14 March 2012

Sunday Book Review: Chinese Aerospace Power

Robert Farley, Sunday Book Review: Chinese Aerospace Power,” Information Dissemination, 11 March 2012. 

Chinese Aerospace Power is a collection of essays generated at a December 2008 colloquium organized by the Naval War College’s China Maritime Studies Institute. The collection is held together by a common focus on maritime oriented Chinese aerospace military capabilities. Edited by Andrew Erickson, CAP is part of a series of similar volumes on Chinese maritime military issues. Taken together, the essays supply a vision of how the United States and the People’s Republic of China envision high technology warfare against one another. In some sense this would remain asymmetric warfare; the PLA would attack perceived US weaknesses using means that the US itself does not normally employ, including ground based cruise missiles and conventional ballistic missiles. However, conflict between the modern PLA and the modern US military establishment would look much more “symmetric” than any conflict that the United States has been involved in since the Vietnam War. The battlespace would horizontally extend deep into China and into the Pacific, and vertically extend between space and the sea floor.

CAP avoids treating any particular system as the key to Chinese military power. Even the much touted ASBMs are placed within context of other Chinese capabilities, and of the role they’d be expected to play within the system of anti-access systems. Another element of this system that has received less attention than it should is the PLA’s collection of land attack cruise missiles (detailed in a chapter by Michael Chase), which provide a similar but somewhat more manageable threat to US bases and ships in the region. Together with the ballistic missiles, the cruise missiles have the potential to overwhelm air defense capabilities, especially given the limitations on total number of SAMs carried by US air defense ships. A chapter by Toshi Yoshihara tracks Chinese views of the development of sea based anti-ballistic missile defense in the United States and Japan, with the upshot that China views such systems as a genuine, but potentially manageable, problem.

CAP also highlights some areas in which technological and doctrinal development has lagged. In particular, the PLAN appears roughly a generation behind in aerial anti-submarine warfare, even allowing the decay of US capabilities over the past decades. This includes both fixed wing maritime surveillance aircraft and ship-borne helicopters. Indeed, the development of helicopter technology and doctrine in the PLA has lagged in general, with total numbers of rotary aircraft running behind international standards. This may have been due to some uncertainty regarding how responsibility for helicopters is divided between the PLAAF and ground combat organizations. In the future, it will be worth watching PLA-assisted disaster relief operations (both domestic and international) to track continued development of rotary aircraft capabilities.

CAP includes some discussion of Chinese carrier aviation, but this is not a major focus. In short, it will take some time for the Chinese to perfect carrier aviation, and between now and the presumed endpoint (modern, fixed wing carrier capabilities with 3-5 active platforms) there is much time and money to be spent, as well as many choices to be made. The Shi Lang gives some indication of what these choices may be (ski jump carriers launching mainly air superiority aircraft) but it’s still possible for the PLAN to go in other directions. In particular, Chinese development of big deck amphibious warships will be very interesting to watch; these warships are likely to carry helicopters for the foreseeable future, but Chinese development of some kind of equivalent to the F-35B isn’t out of the question in the long term. Again, people will be paying a lot of attention to China’s use of naval aviation assets in disaster relief operations. Aircraft carriers obviously represent a move in a different direction than the anti-access capabilities represented by cruise and ballistic missiles; even ski-jump carriers are power projection tools, designed to provide cover over task forces deployed at distance.

Given my own focus on how the configuration of military institutions affects policy, strategy, and procurement, I read the essays that touched upon the role played by the PLA Second Artillery Corps with great interest. The Second Artillery is responsible for ballistic missile development and deployment, and has become both a partner and bureaucratic competitor for the PLAAF and the PLAN. The Second Artillery historically had primary responsibility for nuclear deterrence against the Soviet Union and the United States, and accordingly controlled Chinese ballistic missile forces. Over time, however, a potential conventional role for the SAC in a conflict over Taiwan developed. With improved targeting technology, conventional SAC ballistic missiles could disable airfields and other critical military targets in the first hours of war. Later, the potential use of Anti-Ship Ballistic Missiles would give the SAC a role in deterring US intervention.

There are two interesting stories here. The first is a basic institutional logic about how a bureaucracy develops capabilities beyond its core mission. Not entirely without prodding, the SAC has created a non-nuclear mission for itself, and indeed would be expected to play a critical and decisive role in superpower conflict without direct reliance on nuclear weapons. When a (quasi) service is built around ballistic missiles, it finds new and innovative ways of using ballistic missiles, especially when it needs such innovations to maintain political and bureaucratic relevance. In this case, the SAC has pursued innovations that have potentially decisive effect at the operational and strategic levels. Institutional design has consequences; build a service around bombers, and you get interesting bomber technology and doctrine, build it around missiles and you get interesting missile developments.

The second is an inevitable counter-part to the first; divisions of responsibility between bureaucratic organizations invariably create conflicts between those organizations. We know less about conflicts between the PLAAF and the SAC than we do about those between the USAF and USN, but such conflicts definitely exist, and often appear to coalesce around control of information technology. Modern warfare is extremely hungry with regards to information, communications, and bandwidth, and the PLAN, PLAAF, and SAC all want access to and control of the platforms and capabilities that create and distribute information. In an actual war context, we don’t know how these conflicts would play out. PLA anti-access capabilities involves use of a system of systems designed to deter and defeat efforts to penetrate sea and air space near the Chinese littoral. These systems include diesel electric submarines, surface launched cruise missiles, land launched cruise missiles (targeting both enemy ships and enemy airbases), air launched cruise missiles, and ballistic missiles. On the surface this seems an exceedingly imposing collection of capabilities. In actual fighting, coordination between services and capabilities would prove extremely demanding. Interservice conflict invariably produces friction, notwithstanding “jointness” or whatever term the Chinese may use to describe the concept of interservice operations.

The collection does an excellent job of highlighting where the rifts lay, and describing the effect that they’ve had on planning and procurement. More broadly, the discussion of interservice conflict in the Chinese context highlights both the contingency of specific configurations of military power, and the policy impact of particular institutional choices. As I have labored to argue, there is nothing natural or necessarily optimal about the current distribution of responsibilities across US military services; other countries make much different choices, even when they face similar security environments. More importantly, the choice of configuration has a big impact on how doctrine, technology, and procurement will play out. Military bureaucracies almost invariably compete with one another, with the most serious issues arising when mission requirements cross service boundaries. China now faces a situation where exceedingly complex operational tasks are divided between three “services,” an issue that may prove problematic if push ever comes to shove.

As with all such collections, some entries are stronger than others. There are very few clunkers, however, and anyone interested in the subject will have their own favorites. Some of the essays could be difficult for a layman to penetrate, but an understanding of the arguments has value beyond the evaluation of Chinese military capabilities. These essays shine a light on how China is thinking about fighting the United States, deterring US intervention in regional conflict, and shaping US behavior in the Western Pacific. Given that the book is the product of a Naval War College colloquium and that it includes the work of many individuals close to the development of USN doctrine and strategy, it also gives good indication of how the United States views the prospect of war against China. It bears note that the book is relevant whether or not we evaluate a war between China and the United States as likely; the technologies, doctrines, and procurement priorities outlined will guide US and Chinese policy for at least a generation, and calculations regarding the likelihood and likely course of war will guide how the two nations related to one another diplomatically. For those with even more interest in the subject, here’s a talk on the book by Andrew Erickson….

For a video introducing the volume’s contents, watch Prof. Andrew S. Erickson, Eight Bells Book Lecture, Naval War College Museum, 8 September 2011.

Andrew S. Erickson and Lyle J. Goldstein, eds., Chinese Aerospace Power: Evolving Maritime Roles (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2011).

Japanese summary translation now available: 中国の航空宇宙パワー海洋任務への発展.

Highlighted in GlobalSecurity.org’s Special Selections.

Chinese Aerospace Power: Evolving Maritime Roles (CMSI Vol. 5)



China’s aircraft carrier program is already making major waves well before the first ship has even been completed. Undoubtedly, this development heralds a new era in Chinese national security policy. While Chinese Aerospace Power presents substantial new insight on that particular question, its main focus is decidedly broader in scope. This book offers a comprehensive survey of Chinese aerospace developments, with a concentration on areas of potential strategic significance previously unexplored in Western scholarship. It also links these developments to the vast maritime battlespace of the Asia-Pacific region and highlights the consequent implications for the U.S. military, particularly the U.S. Navy.

The possibility of a future Chinese expeditionary force operating off Africa under the protective umbrella of carrier aircraft is not without consequence for the global strategic balance. However, a simpler set of aerospace systems, from microsatellites to unmanned aerial vehicles to ballistic and cruise missiles are already challenging U.S. maritime dominance in East Asia. Cumulatively, progress in all major aerospace dimensions by various elements of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) signifies a new period in which Chinese forces are now decisively altering the complexion of the military balance in the East Asian littoral.

While many articles and books have previously been written on Chinese aerospace development and many more discuss future U.S. naval strategy in the Asia-Pacific region, no other book connects the two issues, simultaneously evaluating the Chinese aerospace challenge and its implications for U.S. naval strategy.

Chinese Aerospace Power offers both broad strategic context for the lay reader and considerable insights for even the most well-informed specialists, with no fewer than five chapters devoting coverage to significant aspects of China’s development of a “carrier killer” anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM).

Publication date: July 2011

512 pp., 2 b/w photos, 15 illustrations, 6” x 9”

ISBN: 978-159114-241-6

Political Science, International Relations

This is the fifth volume in the Naval Institute Press series “Studies in Chinese Maritime Development” published jointly by the China Maritime Studies Institute and the Naval Institute Press. Click here for information regarding previous volumes in the series.

China, the United States, and 21st Century Sea Power

 Edited by Andrew S. Erickson, Lyle J. Goldstein, and Nan Li

ISBN: 978-1-59114-243-0

China Goes to Sea: Maritime Transformation in Comparative Historical Perspective

Edited by Andrew S. Erickson, Lyle J. Goldstein, and Carnes Lord

ISBN: 978-1-59114-242-3

China’s Energy Strategy: The Impact on Beijing’s Maritime Policies

Edited by Gabriel B. Collins, Andrew S. Erickson, Lyle J. Goldstein, and William S. Murray

ISBN: 978-1-59114-330-7

China’s Future Nuclear Submarine Force

Edited Andrew S. Erickson, Lyle J. Goldstein, William S. Murray, and Andrew R. Wilson

ISBN: 978-1-59114-326-0

Andrew S. Erickson is an associate professor in the U.S. Naval War College’s Strategic Research Department and a founding member of its China Maritime Studies Institute (CMSI). He is an Associate in Research at Harvard University’s Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies and a Fellow in the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations’ Public Intellectuals Program.

Lyle J. Goldstein is an associate professor in the Strategic Research Department at the U.S. Naval War College, and the founding director of the department’s China Maritime Studies Institute. He is proficient in Chinese and Russian, and has published widely in scholarly journals on China, Russia, Central Asia, and surface and undersea warfare.


“In this edited volume, Erickson and Goldstein provide us with a comprehensive survey of China’s ongoing efforts to shift the military balance in the Western Pacific decisively in its favor through the development and application of aerospace power as it pertains to the maritime competition. Drawing upon primary research and Chinese sources, this volume will be a valuable and timely addition to the libraries of those with an interest in this issue of growing geostrategic importance.”

—Dr. Andrew F. Krepinevich Jr., President of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, author of 7 Deadly Scenarios: A Military Futurist Explores the Changing Face of War in the 21st Century

“This coverage of this book is at once broad and deep. It serves well as an introduction to advances in Chinese maritime aerospace technology, and it will also reward expert readers looking for the latest update on these evolving capabilities. Many readers will be surprised by the extent of Chinese progress described by the contributors to this work. Assembling evidence from a necessarily diverse range of sources, they detail the strategic as well as the technical issues that are shaping the Chinese military establishment as it looks beyond the country’s shores, and they examine how it will develop in coming years and decades.”

—Bradley Perrett, Asia-Pacific bureau chief, Aviation Week, Beijing

Chinese Aerospace Power is an excellent and very readable overview of China’s impressive advances in almost every aspect of air and space operations. Not only have the Chinese developed impressive technical capabilities, but they have also given careful thought to the operational concepts associated with them. There is no reason that China must be an enemy of the United States, but it would be folly on our part if we were to lose to China the across-the-board technology lead that has been vital to our national security for well over a half century. This is a must read for anyone with a concern for American or Chinese military affairs.”

—Col. John A. Warden III, USAF (Ret.), Gulf War I planner, president of Venturist, Inc., author of The Air Campaign and Winning in FastTime

Chinese Aerospace Power arrives on the scene as the United States is facing declining resources for defense while the Chinese are realizing rapid expansion of its military capabilities in the aerospace and maritime domains. Andrew Erickson and Lyle Goldstein yield timely insight into how these two trends are evolving in these arenas. Resolving the security objectives of the United States and China in the Pacific—and around the world—requires that policymakers and military strategists understand the reality of Chinese military capability, experiences, and perspectives. This work provides that insight and is a must read as Chinese aerospace development is significantly altering the character of the military and political balance in the Pacific.”

—Lt. General David A. Deptula, USAF (Ret.), former USAF Deputy Chief of Staff for Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance

“Absolutely the most important book on air and space power I’ve had the pleasure to read. The power of this detailed survey of Chinese Aerospace Power is doubled because it presents both an intelligent American analysis and an insightful view of the ‘Chinese perception’ of the situation. Our two nations have much in common, but the understanding this difference in perception is essential to our selection of our future alternatives. A must have book!”

—Col. Walter J. Boyne, USAF (Ret.), National Aviation Hall of Fame honoree and former director of the National Air and Space Museum, author of Beyond the Wild Blue: A History of the U.S. Air Force, 1947-2007

“China’s air and space development is an area of significant interest for the U.S. Navy. This book elucidates the critical linkage between China’s military aerospace and maritime capabilities. Whereas China’s rapid progress has already rendered many other studies obsolete, this volume connects the latest ‘data point’ dots and puts them in strategic context. Navy leaders and planners should read it today.”

—Admiral Timothy J. Keating, USN (Ret.), former Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Pacific Command


“this volume evaluates the advances that China has made in its aerospace operations and the implications of this advancement for U.S. naval strategy.”

—Katherine Duke, “Chinese Aerospace Power: Evolving Maritime Roles,” “Short Takes,” Amherst Magazine (Fall 2011): 46.

“This enormously valuable and very up-to-date work… provides a very comprehensive analytical overview of the rapid development of the aerospace functions of the PLA Navy. Politicians, military officers, journalists, naval architects, ship-builders, ship-owners and even businessmen who have any connection with or concern for China would be well advised to buy and carefully study this book.”

Ausmarine (November 2011): 36.

offers a broad overview and appraisal of recent developments in Chinese aerospace and maritime power and examines implications for the US military, especially Chinese prowess in fielding advanced cruise missiles and China’s long-range precision-strike capabilities that pose a threat to forces in the Western Pacific theater….”

“Reference & Research Book News,” Book News Inc. (October 2011), 306.

“This volume has numerous strengths. Its greatest contribution to existing literature is that it uses a great deal of open source Chinese based literature to add credence to the authors ideas. …  The work assembles … an all-star cast of scholars to discuss one of the most timely security studies subjects of the 21st century. … When considered as a whole or in part, this work should give US strategic planners a moment of pause. Erickson and Goldstein have created a volume that is balanced, dense in scope but still readable and enjoyable. Combined with the assemblage of a ‘who’s who’ in Chinese security studies, the appeal of such a work is hard to deny. This volume should serve as the textbook to any security studies student who wishes to gain a scholarly perspective on China’s aerospace and military rise to power from a maritime perspective. It is a work I will keep close at hand for years to come.”

—Harry Kazianis, “Review: Chinese Aerospace Power, Evolving Maritime Roles,” 5 Stars, e-International Relations, 6 September 2011.

“… despite the numerous one-off articles, there hasn’t until now been a place in English that brings together all the pieces of the puzzle. That is until the recent publication by the China Maritime Studies Institute of Chinese Aerospace Power: Evolving Maritime Roles. The volume… offers a comprehensive overview of all the latest developments, and touches on the whole spectrum of the Chinese aerospace capabilities…. The essays, from some of the most highly regarded analysts in the field, help provide a good understanding of the state of Chinese aerospace modernization. The book not only examines the technical feasibility of Chinese plans, as well as their strengths and weaknesses, but also delves deep into domestic Chinese debates about the weapons systems in question. The volume manages to get to the core of the issue through open source analysis that compares and contrasts Chinese writings on the topic from a variety of official and unofficial sources, offering a far broader perspective than volumes focusing only on Western analysis. Indeed, Chinese Aerospace Power delves deeply into the Chinese system, examining inter-service rivalries and integration and training issues. … The book is a must-read piece for every government official involved with China-related issues, military or otherwise. If knowing your interlocutor is a prerequisite for successful negotiations, the book should be a big step towards providing a balanced and necessary understanding.”

—Eleni Ekmektsioglou, “Understanding China,” The Diplomat, 26 August 2011.

“…this book was astonishing. …Almost everyone of the paper was informative (make that eye-opening)… Kudos to the authors and editor. But the heart of the book for a novice like myself was the realization of what the Chinese Second Artillery Corps has pulled off. Terminally guided precision Anti Ship Ballistic Missiles (ASBM) have essentially made our carriers obsolete for a war-time Taiwan mission in the Western Pacific. The PLAAF cruise missile, fighter and air defense systems are impressive. All of it feels like the Soviet reconnaissance/strike package implemented by a country that has its act together. This book should be required reading by every staffer in Washington.”

—Tech Historian, “Outstanding! A Must Have on Your Shelf,” 5 Star Rating, Amazon.com, 23 August 2011.

“In the past, I have found works by Andrew Erickson, Lyle Goldstein and the good folks at China Maritime Studies Institute (CMSI) to be of the highest quality and this book was no exception. … It does a great job of understanding China’s motivations/intentions, while fairly examining PLA’s capabilities and training. For those seeking for a greater understanding of China’s air force, space development and Second Artillery Command, I think this is a must read. … On top of that, I was pleasantly surprised by all of the new information/analysis that I found in this book regarding China’s ASBM program. I have read many differently analyses on ASBM (including several by CMSI), but this book really provided a much more comprehensive look than anything else I have read. The discussions on subjects like conflict escalation of ASBM, hard kill vs soft kill and non-carrier targets were very refreshing. So, for all those who are interested in learning more about China’s Air Force, space development and Second Artillery, I think this book would be an excellent read.”

Feng, “Review of Chinese Aerospace Power: Evolving Maritime Roles,” Information Dissemination, 16 August 2011.

“…the papers presented by this installation are of the highest quality with primary Chinese sources. They are written by the most respected authorities on the subject…. While unveiling fancy new equipment can generate headlines, the press generally doesn’t ask the deeper question of how new equipment may change existing PLA doctrine or examine potential implications. This is where the good folks from the CMSI come in and provide analyses that are lacking in the blogosphere….”

China Defense Blog, 31 July 2011.

“A useful analysis of Chinese air power, especially with regards to the sea. Balanced and highly technical, the book aims neither to hype nor downplay PLA capabilities.”

—David Axe, “Useful Analysis,” 4 Star Rating, Amazon.com, 28 July 2011.

“…Beijing has a brutally simple—if risky—plan to compensate for [its] relative weakness: buy missiles. And then, buy more of them. All kinds of missiles: short-range and long-range; land-based, air-launched and sea-launched; ballistic and cruise; guided and ‘dumb.’ Those are the two striking themes that emerge from Chinese Aerospace Power….”

—David Axe, “China’s Plan to Beat U.S.: Missiles, Missiles and More Missiles,” Danger Room, Wired.com, 27 July 2011.

Japanese summary translation now available: 中国の航空宇宙パワー海洋任務への発展.

概 説





アンドリュー・エリクソンとライル・J・ゴールドスタインは米国海軍大学の戦略研究部准教授であり、中国海洋研究所の発起人である。彼らは、「中国、米国及び21 世紀のシーパワー」及び「中国は海へ進出」を含む幾つかの書籍を共著している。