13 May 2016

Key Quotes, Data & Themes from 2016 U.S. Department of Defense Report on China’s Military & Security Developments

A hefty report at 145 pages! Highly informative, well worth a read. It documents a rapidly developing Chinese military and paramilitary, inspired by a far-reaching “China Dream,” in the throes of ambitious reforms.

Major missed opportunity: no mention of Maritime Militia whatsoever. On that vital topic, you’re still stuck with this next-best analysis.

Key Quotations from text of report:

p. i–“In the South China Sea, China paused its land reclamation effort in the Spratly Islands in late 2015 after adding more than 3,200 acres of land to the seven features it occupies in the archipelago.”

p. 2–New 2016 Military Theaters map

p. 6–Text box on “China’s Evolving Overseas Access”:

“China most likely will seek to establish additional naval logistics hubs in countries with which it has a longstanding friendly relationship and similar strategic interests, such as Pakistan, and a precedent for hosting foreign militaries. China’s overseas naval logistics aspiration may be constrained by the willingness of countries to support a PLAN presence in one of their ports.”

p. 10–Useful South China Sea feature occupation map (China vs. other claimants)

p. 13–Important text boxes:

“China’s Use of Low-Intensity Coercion in Maritime Disputes”

“Reclamation and Construction in the South China Sea”

“China paused its two-year land reclamation effort in the Spratly Islands in late 2015 after adding over 3,200 acres of land to the seven features it occupies; other claimants reclaimed approximately 50 acres of land over the same period. As part of this effort, China excavated deep channels to improve access to its outposts, created artificial harbors, dredged natural harbors, and constructed new berthing areas to allow access for larger ships. Development of the initial four features—all of which were reclaimed in 2014—has progressed to the final stages of primary infrastructure construction, and includes communication and surveillance systems, as well as logistical support facilities.”

pp. 14-20–Interesting graphics on Spratly feature augmentation and fortification

p. 21–“China maintains approximately 3,079 personnel in ten UN PKOs, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East. This number increased from 2,200 in 2014. China is also the sixth largest financial contributor to the UN PKO budget—fourth among UN Security Council members—pledging 6.66 percent of the total $8.27 billion budget for the period from July 2015 to June 2016.”

“From 2010 to 2014, China’s arms sales totaled approximately $15 billion.”

p. 22–“PLA Rocket Force (PLARF). The Rocket Force, renamed from the PLASAF late last year, operates China’s land-based nuclear and conventional missiles. It is developing and testing several new classes and variants of offensive missiles, including a hypersonic glide vehicle; forming additional missile units; upgrading older missile systems; and developing methods to counter ballistic missile defenses.”

p. 25–“The CJ-10 has a range in excess of 1500 km and offers flight profiles different from ballistic missiles that can enhance targeting options.”

“China unveiled the DF-26 intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) during the September 2015 parade in Beijing. When fielded, the DF-26 will be capable of conducting precision strikes against ground targets and contribute to strategic deterrence in the Asia-Pacific region. The official parade announcer also referenced a nuclear version of the DF-26, which, if it shares the same guidance capabilities, would give China its first nuclear precision strike capability against theater targets.”

“The PLAN now possesses the largest number of vessels in Asia, with more than 300 surface ships, submarines, amphibious ships, and patrol craft. China is rapidly retiring legacy combatants in favor of larger, multi-mission ships equipped with advanced anti-ship, anti-air, and anti-submarine weapons and sensors.”

p. 26–“The PLAN places a high priority on the modernization of its submarine force and currently possesses five SSNs, four nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBN), and 53 diesel-powered attack submarines (SS/SSP). By 2020, this force will likely grow to between 69 and 78 submarines.”

“In addition to the 12 KILO-class SS units acquired from Russia in the 1990s and 2000s, China has built 13 SONG-class SS (Type 039) and 13 YUAN-class SSP (Type 039A) with a total of 20 YUANs planned for production. China continues to improve its SSN force, and four additional SHANG-class SSN (Type 093) will eventually join the two already in service.”

“Over the next decade, China may construct a new Type 095 nuclear-powered, guided-missile attack submarine (SSGN), which not only would improve the PLAN’s anti-surface warfare capability but might also provide it with a more clandestine land-attack option.”

“Four JIN SSBNs are operational, and up to five may enter service before China begins developing and fielding its next-generation SSBN, the Type 096, over the coming decade. The Type 096 will reportedly be armed with a successor to the JL-2, the JL-3 SLBM.”

“China has also probably begun construction of a larger Type 055 “destroyer,” a vessel better characterized as a guided-missile cruiser (CG) than a DDG.”

“The PLAN continues to emphasize anti-surface warfare (ASUW) as its primary focus, including modernizing its advanced ASCMs and associated over-the-horizon targeting systems. Older surface combatants carry variants of the YJ-83 ASCM (65 nm, 120 km), while newer surface combatants such as the LUYANG II are fitted with the YJ-62 (120 nm, 222 km). The LUYANG III and Type 055 CG will be fitted with a variant of China’s newest ASCM, the YJ-18 (290 nm, 537 km), which is a significant step forward in China’s surface ASUW capability. Eight of China’s 12 KILOs are equipped with the SS-N-27 ASCM (120 nm, 222 km), a system China acquired from Russia. China’s newest indigenous submarine-launched ASCM, the YJ-18 and its variants, represents an improvement over the SS-N-27, and will be fielded on SONG, YUAN, and SHANG submarines. China’s previously produced submarine-launched ASCM, the YJ-82, is a version of the C-801, which has a much shorter range. The PLAN recognizes that long-range ASCMs require a robust, over-the-horizon targeting capability to realize their full potential, and China is investing in reconnaissance, surveillance, command, control, and communications systems at the strategic, operational, and tactical levels to provide high-fidelity targeting information to surface and subsurface launch platforms.”

p. 30–“The PLAAF is the largest air force in Asia and the third largest in the world, with more than 2,800 total aircraft (not including UAVs) and 2,100 combat aircraft (including fighters, bombers, fighter-attack and attack aircraft). The PLAAF is rapidly closing the gap with western air forces across a broad spectrum of capabilities from aircraft and command-and-control (C2) to jammers, electronic warfare (EW), and datalinks. The PLAAF continues to field additional fourth-generation aircraft (now about 600). Although it still operates a large number of older second- and third-generation fighters, it will probably become a majority fourth-generation force within the next several years.”

“China has been pursuing fifth-generation fighter capabilities since at least 2009 and is the only country other than the United States to have two concurrent stealth fighter programs.”

p. 31–“China is improving its airfields in the South China Sea with the availability of Woody Island Airfield in the Paracel Islands and construction of up to three new airfields in the Spratly Islands. All of these airfields could have runways long enough to support any aircraft in China’s inventory. During late-October 2015 the PLAN deployed four of its most capable air superiority fighters, the J-11B, to Woody Island.”

“The PLAAF possesses one of the largest forces of advanced long-range SAM systems in the world….”

p. 36–“As of December 2015, China launched 19 SLVs carrying 45 spacecraft, including navigation, ISR, and test/engineering satellites. Noteworthy 2015 accomplishments for China’s space program include:

  • Two New Launch Vehicles: September 2015 saw the successful debut of both the Long March (LM)-6 and the LM-11 “next generation” SLVs. The LM-6 is a small liquid-fueled SLV designed to carry up to 1000 kg into low Earth orbit (LEO), and the LM-11is described as a “quick response” SLV designed to launch a small payload into LEO on short notice in the event of an emergency.
  • China’s Largest Multi-Payload Launch and Smallest Satellites: The 19 September 2015 inaugural launch of the LM-6 SLV carried the largest number of satellites (20) China has ever launched on a single SLV. Most of the satellites carried onto orbit by the LM-6 were technology-demonstration satellites smaller than 100 kg. Furthermore, the four Xingchen femtosatellites launched aboard the LM-6 are the smallest Chinese spacecraft to date, weighing just 100 g each.
  • Launches Begin for Beidou Global Network: China’s Beidou SATNAV constellation began the next step of its construction in 2015 with the launch of the Beidou I1-S, an inclined geosynchronous orbit (IGSO) satellite, on March 30. In 2015, China launched two more medium Earth orbit satellites and two more IGSO satellite. This phase of the project plans to extend the Beidou network beyond its current regional focus to provide global coverage by 2020.”

p. 37–“The PLA is acquiring a range of technologies to improve China’s counterspace capabilities. In addition to the development of directed energy weapons and satellite jammers, China is also developing anti-satellite capabilities and has probably made progress on the antisatellite missile system it tested in July 2014. China is employing more sophisticated satellite operations and is probably testing dual-use technologies in space that could be applied to counterspace missions.”

“In the summer of 2014, China conducted a space launch that had a similar profile to the January 2007 test. In 2013, China launched an object into space on a ballistic trajectory with a peak altitude above 30,000 km, which could have been a test of technologies with a counterspace mission in geosyncronous orbit.”

p. 38–“The PLA Rocket Force’s (PLARF) arsenal contains 75-100 ICBMs.”

p. 47–“In 2015, China imported approximately 60 percent of its oil supply, and this figure is projected to grow to 80 percent by 2035, according to International Energy Agency data. China continues to look primarily to the Persian Gulf, Africa, and Russia/Central Asia to satisfy its growing demand.”

“In 2015, approximately 83 percent of China’s oil imports transited the South China Sea and Strait of Malacca. Separate crude oil pipelines from Russia and Kazakhstan to China illustrate efforts to increase overland supply. In 2015, the Russia–China crude oil pipeline started expanding to double its capacity from 300,000 to 600,000 barrels per day (b/d) by 2016. In 2015, construction was finished on the 440,000-b/d Burma–China oil pipeline.”

“In 2015, China imported approximately 27.7 billion cubic meters (bcm) of natural gas, 45 percent of all of its natural gas imports, from Turkmenistan by pipeline via Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. This pipeline is designed to carry 40 bcm per year with plans to expand it to 60 bcm per year. Another natural gas pipeline designed to deliver 12 bcm per year of Burmese-produced gas commenced operations in September 2013 and shipped 3 bcm of gas in 2014. This pipeline parallels the crude oil pipeline across Burma. There was no progress in 2015 on the natural gas project that China and Russia agreed to in 2014. The pipeline is expected to deliver up to 38 bcm of gas by 2035; initial flows are to start by 2018.”

p. 58–“Recent press accounts suggest China may be enhancing peacetime readiness levels for these nuclear forces to ensure responsiveness.” 

“this force is complemented by road-mobile, solid-fueled CSS-5 Mod 6 (DF- 21) MRBM for regional deterrence missions.”

p. 60–“New indigenous radars, the JL-1A and JY-27A, are designed to address the ballistic missile threat, with the JL-1A advertised as capable of the precision tracking of multiple ballistic missiles. China’s SA-20 PMU2 SAMs, one of the most advanced SAM systems Russia offers for export, has the advertised capability to engage ballistic missiles with ranges of 1,000 km and speeds of 2,800 meters per second. China’s domestic CSA-9 long-range SAM system is expected to have a limited capability to provide point defense against tactical ballistic missiles with ranges up to 500 km.”

p. 61–“China has fielded CSS-5 anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBMs) specifically designed to hold adversary aircraft carriers at risk 1,500 km off China’s coast.”

pp. 61-62: “Within 300 nm (556 km) of its coast, China has a credible IADS that relies on robust early warning, fighter aircraft, and a variety of SAM systems as well as point defense primarily designed to counter adversary long-range airborne strike platforms. China continues to develop and to market a wide array of IADSs designed to counter U.S. technology….”

“China’s airshow displays claim that new Chinese radar developments can detect stealth aircraft.”

p. 62–“fifth-generation aircraft, which could enter service as early as 2018, will significantly improve China’s existing fleet of fourth-generation aircraft”

pp. 62-63–“China is advancing its development and employment of UAVs. In 2015, Chinese media reported the development of the Shendiao (Sacred Eagle or Divine Eagle) as the PLA’s newest high-altitude, long-endurance UAV for a variety of missions such as early warning, targeting, EW, and satellite communications. Last year, the PLAAF also reported on its use of a UAV to assist in HA/DR in the aftermath of an earthquake in China’s west—the first public acknowledgment of PLAAF UAV operations. Photos of the UAV showed it was the Yilong (also known as the Wing Loong or Pterodactyl).”

p. 64–“Cyber Activities Directed Against the Department of Defense. In 2015, numerous computer systems around the world, including those owned by the U.S. Government, continued to be targeted for intrusions, some of which appear to be attributable directly to the [sic] China’s Government and military.”

p. 66–“Sea-based land attack probably is an emerging requirement for the PLAN. Chinese military experts argue that in order to pursue a defensive strategy in far seas, the Navy must improve its ability to control land from the sea through long-range LACM development.”

p. 67–“China continues to field an ASBM based on a variant of the CSS-5 (DF-21) MRBM that it began deploying in 2010. The CSS-5 Mod 5 has a range of 1,500 km and is armed with a MaRV. … the DF-26 will be capable of conducting precision strikes against ground targets, potentially placing U.S. forces on Guam at risk.”

“China may develop the capability to arm the new LUYANG III-class DDG with LACMs, giving the PLAN its first land-attack capability. Furthermore, the continued deployments of the ASCM-equipped submarines in support of counterpiracy patrols underscore China’s interest in protecting SLOCs beyond the South China Sea. These submarine deployments support an apparent Chinese requirement to project power into the Indian Ocean.”

“In 2015, a PLA report identified a military requirement to extend surveillance into the Western Pacific Ocean.”

p. 68–“In 2015, China began construction of its first domestically produced aircraft carrier. China’s next generation of carriers will probably be capable of improved endurance and of launching more varied types of aircraft, including EW, early warning, and anti-surface warfare (ASW), thus increasing the potential striking power of a PLAN “carrier battle group” in safeguarding China’s interests in areas beyond its immediate periphery. The carriers would most likely perform such missions as patrolling economically important sea lanes, conducting naval diplomacy, regional deterrence, and HA/DR.”

“logistics and intelligence support remain key obstacles, particularly in the Indian Ocean and in other areas outside the greater Asia-Pacific region. As a result, China desires expansion of its access to logistics in the Indian Ocean and will probably establish several access points in this area in the next decade.”

p. 69–“Over the last five years, China has added more than 100 ocean-going patrol ships to the CCG to increase its capacity to conduct extended offshore operations and to replace old units. In the next decade, a new force of civilian law enforcement ships will afford China the capability to patrol more robustly its claims in the East China Sea and the South China Sea. Overall, the CCG’s total force level is expected to increase by 25 percent. Some of these ships will have the capability to embark helicopters, a capability that only a few CCG ships currently have.”



Since I couldn’t find a single-source location on the Internet, I decided to make my own. Now you can download PDFs of the Department of Defense’s China reports directly by year:

















Additionally, here are some highlights from, and analysis of, several of the most recent reports:


Andrew S. Erickson, “What Does the Pentagon Think about China’s Rising Military Might?The National Interest, 11 May 2015.

It’s that time of year again. The U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) has just released its annual report on Chinese military and security issues. It documents important trends in this area using information often publicly available nowhere else. Amid the usual dump of fascinating data, several broad themes stand out:

  • The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) continues brisk, broad-based modernization.
  • It has already achieved progress that the vast majority of militaries could only envy.
  • In recent years, it has consolidated core capabilities.
  • The PLA’s central focus remains two-fold:
    • Safeguarding the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s ruling position by guaranteeing domestic stability in conjunction with internal security forces as necessary
    • Increasing ability to exert leverage over disputed border areas, Taiwan, and unresolved island and maritime claims in the “Near Seas” (Yellow, East, and South China Seas).
  • But is also developing a new outer layer of power projection and influencing capability, becoming far broader-ranging in operational scope.
  • Efforts are underway to make the PLA a great power military with global reach, even if it will not be globally present or capable to U.S. standards.

In what follows, I survey the report’s key findings before assessing its limitations, and its contributions writ large.

Geographic Dynamics

In the Near Seas, China is using low-intensity coercion to further its position in maritime and territorial disputes. Overall, DoD assesses, “PLA ground, air, naval, and missile forces are increasingly able to project power to assert regional dominance during peacetime and contest U.S. military superiority during a regional conflict.” Among the most sobering shifts is the erosion of many of Taiwan’s traditional defense factors by concerted PLA development and anofficial defense budget alone that is ten times greater than Taiwan’s. In a likely testament to identity factors that render cross-Strait issues complex, Taipei now spends only ~2% of GDP on defense, a target level for European members of NATO who face no such existential threat.

In peacetime, Beijing uses incremental salami-slicing tactics to assert effective control over contested areas and features. In this regard, DoD highlights Chinese efforts to prevent Philippine resupply of Second Thomas Shoal, and mentions Luconia Shoals and Reed Bank as potential future flash points. To facilitate such gains while avoiding escalation to military conflict and direct U.S. intervention, ships from the consolidating China Coast Guard (CCG) man the front line. The PLA Navy (PLAN) remains ready back stage in a monitoring and deterrent capacity. Rapid South China Sea island reclamation stands to facilitate even more continuous presence for all such forces.

China’s “whole-of-government” approach to sovereignty assertion, and the escalatory dangers therein, were underscored in 2014 when China National Offshore Oil Company began drilling with its HYSY-981 oil rig roughly 12 nautical miles (nm) from an island disputed with Vietnam and only 120 nm from Vietnam’s coast. There China announced a security radius six-times the 500 m safety zone allowed by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. It used “paramilitary ships” (CCG and fishing boats) to fend off Vietnamese vessels with water cannons and ramming, while PLAN ships conducted “overwatch” and PLA fighter and reconnaissance aircraft and helicopters patrolled above.

In the Far Seas, Beijing is gradually extending its reach and influence with growing power projection capabilities and soft power influence. “The PLA’s growing ability to project power,” DoD judges, “augments China’s globally-oriented objectives to be viewed as a stakeholder in ensuring stability.” In 2013-14, China sent its “first” submarines to the Indian Ocean. A Shang-class (Type 093) nuclear-powered attack submarine conducted a two-month deployment. ASong-class diesel-electric submarine made the first foreign port visit by a PLAN submarine, calling twice on Colombo, Sri Lanka. Far more than their ostensible contribution to PLAN counter-piracy escorts, these new steps offered valuable area familiarization and operational experiences to Chinese undersea forces, while producing a new symbol of Chinese power projection in service of sea lane security. Meanwhile, the PLA is increasing its soft power by training foreign military officers, including those from “virtually every Latin American and Caribbean country” at its Defense Studies Institute.

Sectoral Hierarchy

China’s defense industry has improved remarkably overall. “Over the past decade,” DoD judges, “China has made dramatic improvements in all defense industrial production sectors and is comparable to other major weapon system producers like Russia and the European Union in some areas.” Still, its capabilities remain uneven and patterns of disparity prevail.

The High Ground: Space, Missile, and Cyber Systems

Following a decades-long pattern, China’s space and ballistic and cruise missile sector remains firmly in the lead. There are many concrete manifestations of its superiority. China has deployed 1,200+ short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) opposite Taiwan. The CSS-5 Mod 5 (DF-21D) anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM) it has “fielded” in small numbers “gives the PLA the capability to attack ships in the western Pacific Ocean” “within 900 nm of the Chinese coastline.” Its ICBM units are benefitting from improved communications links. The DF-5 ICBM is equipped with multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles (MIRVs), and the new-generation DF-41 under development is “possibly capable of carrying” them as well. China is also developing hypersonic glide vehicles, and tested one in 2014. It boasts the JF12 Mach 5-9 hypersonic wind tunnel, reportedly the world’s largest.

To support what has been “extraordinarily rapid” development of conventionally armed missiles and other long-range precision strike (LRPS) capabilities, as part of the “world’s most rapidly maturing space program” China is lofting surveillance satellites in rapid succession.Gaofen-2, launched in August 2014, became “China’s first satellite capable of sub-meter resolution imaging.” It plans to launch successively improved variants of this satellite in coming years. China gained the ability to send even greater payloads to even higher orbits with the completion of a fourth satellite launch facility, Wenchang on Hainan Island, in 2014. Launches of the Long March-5 and -7 heavy lift boosters are scheduled to commence there by 2016.

Even as it increases its own use of space assets for military purposes, China is strengthening its ability to hold those of potential opponents such as the United States at risk. It is developing a range of counter-space weapons. Unusual launch patterns and activities in space suggest efforts to test such capabilities. When queried by Washington about these actions, Beijing declines to disclose details. Meanwhile, the PLA emphasizes electronic warfare capabilities, and is deploying “jamming equipment against multiple communication and radar systems and GPS satellite systems” on sea- and air-based platforms.

Chinese cyber capabilities have recently joined the top tier as well, with DoD long subjected to numerous intrusions. Beijing is also attempting to use its position in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and other international fora to promote conditions whereby sovereign states can wield greater control over cyberspace governance, both within their borders and even beyond.

Steaming Smartly Ahead: Maritime Systems

Maritime hardware comes next. Warship quantity is impressive: “The PLA Navy now possesses the largest number of vessels in Asia.” But quality is emphasized even more; China is replacing older platforms with newer, more capable ones. China’s shipbuilding industry has finally begun series production of multiple vessel classes. The Luyang-III-class (Type 052D) destroyer, which first entered service in 2014, has a vertical launch system capable of firing anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCMs), land-attack cruise missiles (LACMs), surface-to-air missiles (SAMs), and “antisubmarine missiles.” The Type 055 guided-missile cruiser slated to begin construction in 2015 will wield similar armaments. These include the submarine- and ship-launched YJ-18 ASCM, which DoD terms a “dramatic improvement” over the already-potent SS-N-27 that China previously purchased from Russia with eight of twelve Kilo-class submarines. This will greatly strengthen area air defense capabilities: Chinese naval task forces will increasingly be able to take a protective “umbrella” with them to distant seas far removed from the 300 nm-from-shore envelope of China’s extensive land-based Integrated Air Defense System (IADS). In addition, DoD judges that such warships may be close to fielding LACMs, which would give the PLAN its first capability to strike shore targets Tomahawk missile-style.

While civil maritime vessels are far less sophisticated than their naval counterparts, and typically lack major armaments, within this lower-intensity context the CCG is enjoying a buildup far more quantitatively impressive than that of the PLAN. It is already the world’s largest blue-water coast guard fleet, with more hulls than all its neighboring counterparts combined—and that includes the rightly-respected Japan Coast Guard. From 2004-08, it added nearly twenty ocean-going patrol ships; by the end of 2015, it is projected to have added another 30+ new vessels of this type. Together with the construction of “more than 100 new patrol craft and smaller units,” this will produce a total force level increase of 25%—growth simply unparalleled anywhere else on the world’s oceans. And that is even as many older platforms are replaced by new, improved ones; with many more having helicopter embarking capability than previously.

Gaining Altitude: Aviation Systems

Lower in achievement thus far but improving rapidly is Chinese military aviation. Quantitatively, the PLA Air Force (PLAAF) is Asia’s largest, and the world’s third largest. The PLAN has an aviation force of its own, which is growing to provide air wings for the “multiple” carriers DoD believes China may build over the next fifteen years. Limitations persist: Beijing’s first carrier,Liaoning, is not expected to embark an air wing “until 2015 or later.” China remains weak in aeroengines, and may soon import perhaps two dozen Russian Su-35S fighters in part for their advanced engines and radars. Yet the PLAAF “is rapidly closing the gap with western air forces across a broad spectrum of capabilities.”

China “is the only country in the world other than the United States to have two concurrent stealth fighter programs.” DoD anticipates the maiden flight of the fifth J-20 low-observable fighter prototype in 2015, while the J-31 fighter may be offered for export. Variants of the Y-20 transport—which may be commissioned in 2016—could provide badly needed troop movement, refueling, and airborne early warning and control (AWACs) capabilities. New variants of the venerable H-6 bomber have been exquisitely retrofitted to serve as tankers and to carry significant weapons load outs, including the YJ-12 supersonic ASCM and the CJ-20 LACM.

Meanwhile, China is placing major emphasis on UAVs. DoD cites a 2013 report by the Defense Science Board, which judges that “China’s move into unmanned systems is ‘alarming’ and combines unlimited resources with technological awareness that might allow China to match or even outpace U.S. spending on unmanned systems in the future.” No fewer than three long-range precision-strike variants under development. The BZK-005 UAV has already been observed conducting intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) over the East China Sea. Without elaboration, DoD notes: “Some estimates indicate China plans to produce upwards of 41,800 land- and sea-based unmanned systems, worth about $10.5 billion, between 2014 and 2023.”

Finally, as part of China’s IADS, the PLAAF also maintains one of the world’s largest forces of advanced long-range SAMs. China is not as strong in SAMs as it is in other ballistic (and cruise) missiles, but is acquiring the long-range S-400 system from Russia, even as it continues to develop long-range indigenous systems such as the CSA-9 for IAD and ballistic missile defense (BMD).

Ground force materiel is typically last in sophistication, although the report offers few specifics. It does draw attention to China’s prioritization and rapid deployment of internal security forces. This pattern has only intensified in response to dozens of deaths from domestic unrest and terrorism in recent years, particularly in conjunction with Xinjiang.

Weaknesses and Attempts to Rectify Them

On the hardware side, China is still missing some critical technologies, industrial processes, and related knowhow. It “continues to lack either a robust coastal or deep water anti-submarine warfare capability,” and its ability to collect and disseminate targeting information in real time under wartime conditions remains uncertain.

Through determined multi-pronged effort, however, Beijing is progressively closing many of the remaining gaps. It continues to obtain significant technologies, components, and systems from abroad. As in the 1990s (albeit to a less extreme degree today), Russian and Ukrainian economic woes facilitate Chinese access to advanced expertise and systems (including S-400 SAMs, Su-35 fighters, and the Petersburg/Lada-class submarine production program from the former; assault hovercraft and aeroengines from the latter). Much technology acquired for commercial aircraft and other civilian programs has military applications. Along the way, DoD documents multiple cases of Chinese nationals seeking to transfer foreign technology illegally. Finally, China is consolidating its own state S&T research funding. Having bet big on nanotechnology, for instance, it now trails only the United States in research funding for that field.

Amelioration of software weaknesses requires laborious human capital investment and wrenching organizational reforms, but the PLA and its civilian masters are clearly determined to prevail even here. As part of enhancement of training realism emphasized by Xi, the PLA is increasing “joint” pan-Military Region exercises. Further reforms likely under consideration include reducing non-combat forces and the relative proportion of ground forces; elevating the proportion and roles of enlisted personnel and non-commissioned officers vis-à-vis commissioned officers; bolstering “new-type combat forces” for naval aviation, cyber, and special operations; establishing a theater joint command system; and reducing China’s current seven Military Regions by as many as two.

Finally, if Beijing is to secure the overseas influence and reach it increasingly desires, foreign policy adjustments will be required. Logistics and intelligence support remain key constraints on Chinese operations in the Indian Ocean and beyond. To remedy this, DoD assesses, Beijing “willlikely establish several access points in this area in the next 10 years. These arrangements likely will take the form of agreements for refueling, replenishment, crew rest, and low-level maintenance. The services provided likely will fall short of permitting the full spectrum of support from repair to re-armament.”

Positive Chinese Contributions and Bilateral Military Relations

Despite the above concerns, DoD also takes pains to recognize positive, growing Chinese contributions to international security and military-to-military relations with the U.S. It documents in exhaustive detail the frequent exchanges and discussions between the two militaries, as well as bilateral and multilateral military exercises dating to 2008. It clearly strives for a balanced approach: “As the United States builds a stronger foundation for a military-to-military relationship with China, it must also continue to monitor China’s evolving military strategy, doctrine, and force development, and encourage China to be more transparent about its military modernization program. In concert with its allies and partners, the United States will continue adapting its forces, posture, and operational concepts to maintain a stable and secure Asia-Pacific security environment.”

Limitations of the Report Itself

Like many products of complex bureaucratic exercises amid far greater competing priorities, this report suffers slightly from omissions, small weaknesses, and inconsistencies. The Maritime Militia, an important component of China’s Cabbage Strategy of enveloping disputed features in layers of non-military forces that opponents might hesitate to use force against, is not mentioned once. With regard to shipbuilding, DoD’s broad brushstrokes obscure lingering unevenness. It names China “the top ship-producing nation in the world,” but omits the critical qualifier that this is in terms of gross commercial tonnage; not sophistication, systems, technology, or quality. Ranges quoted for anti-ship cruise missiles are not explained; some may be debatable in practice depending on the assumptions used to calculate them. Likewise unexplained is DoD’s methodology for calculating China’s total 2014 military spending at $165 billion (against the official figure of $136.3 billion for that year).

Moreover, Pentagon reports are typically stronger in analyzing hardware than software, and this one is no exception. The disparity manifests most prominently in two instances. First, DoD offers incomplete, seemingly uncritical analysis of the “new type of major power relations” advocated by Xi Jinping and other Chinese officials. This may be part of a larger pattern in which the Obama Administration has fallen into the trap of appearing to embrace this loaded meme, whichcarries Chinese expectations of Washington accommodating China’s “core” sovereignty interests without reciprocal concessions from Beijing. It is arguably somewhat disjointed for DoD to express such significant concerns about Chinese weapons systems, while avoiding critical analysis of some of the very policy approaches that inform their threatened worst-case use. Second, the report misses a chance to put in full context the important keynote address that Xi delivered at the CCP Central Foreign Affairs Work Conference in 2014. While the full text remains unavailable in public, subsequent bureaucratic activities and official statements suggest that it may represent a watershed in Xi’s exhorting officials to propose more considerably more assertive external policies. Given the clarity it brings to details of Chinese security hardware, it is unfortunate that DoD could not shed more light on the high-level policies that inform its development and employment.

Undeniable Contribution

All told, however, DoD’s 2015 report continues its useful contribution to vital public knowledge of China’s military-security development. It is far more substantive than any public Chinese documents, including the much-touted Defense White Papers. Such knowledge remains far more limited than the vast sea of information available to anyone interested in the U.S. military, a great proportion of which is translated into Chinese on a regular basis.

Chinese government spokespeople will now predictably denounce DoD’s publication self-righteously in official media, but their talking points will appear generic, as if merely dusted off from years past. Behind this querulous façade, and unwillingness to engage the report’s specifics, likely lies an inability to disprove anything more than a few technicalities. What apparently bothers Beijing far more than any facts revealed is the very notion that Washington would have the temerity to bring transparency and open discussion to the state and trajectory of what is now the world’s second military by many measures. All the more reason why DoD’s slightly imperfect yet irreplaceable contribution is invaluable yet again.

Andrew S. Erickson, “Clear Strengths, Fuzzy Weaknesses In China’s Massive Military Build-Up,” China Real Time Report (中国实时报), Wall Street Journal, 9 May 2015.

The U.S. Defense Department’s new assessment of China’s fighting ability paints a picture of a force in the midst of a broad-based modernization at a pace that other militaries would envy. It has increased its ability to exert leverage in the East and South China seas, where it is in territorial disputes with its neighbors. Significantly, it has also added to its ability to project its power further afield, adding to the global reach of the People’s Liberation Army.

But military effectiveness is about more than hardware. The report cites a number of areas where the PLA’s human resources and organizational effectiveness are lacking, though Beijing is taking steps to rectify those. The report’s own limitations in this area underscore the difficulty in judging how effective Chinese forces can be.


Andrew S. Erickson, “Pentagon Releases ‘Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2014,” China Analysis from Original Sources 以第一手资料研究中国, 5 June 2014.


Andrew S. Erickson, “Pentagon Report Reveals Chinese Military Developments,” The Diplomat, 8 May 2013.

Andrew S. Erickson, “Unpacking the Riches of the Pentagon’s China Report,” China Real Time Report (中国实时报), Wall Street Journal, 7 May 2013.

Andrew S. Erickson, “DoD ‘Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2013’ Report Just Released,” China Analysis from Original Sources 以第一手资料研究中国, 6 May 2013.


Gabe Collins, “12 Things Missing from China Report,” The Diplomat, 1 June 2012.


Andrew S. Erickson, “Key Quotes from 2011 DoD Report on China’s Military,” China Analysis from Original Sources 以第一手资料研究中国, 24 August 2011.


Andrew S. Erickson, “Key Quotes from 2010 U.S. Department of Defense Report on China’s Military,” China Analysis from Original Sources 以第一手资料研究中国, 17 August 2010.

Andrew S. Erickson, “ASBM-Relevant Content from 2010 U.S. Department of Defense Report on China’s Military,” China Analysis from Original Sources 以第一手资料研究中国, 17 August 2010.