18 July 2009

China’s Military Development: Maritime and Aerospace Dimensions

Andrew S. Erickson, China’s Military Development: Maritime and Aerospace Dimensions,” presented at Defense Foundation Forum, Rayburn House Office Building, Washington, DC, 17 July 2009.

China is achieving a rapid if uneven revolution in maritime and aerospace capabilities. These capabilities are divided among China’s Second Artillery, Air Force, Navy, General Armaments Department, and even the ground forces, to some extent. Competition may emerge among these services for control of new forces, such as military space capabilities. China has methodically acquired technologies which target limitations in the physics of high technology warfare, or “physics-based limitations.” These can place high-end competitors, potentially the U.S. Navy and other armed services, on the costly end of an asymmetric arms race. In addition to these widespread incremental improvements, China is on the verge of achieving several potentially game-changing breakthroughs; most importantly anti-ship ballistic missiles, but also the capability to launch streaming cruise missile attacks, and anti-satellite attacks, and even the application of satellite navigation to facilitate military operations. These achievements promise to radically improve the People’s Liberation Army (PLA)’s military’s access denial capabilities by allowing it to hold at risk a wide variety of surface and air-based assets, were they to enter strategically vital zones on China’s contested maritime periphery in the event of conflict.

China does face some ongoing challenges in developing its military. Lagging areas include human capital, realism of training, hardware and operational deficiencies, C4ISR, and target de-confliction with existing systems and strategies. China has many ways to mitigate these limitations for kinetic operations around Taiwan or other areas of its maritime periphery and potentially for non-kinetic peacetime operations or phase-zero operations further afield. Conducting high-intensity wartime operations in contested environments beyond Taiwan at the present would tend to be much more challenging for China, however. And China would need to achieve major qualitative and quantitative improvements, particularly in aerospace, to progress in that area. That, in turn, would give China vulnerabilities, in some ways of the same sort that it is able to target on the part of the U.S. right now. Looking forward, the biggest strategic question for U.S. Navy planners is whether and to what extent China will choose to develop the aerospace capabilities and other capabilities to support major kinetic force projection far beyond Taiwan.