China Now Tops US in Shipbuilding, Missiles, and Air Defense, DOD Says

China is making substantial progress in improving its armed forces, now eclipsing the U.S. in the areas of shipbuilding, missiles, and air defenses, according to the Pentagon’s 20th annual assessment of the People’s Republic of China’s military power.

The Defense Department’s annual report, which is usually released in January, says China is spending about $200 billion a year on its military, a 6.2 percent increase from last year. The rate of growth of its Gross Domestic Product has declined from nine percent 10 years ago to six percent today, yet China’s defense spending has nearly doubled over the last decade.

Most of that spending goes to equipment and readiness, versus the U.S., which spends nearly two-thirds of its military budget on pay, pensions, and healthcare for service members. China’s costs for new equipment are also substantially lower than comparable expenditures by the U.S., especially since China pays less for labor and profit and acquires much technology through “licit and illicit means” overseas, the DOD said.

China’s stated plan is to have a “world-class” military by 2049. Although it does not define what that means, the Pentagon report notes, it says China will have completed a basic military modernization by about 2035 and will surpass the U.S. by “mid-Century.” China’s armed forces are also seeking improved capabilities in joint warfare, and China is coordinating the activities of its defense and commercial industrial base, as well as giving most large national facilities “dual use” capabilities.   

Beyond its first overseas base in Djibouti, China is courting potential host nations for basing rights in “Myanmar, Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, United Arab Emirates, Kenya, Seychelles, Tanzania, Angola, and Tajikistan.” China’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative to build extremely long supply lines around Asia continues apace.

The Chinese Navy is now “the largest … in the world,” according to the report, with 350 ships and 130 major surface combatants, versus the U.S. total of 293 ships. It has by far the largest force of land-based ballistic and cruise missiles, with 1,250 ground-launched ballistic missiles and ground-launched cruise missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers, while the U.S. fields only one GLBM type with a range under 300 km, and no GLCMs.

China is rapidly increasing the precision and numbers of its air-based cruise missiles. Carried aboard newly refined versions of the H-6 bomber, which have aerial refueling capability and capacity to carry more missiles and unmanned reconnaissance aircraft, China’s reach is increasing substantially, the report said. The H-6N is China’s first nuclear-capable, air-refuelable bomber, giving the service a true nuclear triad.  

The air defense system around China is also one of the best, if not the best, in the world, the Pentagon said, as China now fields Russian-built S-300 and S-400 systems, as well as its own indigenous copies, soon to have capability for intercepting ballistic missiles. The Pentagon described the system as “robust and redundant.”

The People’s Liberation Army Air Forces and People’s Liberation Army Navy now have the largest combined aviation force in the Indo-Pacific region and the third-largest in the world, according to the report, and the PLAAF “is rapidly catching up to Western air forces.” Overall, more than half of the PLAAF’s 1,500 fighters—not including trainers—are of fourth-gen types, and the overall fleet (including attack aircraft and electronic warfare types) will “become a majority fourth-generation force within the next few years,” the Pentagon said. China has completed its buy of two dozen Su-35s from Russia and is producing the J-20 stealth attack plane on its own, likely expanding the number of missiles that aircraft can carry even as it continues fielding the first unit. The J-10, roughly equivalent to the F-16, is also being improved, with thrust-vectoring and new weapons.

China’s F-35 look-alike, the FC-31/J-31, is seen as equipping China’s aircraft carrier fleet, now under construction, and as an export fighter for allied nations and non-allied customers.

China “is seeking to extend its power projection capability with the development of a new stealth strategic bomber,” but the Pentagon did not offer its assessment of how soon that capability will materialize. It cited “commentators” speculating that the aircraft may take “more than a decade” to develop.

The reach of Chinese aircraft will also increase as it fields not one but several types of air refueling jets, including a variant of the H-6, a small number of Il-78 Midas tankers it bought from Ukraine, and a tanker variant of its new Y-20 heavy-lift transport, which bears a strong resemblance to the C-17. The Y-20 is in series production, now.

The Pentagon reserved most of its awe for PLAAF development to the category of remotely piloted aircraft, which China is building in a wide variety for every conceivable mission and is exporting to many customers; even some who are not necessarily friendly. These include lookalikes to the RQ-4 Global Hawk and MQ-9 Reaper, but also the Navy’s experimental X-47; the Gongji-11, which appeared in last year’s Chinese military parade. China also displayed types that have no analogy in the U.S. or western air forces, presumably intended as unmanned cargo delivery systems, for electronic warfare and for high-speed attack.

The number of AWACS-type aircraft in PLAAF service is also increasing, with stepped-up deliveries of the KJ-500 AEW&C airplane. These new versions of the older KJ-200 and KJ-2000 can detect and track targets “in varying conditions, in larger volumes, and at greater distances.”

The People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force—roughly equivalent to U.S. Strategic Command—is accelerating its operating tempo, and in 2019 “launched more ballistic missiles for testing and training than the rest of the world combined.” It “continues to grow its inventories” of intermediate range ballistic missiles such as the DF-26, which is dual-capable as a nuclear or conventional delivery system, and is developing a new Intercontinental Ballistic Missile, which will have Multiple Independently-Targeted Re-entry Vehicles.

“The number of warhead on the PRC’s land-based ICBMs capable of threatening the United States is expected to grow to roughly 200 in the next five years,” the Pentagon’s report said. The PRC is also moving to a “launch on warning” posture.

China is stepping up its development of launch vehicles, with a dual-use industrial base producing vehicles for both military and commercial use. One of the “startups” created in imitation of Blue Origin and SpaceX is called “Exspace.” China continues to “rapidly mature” its commercial space ventures and “is growing all aspects of its space program, from military space applications to civil applications such as profit-generating launches, scientific endeavors, and space exploration.”

Beijing’s technological goals line up almost exactly with those of the U.S., seeking advances in artificial intelligence, quantum computing, autonomy, quantum information sciences, biotech, and advanced materials and manufacturing.

China is also merging its information warfare, psychological operations, and elements of cyber warfare and espionage into unified commands. In addition to stealing technology, it is “targeting cultural institutions, media organizations, business, academic and policy communities” in the U.S. and other countries and seeks to condition these institutions to “accept Beijing’s narratives.” It considers open democracies like the U.S. “more susceptible to influence operations than other types of governments,” the Pentagon said.