There were two key takeaways from this year’s Pentagon report on China’s military power: China is clearly setting the stage for a fait accompli coercive takeover of Taiwan, and it is surging to produce a nuclear triad on a rough par with that of the U.S. and Russia early in the 2030s.
China is “preparing every contingency to unify by force” with Taiwan, which it considers a breakaway province, according to a senior Pentagon official who briefed the press on “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China,” released in November. The annual report, required by Congress, covers only the events of 2020, and it was two months late, so it did not capture recent large-scale air exercises in which China penetrated Taiwan’s air defense zone, nor did it discuss China’s recent tests of hypersonic and orbital bombardment systems.
China is developing a networked system similar to the American joint all-domain command and control system, and expects it to be operational circa 2027. This will support “more credible military operations”in a potential Taiwan action, the official said. China is preparing for such a conflict by practicing for a “blockade campaign” and large-scale amphibious landings, while continuing to deploy tactical ballistic missiles near Taiwan. It’s also extending the range of its air defenses and placing front-line combat aircraft in the vicinity.
The goal of all these preparations is to discourage the U.S. from intervening if China decides to move against Taiwan, achieving reunification as a fait accompli, the official said. Beijing’s military preparations are about “wanting to be able to deter, to delay, or otherwise to counter third-party intervention,” the official explained.
The unclassified annual report is based on open-source material such as Chinese military writings and declarations, presentations at international arms shows, and sanitized U.S. intelligence reports about the size and posture of Chinese military forces.
Beijing’s all-of-government approach is also “putting pretty heavy pressure” on Taipei with attempts at diplomatic isolation, information/disinformation campaigns, and cyber intrusions, the official said.
While he declined to comment on whether DOD thinks China has imminent plans to invade Taiwan, under the Taiwan Relations Act, the U.S. would treat with “grave concern” any action, including an economic blockade of the island. U.S. policy is deliberately ambiguous as to whether it would act to halt or reverse an invasion of Taiwan.
The State Department said the U.S. has no intention of changing its policy of making weapons available to Taiwan to “maintain a sufficient self-defense capability.” The U.S. encourages Taiwan to take an “asymmetric security posture” toward China, given that Taiwan cannot match the sheer bulk of China’s military power.
Asked to address the massive air exercises that took place after the report’s timeframe—in which dozens of combat aircraft, electronic warfare aircraft, refueling aircraft and others penetrated Taiwan’s air defense identification zone—the official noted that Chinese activity is expanding and clearly aimed at intimidating Taipei, creating the danger of “miscalculation,” he said. In response, the U.S. and seven partner nations conducted joint aircraft carrier and other naval operations in the Indian Ocean and nearby waters in October.
China’s approach to Taiwan is consistent with its island-building campaign in disputed waters of the South China Sea, where China has built up sandbars and reefs into large airfields and ports. Having air and naval bases there has allowed China to intimidate its neighbors fellow claimants on the area, which China claims as its national waters, and gives it a decided edge if the disputes turn hot, the Pentagon said.
Part of China’s intimidation campaign is the quickening pace of its development and fielding of a nuclear triad. China is on track to field more than 700 nuclear warheads by 2027 and more than 1,000 by 2030, versus about 200 noted in the 2019 edition of the China Military Power Report. This trebling of effort “exceeds the pace and size” the Pentagon estimated in 2019, it said.
China is also moving toward a “launch on warning” posture for its nuclear weapons.
According to the report, the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Forces (PLARF) are developing new ICBMs and sea-launched ballistic missiles, and have begun deploying an air-launched ballistic missile (ALBM) on its H-8 bomber force, collectively now giving China a true nuclear triad.
Satellite photos began circulating in August—again, outside the purview of the 2020 report—of new Chinese missile silo fields. China also demonstrated a hypersonic missile that circled the Earth before gliding to within miles of its target. That prompted Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall to say in September that he believes that country is pursuing a “first-strike capability.”
The Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) didn’t go as far, saying Beijing intends a “credible second-strike” capacity; able to launch “multiple rounds of counterstrike” if attacked, and sufficient to deter an enemy with the threat of “unacceptable damage.”
The U.S. now has 3,750 nuclear warheads fielded, the State Department revealed in October; down from 3,822 in 2018 and 3,805 in 2019. The decline is due to warheads being taken offline because of the decay of their plutonium cores and a sluggish pace of replacement. If that pace of decline continues, the U.S. fielded inventory will decline to around 3,100 warheads by 2030, three times more than China. Beijing will thus not achieve nuclear parity within this decade.
The Pentagon said it can’t rule out further acceleration. The DIA noted that China is expanding its mining and processing of uranium and its ability to “separate plutonium, constructing faster breeder reactors and reprocessing facilities.”
Beijing has consistently rejected invitations to participate with Russia and the U.S. in strategic arms negotiations, and is not a signatory on any nuclear treaties.
In a reference to the new silos, the Pentagon said the PLARF is constructing “at least three new solid-fueled ICBM silo fields, which will cumulatively contain hundreds of new ICBM silos.” At the same time, production of road-mobile DF-26 intermediate-range ballistic missiles continues and China tested its “first hypersonic weapons system, the DF-17 hypersonic glide vehicle-capable medium-range ballistic missile” in 2020. This may have been the hypersonic missile detected on a globe-girdling test in August.
China has about 100 ICBMs in various basing modes including roll-out and road-mobile versions. The number of launchers “appears to be doubling … in some ICBM units,” the Pentagon said. A new DF-5C missile is underway, and a new DF-32 may also be in the works.
The six sea-launched ballistic missile boats in China’s Navy can each carry 12 CSS-N-14 (JL-2) missiles, and a next-generation boat—with upgraded missiles—should appear in the next few years, according to the Pentagon.
China’s nuclear bomber is the H-6N, a derivative of Russia’s Tu-16 Badger bomber, heavily upgraded. Chinese variants include a tanker version and an electronic warfare model, but the H-6N is specifically designed for long-range nuclear strike, having a refueling probe and recessed fuselage space for the ALBM, or up to six land-attack cruise missiles. With air refueling, it can strike targets in the “second island chain” of China’s self-described perimeter from mainland bases. The H-6K naval variant can carry new YJ-12 missiles to the same distance, “significantly extending” China’s maritime strike capacity.
In January, China issued a video teasing a new, large, flying-wing-style aircraft, which was hidden under a tarpaulin; a near-parody of a similar Northrop Grumman commercial touting that company’s role as prime contractor for the Air Force’s new B-21 bomber. The Pentagon said this new Chinese bomber will be stealthy, and may be called the H-20.
The bomber employs “many fifth-generation technologies,” the Pentagon estimated, and it likely has a range of 8,500 kilometers with a payload of “at least 10 metric tons.” However, it will likely take “more than a decade” to develop it, the Pentagon predicted. The Defense Department has been surprised before, however, at how rapidly China develops and fields advanced aircraft and missiles, often leveraging stolen technology from the West.
Taken together—rapidly fielding nuclear weapons, developing new nuclear weapons, and bolstering the nuclear infrastructure—China’s nuclear activity “is certainly very concerning to us,” the official said.
“It raises some questions,” he observed. “We’d like to have more insight into their intentions. … They haven’t really explained why they’re doing it.” Beijing’s shift to a launch-on-warning posture is also worrying, as are recent military papers saying that while China has a “no-first-use” policy, “maybe that wouldn’t apply” in all circumstances, the official pointed out.
The developments collectively also put greater importance on efforts to get China to the nuclear arms table, to pursue some “practical measures for risk reduction,” the official said. To be “responsible,” nations with nuclear weapons “need to have discussions with each other,” he said.
With 2,800 aircraft—not including trainers or unmanned systems—China’s air force and navy together have the largest air capability in the Indo-Pacific, and “the third largest in the world,” the report said. Of those aircraft, 2,250 are combat-coded fighters, bombers and multirole aircraft, and the Pentagon said that in the near future, the bulk of this force will be “fourth generation” or better; meaning they are on a par with Western F-15, F-16, F/A-18, and Mirage 2000 types.
These developments are “gradually eroding” the longstanding U.S. advantage in air power, the Pentagon said. The People’s Liberation Army Air Force is “rapidly catching up to Western air forces.”
China’s air arms are transitioning from strictly air defense to “strategic” power projection, with an increasing proficiency in long range, abetted by an increase in air refueling systems.
China’s fifth-generation aircraft—stealthy, and with advanced sensors and possibly sensor fusion—include the J-20 Mighty Dragon and the FC-31 Gyrfalcon. In October, images of a two-seat J-20 circulated on the internet, suggesting a role for the backseater either as a ground-attack weapons operator or manager of unmanned escort aircraft. Soon after, images of the FC-31 emerged, clearly showing its purpose as a naval aircraft, with wing-fold mechanisms and a catapult bar on the dual-wheeled nose gear.
Upgrades to the J-20 include more internal air-to-air missile carriage and possibly thrust-vectoring engines; whether those will be axisymmetric round nozzles or two-dimensional types such as the F-22 uses is not clear. The new indigenous WS-15 engines, will have “supercruise capability,” enabling supersonic speeds without using gas-guzzling afterburners.
Non-government experts estimate China has about 100 to 150 of the jets. The FC-31 is still in development, and only a handful have been built. By comparison, the U.S. Air Force has about 180 F-22s and 300 F-35s, and is adding fewer than 50 F-35As each year.
China also has “new medium- and long-range stealth bombers” in development “to strike regional and global targets.” It has taken delivery of all 24 Su-35 Flankers it ordered from Russia, the Su-35 being the most advanced version of the jet. It also fields numerous J-15 copies of earlier Flanker variants, and has developed a carrier-capable version.
Bottom line: The Pentagon expects China to achieve its stated goal of becoming a “world class military power” on par with the U.S. military by 2035. Indeed, it could achieve that goal by 2030.