05 April 2012

Indigenous Weapons Development in China’s Military Modernization

Amy Chang, primary author; John Dotson, editor and contributing author; Indigenous Weapons Development in China’s Military Modernization, U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission Staff Research Report (Washington, DC: USCC, 5 April 2012).

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Indigenous Weapons Development in China’s Military Modernization

The U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission has released a staff research report entitled Indigenous Weapons Development in China’s Military Modernization <http://www.uscc.gov/researchpapers/2012/China-Indigenous-Military-Developments-Final-Draft-03-April2012.pdf>. The report documents identifiable cases of miscalculation regarding U.S. assessments on the development speed of Chinese indigenous weapons systems. U.S. analysts and policymakers should expect to see continued advancements in the ability of the Chinese military to produce modern weapons platforms as well as an attendant increase in the operational capabilities of the People’s Liberation Army and need to enhance analytical tools and capabilities to keep pace with these changes.

The report’s Executive Summary and Key Findings are included below.

Executive Summary

The rapid economic growth of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) since 1979 has enabled the country to implement an extensive military modernization program. Since the mid-1990s, China’s military reforms have accelerated and defense spending has steadily increased. In China’s 2008 white paper on defense, China projected that it would lay a “solid foundation” for the development of national defense and the armed forces by 2010, “accomplish major mechanization and make major progress in informatization by 2020,” and reach modernization of its national defense and armed forces by the middle of the century.

China’s process of modernizing its armed forces has involved the development of indigenously designed weapons systems—some of which appeared to undergo a process of development, procurement, and/or deployment that outpaced the estimates of U.S. and other foreign observers. This paper specifically focuses on four key weapons platforms that have been discussed as “surprise” developments to U.S. analysts:

·         Type 039A/B/041 (Yuan-class) diesel-electric attack submarine

·         SC-19 anti-satellite (ASAT) system

·         Dongfeng-21D (DF-21D/CSS-5) anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM)

·         Jian-20 (J-20) stealth fighter aircraft

Key Findings

Based on the four case studies covered in this report, there are no universal trends in publicly reported U.S. government analysis on the development of indigenous Chinese weapon systems. Evidence broadly suggests that U.S. analysts did not expect the emergence of the PLA Navy’s Yuan-class submarine when the class was unveiled in 2004, much less that this class could potentially be utilizing air-independent propulsion (AIP) systems. On the other hand, U.S. officials were keenly aware of Chinese anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons development, and reports show that U.S. officials were also aware of potential ASAT testing activity in 2007, although it is possible that the exact timing of the test was unexpected. However, while U.S. government analysts accurately anticipated several developments, such as the emergence of China’s SC-19 ASAT system, China’s selective transparency—or strategic deception that asserted opposition to the development of space weapons—may have misled foreign observers outside of military and intelligence channels.

There have been, however, identifiable cases of miscalculation regarding U.S. assessments on the development speed of Chinese indigenous weapons systems. While U.S. intelligence sources acknowledged the development of a land-based anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM) in 2008, academic and government sources have both indicated that the United States underestimated the speed of China’s ASBM development. U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) officials have assessed that the ASBM reached initial operational capability (IOC) in December 2010, and official Chinese media and Taiwanese sources have reported that the ASBM is now field deployed with PLA missile units. China’s fifth-generation fighter, the J-20, was originally projected to begin prototype testing in 2012; however, the United States also underestimated the speed of its development, as the aircraft made its first publicized flight in January 2011.

Particular challenges to accurate predictive assessments on indigenous Chinese military developments include:

·         Information denial and/or deception: The PRC exercises secrecy over many aspects of its military affairs, and in some instances puts forth false or misleading information. The lack of transparency in the PRC’s military modernization has been a frequent complaint of U.S. defense officials in recent years.

·         Underestimation of changes in China’s defense-industrial sector: Once viewed as a bloated and sclerotic industrial sector incapable of adaptation, in the past decade the PRC defense industry has outperformed the expectations of its critics. While it still faces many problems, the Chinese defense industry is far more capable of producing modern weapons platforms than would have been the case in the 1980s or 1990s.

·         Difficulty in understanding the PRC national security decision-making process: The decision-making processes of the Chinese government are opaque, particularly in regards to military policy and national security issues. The public emergence and/or testing of some indigenous PRC weapons platforms has also revealed apparent problems of poor bureaucratic coordination, and the possibility of a civil-military divide at the top levels of Chinese policymaking.

·         Underestimation of Beijing’s threat perceptions: Many analysts in media, academia, and the government may have failed to fully appreciate the extent to which the Chinese leadership views the United States as a fundamental threat to China’s security. These threat perceptions have been inflamed by a number of events in recent years, to include the 1996 Taiwan Straits Crisis and the accidental 1998 bombing of the PRC Embassy Annex in Belgrade by U.S. aircraft.

·         China’s increased investments in science and technology: China’s intensive efforts over the past two decades to stimulate its indigenous capabilities for scientific research and development (R&D)—whether through science education, state funding for research, seeking technology transfers from foreign companies, or industrial espionage—have significantly increased its ability to produce more advanced weapons systems. Furthermore, China’s increasing knowledge of dual-use technologies (i.e., those with both commercial and military applications) in areas such as electronics has also offered significant cross-over benefits to the defense-industrial sector.

·         Inadequate capabilities for and/or attention to the exploitation of open-source Chinese language materials: Some of the past flaws in analysis on China’s weapons program could have been partially corrected by increased attention to open-source materials, particularly in regards to academic technical journals and related publications. Increased attention to the messages in authoritative PRC media and political science publications would also have improved understanding of the worldview of the Chinese leadership.

The trends of past decades are no longer a reliable guide to the performance of China’s defense industries. Furthermore, U.S. observers should not take at face value statements from the Chinese government on military policy, as they could either be deceptive, or simply issued by agencies (e.g., the PRC Ministry of Foreign Affairs) that have no real say over military matters. Based on the trends identified in this paper, U.S. analysts and policymakers should expect to see continued advancements in the ability of the PRC to produce modern weapons platforms, and an attendant increase in the operational capabilities of the People’s Liberation Army.

Disclaimer: This report is the product of professional research performed by staff of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, and was prepared at the request of the Commission to support its deliberations. Posting of the report to the Commission’s website is intended to promote greater public understanding of the issues addressed by the Commission in its ongoing assessment of U.S.-China economic relations and their implications for U.S. security, as mandated by Public Law 106-398 and Public Law 108-7. However, the public release of this document does not necessarily imply an endorsement by the Commission, any individual Commissioner, or the Commission’s other professional staff, of the views or conclusions expressed in this staff research report.

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