18 May 2016

How Good Are They? The Latest Insights Into China’s Military Tech

Andrew S. Erickson, “How Good Are They? The Latest Insights Into China’s Military Tech,” War on the Rocks, 18 May 2016.

It’s that time of year again, and the end of an era. On Friday, the Obama Administration released the last annual Pentagon China report under its watch. Working the China military observers’ graveyard shift this weekend, I published analyses of the report’s overall content, and its key omissions — namely, any mention whatsoever of China’s maritime militia of “little blue men” trolling for territorial claims. Here, I’ll focus on the report’s greatest comparative advantage: insights concerning Beijing’s military technology and its applications that no other public source offers with such official backing or reliable details.

Defense Industrial Dynamics

The Pentagon’s report offers extensive coverage of China’s defense-industrial sector, including key policies and trends. Beijing clearly seeks a comprehensive indigenous defense industrial base, with strong commercial underpinnings. To that end, it is launching its third major round of post-Cold War reforms. Informed by extensive policy documents and a hierarchy of priority subjects, Beijing is funding extensive research, development, and acquisition throughout its sprawling defense industry and related organizations. Emphases include the widespread Chinese approach of civil-military integration and acquiring foreign technology by any means necessary — including extensive cyber and human espionage — while absorbing it and developing indigenous technology and systems in parallel. Characteristic of President Xi Jinping’s structural reform efforts more generally, a new high-level advisory body will oversee these efforts: the Strategic Committee of Science, Technology, and Industry Development for National Defense. One indication of progress: $15 billion in arms export agreements signed between 2010 and 2014.

This systematic explication enhances the credibility and utility of the 145-page report. But what most of its most avid consumers really want to know is: How good is the military hardware that China can produce? And how do performance parameters and quality vary by type of weapon system? It is in the totality of such information that the report really shines.

However, in meeting its obligations to Congress, and, by extension, the public, the Pentagon’s annual report had to address a wide range of disparate issues concerning Chinese military and security development. It had to do so in a format largely shaped by its previous 14 iterations. Allow me, therefore, to summarize and reconfigure its key findings to best address these pressing questions. I have worked here to distill insights into just how good various types of Chinese military hardware have become. …