on pay and benefits, it can spend “far more … for training, operations and modernization.”
The Pentagon estimates that Chinese military spending growth will plateau and perhaps decline in the coming decade, with annual increases in the 4 percent range rather than 6 percent or more as in recent years. By 2025 or so, China will not only have solidified its position as the world’s second-biggest defense spender, but it is more likely to be at parity, given the lack of transparency in its total defense investments.
The People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) and Navy (PLAN) are making significant gains in military aviation, the Pentagon noted.
“The platforms they’re developing” are improving, as are the air-to-air missiles that go with them, and integrated air defense systems, the official said.
The report noted that after years of struggling with indigenous engines for military aircraft, China is switching out the Russian-made powerplants in the J-10 and J-20 fighters in favor of Chinese-made WS-10 high-bypass turbines. The report predicted that China will largely switch to domestic engines in the next few years.
China is also in production with its Y-20 transport, a look-alike to the U.S. Air Force C-17.
“We’re seeing improvements in all those kinds of areas,” while at the same time the PLAAF and PLAN are “trying to make their training and exercises more sophisticated, more realistic,” he said. The Chinese are finally succeeding at this after years of less-than-successful attempts, he said, and they are on track to achieving a “world-class air force” by 2049.
The PLAAF is “progressing on all fronts, from equipment to the training to the quality of pilots and other personnel,” the official said.
The report noted that China’s missile systems—including its cruise and ballistic missiles—“are comparable in quality to systems of other international top-tier suppliers.” China tested “a new hypersonic weapon system in 2021, building on previous progress, and in 2020 “fielded its first missile with a hypersonic glide vehicle, and advanced its scramjet engine development,” which has application to a range of new systems.
A hypersonic transport aircraft may also not be too far off, the report notes.
“In 2021 and 2022, China conducted flight-tests of a reusable suborbital vehicle believed to be part of a plan to build a hypersonic transport system that could take people and cargo anywhere on Earth in less than an hour.” As quoted from a China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology report, the system “will feature winged aircraft that can take off and land like ordinary aircraft, but cruise at five times the speed of sound at high altitude.”
The U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory is exploring its own “Rocket Cargo” system that could achieve similar results, one of its “Vanguard” technology initiatives. But U.S. technologists predict such a U.S. hypersonic transport is easily a decade away.
China has tested two uncrewed spaceplanes—”Shenlong” and “Tengyun”—which seem to be analogous to the U.S. X-37B experimental space platform, the Pentagon reported. The second such craft was orbited in 2022 for “an extended period of time,” which also mirrors the operational mode of the X-37B.
The Pentagon noted that China’s civilian space success, on a first try each, of landing and operating scientific exploration rovers on the moon and Mars in the last few years, along with the rapid construction of a space station initial testing of crewed lunar exploration craft is indicative of the strides made by its space technology enterprise. The report also noted that in addition to state-run space launch companies, China has created—in the last two years—pseudo-private rocket companies analogous to SpaceX and Blue Origin, which have already lofted satellites successfully.
In ground vehicles, China is advancing rapidly “in nearly every category,” from tanks to infantry fighting vehicles, mobile air defense systems and artillery “at or near world-class standards.” A new main battle tank is being tested, however, “quality deficiencies exist” with some of the equipment, and this has hampered China’s defense exports in ground equipment.
Risk of Miscalculation
As China grows its military and capabilities—and uses its increasing power to intimidate—the risk grows for potential miscalculation, the defense official said. The two nations need direct means of communication between the Chinese and U.S. military leadership, and to practice that to drive toward peaceful coexistence.
“Even as strategic competition intensifies, that doesn’t mean that confrontation or conflict is inevitable or unavoidable,” he said. The U.S. wants to manage its competition with China “responsibly,” he said. Both nations should do what they can to ensure the competition doesn’t “veer into conflict unnecessarily.”