07 May 2013

Unpacking the Riches of the Pentagon’s China Report

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.

The U.S. Department of Defense annual report on Chinese military developments, released on Monday, has made a splash by putting forth the most direct official accusations so far of Chinese cyberintrusions into the U.S. government computers. But the 92-page report – much improved from its 43-page 2012 predecessor, which was widely criticized for being many days late and dollars short – offers a number of other important insights into China’s growing military capabilities.

Like other government reports on China’s military capabilities, this year’s DoD iteration clearly and understandably comes from a U.S. military perspective, yet it notably strives to provide a comprehensive picture of Chinese military developments and the strategic concerns that motivate them. More important, it provides authoritative assessments of key People’s Liberation Army developments that are difficult, if not impossible, to achieve or confirm via other publicly-available sources, such as Beijing’s own recently-released 2013 Defense White Paper.

Perhaps the DoD report’s single greatest advancement of public knowledge concerns China’s nuclear submarine programs. It states that China’s three already-operational Type 094 Jin-class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) may be joined by “as many as two more in various stages of construction.” The Type 094, the report says, “will give the PLA Navy its first credible sea-based nuclear deterrent” once its JL-2 – a submarine-launched ballistic missile with a range in excess of 7,400 km – is deployed effectively. “After a round of successful testing in 2012, the JL-2 appears ready to reach initial operational capability in 2013,” DoD asserts. “JIN-class SSBNs based at Hainan Island in the South China Sea would then be able to conduct nuclear deterrence patrols.”

Meanwhile, China’s two already-deployed Type 093 Shang-class nuclear-powered attack submarines  will be joined by four improved variants under construction, according to the report. Within 10 years, the DoD projects, “China will likely construct the Type 095 guided-missile attack submarine, which may enable a submarine-based land-attack capability.” The Type 095 will “likely incorporat[e] better quieting technologies” and “fulfill traditional anti-ship roles with the incorporation of torpedoes and anti-ship cruise missiles.” As for conventional attack submarines, DoD states that the Yuan-class (Type 039A), of which China may build as many as twenty, “includes an air-independent power system.”

Attack submarines have constituted a relative strength for China’s navy for over a decade; the current and projected developments outlined in DoD’s report suggest further advances in capability and mission options. Attack submarines also offer a leading indicator of Beijing’s naval goals: Conventionally-powered submarines are better suited for China’s littorals, while nuclear-powered variants have the endurance to range further afield. Comparing the numbers that Beijing adds in each category may suggest the extent to which its navy will focus on achieving significant combat capabilities beyond the Near Seas (Yellow, East, and South China Seas) and their immediate approaches.

A second area of particular significance is the report’s coverage of China’s anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM) development. While many details of China’s ASBM program could be pieced together from previous U.S. government statements, the report offers the most definitive and comprehensive assessment yet of the program’s current status and capability. According to the DoD China continues to field the DF-21D, a missile with a range in excess of 1,500 km that “gives the PLA the capability to attack large ships, including aircraft carriers, in the western Pacific Ocean.” On a related note, the report says, the PLA Navy is also improving its ability to locate targets at great distances from China through a combination of over-the-horizon radar and reconnaissance satellites. And Beijing may be investing in the development of even longer-range ASBMs, according to the report.

This effort, the report notes, is part of a larger array of “force structure improvements” that “will provide the PLA with systems that can engage adversary surface ships up to 1,000 [nautical miles from China’s coast.” This all suggests that Beijing continues to parlay its strength in missile development — including the world’s only long-range ASBM — into enabling the pursuit of major new operational possibilities.

The report judges China’s defense industry to enjoy significant resources and options for furthering such developments. Areas of particular capability include missiles, shipbuilding, and research; with respect to nanotechnology, for instance, now only “a close second to the United States in total government investment.” It characterizes China as being “among the top ship-producing nations in the world” and Beijing’s ballistic and cruise missile industries to be “comparable to other international top-tier producers” and well-positioned for further development. It credits China with having deployed one of the world’s largest advanced long-range surface-to-air missile forces. Importantly, DoD assesses that PLA missile and other developments have already “largely negated” many of Taiwan’s traditional defensive advantages.

China’s navy already “has the largest force of major combatants, submarines, and amphibious warfare ships in Asia,” the report says. While the DoD predicts the PLA Navy’s newly-commissioned carrier Liaoning will not have an “operational air wing” until 2015 or later, it predicts China will build multiple aircraft carriers over the next decade, with the first Chinese-built carrier likely to be operational “sometime in the second half of this decade.” It projects that Beijing “will likely establish several access points” over the next 10 years, possibly in the Malacca, Lombok and Sunda Straits, in “the form of agreements for refueling, replenishment, crew rest, and low-level maintenance.” These last two areas represent uncharted territory for Beijing, and it will be interesting to see how it proceeds.

The DoD’s report makes clear that China’s military is developing some extremely significant capabilities. The PLA still has its weaknesses — aeroengines are mentioned multiple times in the report as a key deficiency — and new, more-dispersed nuclear capabilities are potentially challenging entrenched notions of centralized command and control. But the report offers the clear impression that China’s military capabilities, while still uneven and regionally-focused, are also improving rapidly in many respects and already formidable in areas that matter most to Beijing.