09 May 2015

Clear Strengths, Fuzzy Weaknesses In China’s Massive Military Build-Up

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.

In the immediate area around China, the report released on Friday says, “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.” China’s advancements and a defense budget 10 times greater have eroded Taiwan’s ability to defend itself. It has used incremental, salami-slicing tactics to assert effective control over contested areas and features in places like the South China Sea. Rapid South China Sea island reclamation adds to Beijing’s ability to establish forces there.

To an already impressive array of short-range ballistic missiles opposite Taiwan, China has added more antiship ballistic missile capabilities allowing to engage vessels within 900 nautical miles of the Chinese coastline. It has improved communications systems for its intercontinental ballistic missile units and has launched more surveillance satellites that will improve targeting. Improving launch capabilities will allow even greater satellite payloads. To counter the space capabilities of potential adversaries, it is deploying “jamming equipment against multiple communication and radar systems and GPS satellite systems” on sea and air platforms, the report said.

China’s navy is also making strides, with the report saying it now possesses the largest number of vessels in Asia. Their quality had improved dramatically. For example, the Luyang-III-class (Type 052D) destroyer, which first entered service in 2014, has a vertical launch system capable of firing antiship cruise missiles, land-attack cruise missiles, surface-to-air missiles and antisubmarine missiles. The Type 055 guided-missile cruiser slated to begin construction in 2015 will have similar armaments. Their improved capabilities mean Chinese naval task forces will increasingly be able to take a protective umbrella with them to distant seas far removed from China’s land-based air defense systems.

China is adding to its fleet of civil-maritime vessels, which play a key role in its territorial disputes in nearby waters. By the end of 2015, a decade-long construction effort will have yielded a net increase of 25% more ships. Many older platforms are being replaced by new and improved ones, with many more having helicopter embarking capability than previously.

In the air, China’s military is less capable but still improving. The Pentagon 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. China “is the only country in the world other than the United States to have two concurrent stealth fighter programs,” it says. It concludes that the Chinese air force “is rapidly closing the gap with western air forces across a broad spectrum of capabilities.”

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

China still lacks some critical technologies, industrial processes, and related know-how, but in those areas it can get help from abroad. Russian and Ukrainian economic woes are facilitating Chinese access to advanced expertise and systems. Much technology acquired for commercial aircraft and other civilian programs has military applications. The report documents multiple cases of Chinese nationals seeking to transfer foreign technology illegally.

That’s the hardware. The brains behind it – the software, if you will – is another story. China hasn’t fought a major conflict since a 1979 clash with Vietnam. Its training and combat effectiveness remain open questions. Logistics and intelligence support remain key constraints on Chinese operations, particularly in the Indian Ocean.

The report suggests China is aware of its deficiencies. As part of enhancement of training realism emphasized by President Xi Jinping, the PLA is increasing joint exercises. Further reforms likely under consideration include reducing non-combat forces and the relative proportion of ground forces; raising 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 forces operations; establishing a theater joint command system; and reducing the current seven military regions that divide its forces by as many as two.

To bolster its eyes, ears, and presence in the Indian Ocean area, the report says, Beijing “will likely establish several access points in this area in the next 10 years.” That could include agreements with local partners for refueling, crew rest and low-level maintenance, though it will likely fall short of broader support.

In this area the report itself is incomplete and at times contradictory, underscoring how difficult it can be to look at the software end of military might. For example, the report offers an 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, which carries Chinese expectations of Washington accommodating China’s “core” sovereignty interests without reciprocal concessions from Beijing.

The report also 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 assertive external policies. Given the clarity it brings to details of Chinese security hardware, it is unfortunate that the report couldn’t shed more light on the high-level policies that inform its development and employment.

Despite those deficiencies, the new report contributes to vital public knowledge of China’s military-security development. Chinese officials will likely denounce its findings but won’t address specifics, underscoring a likely 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 seek 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 the report’s imperfect yet irreplaceable contribution is invaluable.