China has rapidly modernized its air force, with iterative generations of fighter aircraft. A YY-20 tanker refueled two J-10 fighter jets in July. The J-10 is an indigenous design, part of China's drive to be self sufficient as its own high-end weapons supplier. Qiang Teng/China Ministry of Defense
Photo Caption & Credits

The China Threat 

Aug. 31, 2023

Understanding the strategy driving the Chinese Communist Party and its People’s Liberation Army. 

When Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall said in 2021 that his top concerns were “China, China, and China,” it wasn’t exactly a surprise. Kendall came back into government specifically because of his growing concern over competition with China, which he saw in terms of the Cold War competition between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. The 2022 U.S. National Defense Strategy (NDS) pinpointed China as the nation’s pacing threat. Indeed, in May of 2022, U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken described China as “the only country with both the intent to reshape the international order, and, increasingly, the economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to do it.”

Beijing’s multifaceted approach to changing the global world order is increasingly underpinned by military might. But the People’s Liberation Army  (PLA) did not just rise to near-peer status overnight. Unless you are a China analyst or policy wonk—spending your waking hours digging through the annual DOD China Military Power Report—you might not know very much at all about the People’s Liberation Army, the People’s Liberation Army Air Force, and the other components of China’s military.

The PLA began a period of accelerated growth around 2015, with the intended goal to reach near-parity with the U.S. military. From fielding the world’s largest surface fleet to developing fifth-generation fighter aircraft and hypersonic missiles, the PLA rapidly transformed itself. An army that used human wave tactics to “defeat” Vietnam in 1979 now looks radically different in 2023. China’s leader, Chinese Communist Party (CCP) General Secretary Xi Jinping, has repeatedly set 2049 as the target by which he intends China to surpass the United States in comprehensive power. 

How did we get to this point today? And what will the PLA look like in the future?

Mechanization Of The PLA

Many PLA analysts point to the 1990-91 Gulf War as the moment when Chinese Communist Party leadership woke up to understand China’s critical lack of military power. China and the U.S. had suffered a tremendous falling out over the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre and Sino-U.S. relations were still extremely tense as Desert Storm kicked off. The U.S.-led intervention to expel Iraq from Kuwait raised concern in China—about its place in a world where the U.S. was now the sole superpower. As American F-117s crossed the border into Iraq and the U.S. military carried out a joint campaign enabled by precision-guided munitions, crushing the Iraqi Republican Army in short order, Chinese Premier Deng Xiaoping and the rest of the CCP leadership realized that the PLA was effectively defenseless against such weapons. China would need to make significant changes to ensure it could defeat a Desert Storm-style attack on Beijing. 

Broadly speaking, the PLA has been pursuing a modernization effort in what is known as the three “izations:” mechanization, informationization, and intelligentization.  Each of these buzzwords has been added over time. The three represent both successive and complementary phases of overall modernization: 

  • Mechanization refers to augmenting human capabilities with hardware and platforms; 
  • Informationization means transitioning hardware from analog systems to digital systems and developing the network and connectivity between systems to capitalize on the information battlespace; and
  • Intelligentization refers to integrating artificial intelligence and “smart” systems into the military to primarily speed up the PLA’s combat decision-making. 

These  modernization ambitions have been augmented through time with specific military reforms to accelerate the PLA’s modernization goals.

The PLA is fundamentally a party army. The top leadership of the CCP and the CCP’s Central Military Commission (CMC) are responsible for guiding the development of the PLA. Reforms tend to start at the top of this hierarchy, often by policies or strategies put forth by the General Secretary of the CCP, who is normally also the Chairman of the CMC. In a December 2004 speech, then-CCP General Secretary Hu Jintao put forth what became known as the PLA’s “New Historic Missions.”  Hu emphasized leveraging technology to accelerate the modernization of the military to achieve mechanization and informationization, to accelerate the training and organizational structure of the military, to step up the establishment of a joint command combat system, and to prepare the PLA for safeguarding Chinese national interests at home and abroad. A radical departure from the past protect-the-homeland philosophy, the New Historic Missions paved the way for many of the PLA’s developments that we see today, and the impetus to begin developing overseas capabilities.

During the period 2005 to 2015, military modernization under Hu’s guiding principles saw the PLA make significant progress on mechanization. The CMC downsized the PLA’s ground forces and expanded the roles of the PLA Navy (PLAN) and Air Force (PLAAF), began transitioning the PLA Second Artillery Force into the PLA Rocket Force (PLARF), a separate service branch. 

Technologically, China pursued the tried-and-true strategy of duplicating and iterating military technologies from other countries. However, unlike the past, when China relied on acquiring capabilities from the Soviet Union, France, Israel and even the United States, China began instead to emphasize buying platforms, reverse engineering them, and building its own domestic production capability and capacity. The aim was to reduce Chinese reliance on foreign technology and to gain near-complete control of the production chain for numerous military platforms. 

Among the standout results are China’s 3.5- and fourth-generation combat aircraft. Justin Bronk of the Royal Uniformed Studies Institute described this as China “rely[ing] on the Su-27/30 ‘Flanker’ family of combat aircraft and their various derivatives,”  to produce domestically China’s J-11 and J-16 and their variants. According to the 2023 edition of the International Institute for Strategic Studies’ The Military Balance, China possesses 535 airframes in this category, roughly half of the PLAAF’s fourth-generation fighter and multirole aircraft inventory. Both combat aircraft were reverse-engineered and iterated from Russian designs and domestically produced. 

The other half of the fourth-generation fleet came in the form of the indigenously designed and produced J-10. Like the J-11 and J-16, the PLAAF’s primary medium-lift transport aircraft the Y-8, a derivative of the Soviet An-12, began domestic production in China. Chinese built Y-8s paved the way for a variety of different platforms iterated from this airframe, including aircraft intended to perform electronic warfare, airborne early warning and control, tanker, and ISR missions.

The PLAN and PLARF also modernized. In 2005, the PLAN began producing Type 054A (Jiangkai II) guided-missile frigates. Outfitted with 32-cell vertical launch systems (VLS) and anti-ship and anti-air capabilities, these were for a short while the bruisers of the PLAN’s fleets. In 2012, however, the PLAN started producing 64-cell VLS Type 052D (Luyang III) destroyers, and two years later, 112-cell VLS Type 055  (Renai) destroyers. Both greatly surpassed the Type 054A in firepower. 

The J-16 fighter is an indigenously produced derivative Russia’s Su-27/30 Flanker family. China has some 535 J-16s and J-11s in this class. Cui Baoliang/China Ministry of Defense

Meanwhile, another capability was taking shape: aircraft carriers. China bought the partially completed and dilapidated hull of the Soviet Varyag ski-jump-style Kuznetsov-class aircraft carrier in 1998, along with blueprints for the massive vessel. Under the guise of converting the hull to a hotel and casino, the Varyag entered PLAN drydocks in 2005, and later commissioned as the Type 001 Liaoning in 2012. The Liaoning became the testbed for PLAN shipborne tactics, techniques, and procedures, as well as the proving ground for Chinese shipbuilding capabilities. China has since built two more carriers, the ski-jump-style Type 002 Shandong and the Type 003 Fujian aircraft carrier, with an electro-magnetic launch system. 

During the “New Historic Missions” era, PLA missile technology also drastically improved. Through a combination of indigenous research and development and overseas acquisitions, the PLA began to build and field longer-range air-to-air, surface-to-air, shore-to-ship, and land-attack missiles. For the PLARF, modernization included expanding the service’s intermediate- and medium-range ballistic missiles and diversifying the kinds of targets they could attack. 

Still, the PLA lagged in other areas, particularly in creating a joint command combat system and the “informationization” of PLA forces. During the 18th National Party Congress, Hu’s last public hurrah as the CCP’s General Secretary, he pushed for his successor to further modernize the PLA and to “attach great importance to maritime, space, and cyberspace security, and make active plans for the use of military forces in peacetime, expand, as well as intensify military preparedness, and enhance the capability to accomplish a wide range of military tasks.” Strengthening China’s hand in space and cyberspace aimed to achieve what Hu called “winning local wars under informatized conditions.”

Joint Operations And Informationization

When Xi rose to power in 2012, he launched a series of purges of Chinese civil and military leadership and military reforms. The purges sought to eliminate competition for the CCP’s top spot and to consolidate CCP control of the military. Xi’s reforms focused on modernizing the organizational structure of the PLA to build a “world-class fighting force” capable of “fighting and winning local wars.” 

Xi radically changed the way that the PLA operates. He reorganized the PLA’s command structure from service-centric, mostly ground-based military regions to joint theater commands (TC).  From 2014 to 2016, the seven military regions were consolidated into five Theater Commands, listed in rank order of importance by China’s Ministry of National Defense: Eastern, Southern, Western, Northern, and Central. Each TC would be the joint operations command with TC subordinate service headquarters for relevant branches of the PLA. The Western and Central TCs did not have individual PLAN headquarters, as they lacked coastlines. In the Central  TC, service-level headquarters, remained in a train and equip role. This overall structure, like the U.S. geographic combatant command structure, has enabled the PLA to better integrate joint operations into their exercises and, in wartime, would enable power projection from the Chinese homeland to the East and South China Seas. To support joint operations and strategic capabilities, several new services were formed. In 2015, the PLA formed the Strategic Support Force (PLASSF), responsible for space, cyber, and electromagnetic capabilities. In 2016, it added the PLA Rocket Force and PLA Joint Logistics Support Force (PLAJLSF). The PLARF was a rebranding and consolidation of strategic ballistic and nuclear missile force into a full service, while the quasi-service PLAJLSF was formed to consolidate strategic macro-management of logistics for the five TCs. 

The PLASSF, PLAJLSF, and the nuclear component of the PLARF are all directly subordinate to the Central Military Commission, giving the CCP direct control over these capabilities. In practice, the PLARF operates as a separate service with an administrative headquarters and forces subordinate to the theater commands while the PLASSF and the PLAJLSF contribute their capabilities to individual TCs on an as-needed basis, somewhat like U.S. strategic level combatant commands. However, unlike the U.S. non-geographic unified commands, the PLARF, PLASSF, and PLAJLSF’s military assets are held by the individual forces.

Underpinning the overall PLA power-projection capabilities has been a diversification and increase in munitions capabilities. The PLA fields a wide variety of both conventional and ballistic missiles, with the bulk of conventional missiles being roughly analogous to U.S. and Western missile systems with some notable exceptions. 

China’s PLARF’s ballistic missile capabilities include novel missile systems unique in technology and enabled by China’s geopolitical circumstances. The bulk of China’s ballistic missile systems come from the Dong Feng (DF) series of missiles. Under the PLARF, the DF series encompasses short- and long-range ballistic missiles, as well as land-attack and anti-ship variants. According to the 2022 DOD China Military Power Report (CMPR), DFs are labeled numerically: Sub-10 denotes intercontinental ballistic missiles with ranges exceeding 13,000 km; 10 to 19 are short- to medium-range ballistic missiles with ranges under 2,500 km;  20 to 29 denotes medium- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles with ranges under 8,000 km. The DF 31 is China’s new road-mobile ICBM, capable of reaching 11,000+ km, and the DF-41 is capable of ranges from 12,000 to 15,000 km. 

Notably, the conventional DF-21 and DF-26, as well as the hypersonic DF-17, come in both land-attack and anti-ship variants. Many of the medium- and longer-range DF missiles can carry both conventional and nuclear warheads. According to the 2022 CMPR, the PLARF is expanding its DF-21 and DF-26 missile inventories, with an estimated 500 launchers and 750+ missiles in its medium- and intermediate-range ballistic missile inventories. According to a Blue Path Labs report on the PLARF published through the U.S. Air Force’s China Aerospace Studies Institute, China’s defense industrial base is poised to continue building these capabilities while also expanding the ICBM inventory for strategic deterrence and the hypersonic glide vehicle inventory for tactical advantage.

China’s naval systems are also advancing. The PLAN surface fleet’s VLS systems on frigates and destroyers provides the PLAN with a variety of loadout options, including anti-air, land-attack, and anti-ship capabilities. The YJ-21 hypersonic anti-ship ballistic missile, the YJ-18 cruise missile, and the HHQ-9B long-range surface to air missile are among the most advanced capabilities. The YJ-21 is one of the newest missiles in the PLA inventory with ground, air,  and sea-launched variants. According to Zachary Williams of The Diplomat, the YJ-21 has a range of roughly 1,500 km for both the ground-and ship-launched variants, and an unknown range in the YJ-21E air-launched variant. YJ-21 boasts a terminal velocity of Mach 10. 

According to the Center for International and Strategic Studies, the YJ-18 has a range of up to 540 km, a cruising speed of Mach .8 and with terminal velocity of Mach 2.5-3.0. The HHQ-9B is the VLS-capable ship-launched variant of the HQ-9 long-range surface-to-air missile system. With an effective range of 250 km, the HHQ-9B is the rough equivalent of the Russian S-300 SAM system. These three weapons systems are just a snapshot of some of the most capable in the PLAN. For its surface fleet, the primary force of the PLAN, China now fields the most surface combatants in the world. The PLAN has three fleets, the Northern, Eastern and Southern Sea Fleets, within which the Type 055 and Type 052D destroyers are the largest and most heavily armed warships followed by the Type 054A guided-missile frigate. The PLAN fields eight Type 055, 25 Type 052D, and 30 Type 054A warships spread across the three theater commands, and has a total of 340 surface combatants. Included in this number are the three aircraft carriers, outfitted with J-15 fourth generation multi-role aircraft. Beyond the surface fleet, the PLAN also fields the YJ-12B and YJ-62 ground-launched anti-ship cruise missiles within its Coastal Defense Force, providing land-based coverage of sea targets around China’s periphery. 

In the air, the PLAAF has also undergone several technological developments under Xi. China is now able to fully produce indigenous aircraft. From 2005 onward, the third-/fourth-generation J-10 became the test case for China’s indigenous aircraft production capabilities. Only engine technology remains a severe issue for China’s aerospace sector, with the PLA forced to rely on imported Russian engines for its aircraft. The J-10 is the third primary third-/fourth-generation aircraft in the PLAAF inventory, numbering over 602 airframes, and powered by Russian engines. Combined with the J-11B, the mostly indigenously built variant of the J-11, and the J-16, China’s third-/fourth-generation fighter fleet numbers roughly 1,100 airframes. Notably, multiple sources say the newest J-10C, and the J-11B, J-15, and J-16 have all been observed flying with China’s first successful indigenous engine, the WS-10 series. The successful integration of the WS-10A, B and C variants into the J-10B, J-11B, J-15, J-16, and J-20 now means that China is capable of fully building its own aircraft without relying on external supply. China has leveraged this in its production of its first fifth-generation fighter, the J-20.

The J-20 represents the future vision of the PLAAF. J-20’s fully indigenous production, from design to manufacturing, and incorporation of first- and second-generation stealth capabilities makes it both the testbed for these capabilities as well as the envisioned core of an evolving PLAAF combat fleet. While the J-20’s stealth capabilities are still being iterated and improved upon, according to Justin Bronk, “The threat of J-20s with long-range PL-15 missiles operating within the background chaos would be a major headache for U.S. planners attempting to protect critical tanker and ISR orbits within useful range of the area of operations.” China has built over 200 J-20s after four production runs according to PLAAF analyst Andreas Rupprecht. In the future, the PLA will likely adopt lessons learned from the J-20 program to accelerate the buildout of its J-30 and J-35, the envisioned next-gen Chinese PLAAF and PLAN naval aviation fighter.  

China’s J-20 is its first fifth-generation aircraft, a stealth fighter developed in China. It is the testbed for future Chinese advances and is envisioned as the core of the Peoples Liberation Army Air Forces fleet. China has built 200 of the jets so far. Wang Weidong/Peoples Liberation Army

Informationization Through Air And Space

Through modernization efforts, the PLA has managed to effectively build capabilities that support a home-defense mission, and that are geared toward a potential conflict over Taiwan. However, Taiwan is not the only problem set that the PLA is responsible for, the PLA is also tasked with protecting Chinese overseas interests. This mission set requires the capability to project power out from Chinese shores into and beyond the first and second island chains. For the PLAN this means shifting from a green-water navy, with an operating area on the periphery of mainland China, to a blue-water navy with the capability of operating for extended durations abroad. The PLAN’s Type 903A resupply ships and aircraft carriers are getting after this problem. For the PLAAF, this means further developing its aerial refueling capabilities and long-range strike. Production of the YY-20 aerial refueling variant of the Y-20 heavy-lift transport, the newer H-6K strategic bombers, and the future H-20 fifth-generation strategic bomber are intended to fill these capabilities. Despite an aggressive push toward modernizing different military technology, or so-called “mechanization,” the PLA still lags in the necessary connectivity and command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR) capabilities needed to really integrate all its power projection capabilities. According to the 2023 RAND “Gaining Victory in Systems Warfare” report, “The PLA sees itself as the weaker side in the military balance [with the U.S.], largely because it has made only limited progress in informatization and system-of-systems-based operations.” Put simply, while the PLA has the stuff, it does not yet have the supporting systems to make it all work together. Herein lies the PLA’s future direction and the importance of aerospace, building out the connective tissue to enable its power projection capabilities.

Back in 2013, prior to the standup of China’s PLASSF, its designated space domain force, the PLA Academy of Military Science published “Lectures on the Science of Space Operations,” in which the authors state: “In future informationized wars, space operations will permeate each level—tactical, campaign, and strategic—of military action carried out by joint operations units. It can be foreseen that in the near future, the forms, scopes, and effects of actions in space operations will undergo major changes, and space strengths will become important strategic strengths for defending national security and winning future wars.” The establishment of the PLASSF in 2015 provided an avenue for the PLA to enhance and build its C4ISR capabilities necessary for its joint operations. The PLASSF is made up of two departments: The Space Systems Department—which controls assets on orbit, satellite launch, and training facilities; and the Network Systems Department, which is primarily responsible for cyber and electronic warfare.  

Since the Strategic Support Force establishment, China has completed its 48 satellite BeiDou constellation for position, navigation, and timing (PNT), expanded its communications and ISR satellites in geosynchronous-Earth orbit (GEO) and has aggressively expanded its low-Earth orbit (LEO) satellites for communications, electronic, signals, and geospatial intelligence. Further rapid expansion of Chinese space capabilities, especially in LEO, are intended to create a robust, redundant, and integrated C4ISR network. 

According to a December 2022 forecast of China’s satellite internet industry from the web-based Chinese Future Think Tank, China and the PLA intend to create an integrated multidomain network that spans three primary levels: the surface-based network, near-Earth telecommunications, and space-based communications. Surface-based networks consist of satellite ground stations, 5G relay stations, ground-based stations, and sea-based network nodes. Near-Earth telecommunications consists of a layer of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), low-air platforms and high-altitude platforms (such as the recent weather balloon). In the space layer, the author of the report separates it into two buckets, LEO and higher orbits. 

As China continues down its informationization path, each of these layers will become more populated. As of now, China is planning a 13,000-strong LEO satellite constellation known as the “National Net Constellation” or “GW Constellation,” of which several hundred C4ISR satellites are currently on orbit. China has also been proliferating its UAV capabilities with a range of medium-altitude long-endurance (MALE) and high-altitude long-endurance (HALE) ISR UAVs. Most recently, the PLA YouTube channel published several videos demonstrating the use of smaller UAVs for targeting data for its land-based rocket artillery. According to the 2015 RAND’s  “Emerging Trends in China’s Development of Unmanned Systems” report, “Unmanned aerial vehicles paired with an enhanced satellite network would improve China’s capability for long-range strike system targeting.” Additionally, when outfitted with communications systems and data relays, can provide more redundancy and fidelity in the PLA’s command and control systems. Based on the PLASSF’s trajectory, building out the air and space layers of this network appears to be one primary goal for the future of the PLA.

Quest For Jointness

Over the past several decades the PLA has undergone a radical transformation in both the military hardware that it fields as well as the industrial base that supports the military. While these achievements are no small feat, the PLA still lacks some of the key technology and supporting systems necessary to achieve “true jointness.” In addition, to achieve its goal of having a fully modern military by 2030 and a world class military by 2049, there is still much work to be done. Beyond hardware, the PLA will need to train with and develop the tactics, techniques, and procedures to employ their weapons systems. The August 2022 exercises in response to then-U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan and the April 2023 Joint Sword exercises are one glimpse into the PLA’s efforts on the training front. There are many more, smaller exercises that the PLA is conducting to gain proficiency and service interoperability, but short of war, large-scale exercises like the two aforementioned will likely be the best opportunity for the PLA to rehearse large-scale joint operations and for the U.S. to observe what PLA “jointness” may look like.

Although Xi has laid claim to completing mechanization of the PLA in 2020, there will still likely be a strong push for the PLA to achieve full custody of production chains, across services, to develop independence in its military industrial complex. This may include a further buildup of indigenously produced military hardware in conventional domains. However, without the development of a more robust C4ISR network, and the integration of disparate military technology under this network, the PLA’s reach and capabilities may be somewhat limited. As part of the informationization process moving forward, the PLA is likely to further build out its space capabilities including LEO constellations, satellite ground stations, and responsive launch capabilities. China may also attempt to build ground stations in Belt and Road Initiative countries to provide it better fidelity in its satellites’ chain of custody.

Informationization will be a relatively long and arduous process. In the interim period, when the PLA has a lot of bang, but still a questionable ability to coordinate and accurately employ its arsenal, the U.S. and Taiwan have a strategic window of opportunity. During this time, we should ensure that both Taiwan and the U.S. are soberly assessing the threat posed by China, that we are educating our service members and the public on the threat, and that we are actively taking steps toward adopting the appropriate strategy for addressing a Taiwan contingency. This includes making acquisition decisions now that will provide our military with the appropriate equipment to blunt potential Chinese aggression in the Taiwan Strait. As we adopt these measures, we will need to wake up to the fact that the PLA’s presence in the region and around the globe, whether in the form of ISR balloons or naval flotillas, will become increasingly part of the new normal in our international security environment.

Daniel C. Rice is the China Military and Political Strategy Subject-Matter Expert at Marine Corps University’s Brute Krulak Center for Innovation and Future Warfare.