14 September 2015

The U.S.-China Military Scorecard: Forces, Geography, and the Evolving Balance of Power, 1996-2017

Eric Heginbotham, Michael Nixon, Forrest E. Morgan, Jacob Heim, Jeff Hagen, Sheng Li, Jeffrey G. Engstrom, Martin C. Libicki, Paul DeLuca, David A. Shlapak, David R. Frelinger, Burgess Laird, Kyle Brady, and Lyle J. Morris, The U.S.-China Military Scorecard: Forces, Geography, and the Evolving Balance of Power, 1996-2017 (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, September 2015).

Over the past two decades, China’s People’s Liberation Army has transformed itself from a large but antiquated force into a capable, modern military. Its technology and operational proficiency still lag behind those of the United States, but it has rapidly narrowed the gap. Moreover, China enjoys the advantage of proximity in most plausible conflict scenarios, and geographical advantage would likely neutralize many U.S. military strengths. A sound understanding of regional military issues—including forces, geography, and the evolving balance of power—will be essential for establishing appropriate U.S. political and military policies in Asia. This RAND study analyzes the development of respective Chinese and U.S. Military capabilities in ten categories of military operations across two scenarios, one centered on Taiwan and one on the Spratly Islands. The analysis is presented in ten scorecards that assess military capabilities as they have evolved over four snapshot years: 1996, 2003, 2010, and 2017. The results show that China is not close to catching up to the United States in terms of aggregate capabilities, but also that it does not need to catch up to challenge the United States on its

immediate periphery. Furthermore, although China’s ability to project power to more distant locations remains limited, its reach is growing, and in the future U.S. military dominance is likely to be challenged at greater distances from China’s coast. To maintain robust defense and deterrence capabilities in an era of fiscal constraints, the United States will need to ensure that its own operational concepts, procurement, and diplomacy anticipate future developments in Chinese military capabilities.


Chapter One


Chapter Two

Different Paths: Chinese and U.S. Military Development, 1996-2017

Chapter Three

Scorecard 1: Chinese Capability to Attack Air Bases

Chapter Four

Scorecard 2: Air Campaigns Over Taiwan and the Spratly Islands

Chapter Five

Scorecard 3: U.S. Penetration of Chinese Airspace

Chapter Six

Scorecard 4: U.S. Capability to Attack Chinese Air Bases

Chapter Seven

Scorecard 5: Chinese Anti-Surface Warfare

Chapter Eight

Scorecard 6: U.S. Anti-Surface Warfare Capabilities Versus Chinese Naval


Chapter Nine

Scorecard 7: U.S. Counterspace Capabilities Versus Chinese Space Systems

Chapter Ten

Scorecard 8: Chinese Counterspace Capabilities Versus U.S. Space Systems

Chapter Eleven

Scorecard 9: U.S. and Chinese Cyberwarfare Capabilities

Chapter Twelve

Scorecard 10: U.S. and Chinese Strategic Nuclear Stability

Chapter Thirteen

The Receding Frontier of U.S. Dominance

Chapter Fourteen

Implications and Recommendations


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