Long March of China's Military Reform

By International Institute for Strategic Studies

The Chinese military's tentative steps towards extending its operational reach were underlined by the Pentagon in its latest annual report, issued in August. But the developments in capabilities that it analysed also showed that China remains a regional military force with a focus on its near-abroad - especially on Taiwan - and is not yet an extra-regional power.

While containing few revelations, the US Department of Defense (DoD)'s unclassified review of China's military provides valuable insights into Beijing's progress in modernising its armed forces, in terms of both doctrine and equipment. It highlights the range of programmes being pursued by the People's Liberation Army (PLA), the multiple threats perceived by Beijing and the transitional phase through which the military is passing.

Presentational shift

The ninth report in an annual series, this latest edition was re-titled 'Military and Security Developments Involving the People's Republic of China', suggesting less of an immediate focus on hard power than the blunter 'Military Power of the People's Republic of China' of previous years. The DoD also delayed publication for longer than in previous years - it is mandated by Congress to publish the report by 1 March. It was unclear whether the delay was due to internal discussions over wording or other, external factors. A report on China's currency exchange rate was delayed from April until July, giving Beijing time to loosen currency controls.

Receive email alerts

[+] More

China traditionally objects to the report, accusing Washington of stoking fear over what it believes to be its natural military progression, in keeping with its rapid economic development. This year was no different: the Global Times, a state-run, internationally focused newspaper, excoriated the DoD for its 'hostility against the Chinese defence sector' and even questioned whether 'a war [will] be forced upon China'.

The inevitability of such rhetoric failed to deter the Pentagon from delicately criticising the Chinese regime in the report's discussion of the PLA's military-to-military contacts, which are covered in a separate chapter for the first time. While lauding the 'modest improvements in the transparency of China's military and security affairs', the report laments Beijing's 'recurring decision to suspend military exchanges'. Beijing halted military contacts with Washington in January following the announcement of the Obama administration's proposed $6.4 billion weapons package for Taiwan, including Patriot Advanced Capability-3 anti-ballistic missile systems. At the IISS Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore in June, US Defense Secretary Robert Gates said such contacts prevented misunderstandings and were essential for regional security, and that 'progress on critical mutual security issues has been held hostage over something that is, quite frankly, old news'. In early September, reports in the Hong Kong and state-run Chinese press suggested military-to-military contacts may be resumed ahead of a state visit by President Hu Jintao to the US in early 2011.

Taiwan focus
Elsewhere, the bulk of the report focuses on capability assessments of the PLA. There is little material that will provide any comfort to Taipei. 'China's long-term, comprehensive transformation of its military forces is improving its capacity for force projection and anti-access/area-denial', the Pentagon observes. 'Consistent with a near-term focus on preparing for Taiwan Strait contingencies, China continues to deploy many of its most advanced systems to the military regions opposite Taiwan.'

A number of examples are cited. One lower-profile procurement project undertaken by the PLA in recent years has been the Type 022 Houbei-class fast-attack craft. Although relatively small, with a full-load displacement of just 220 tonnes, the catamaran's speed and eight missile tubes make it a versatile craft that can operate in significant numbers in the Taiwan Strait. The Pentagon report says 60 have already entered service, out of a likely final tally of 81. These numbers would allow the PLA Navy (PLAN) to deploy numerous Type 022s in 'wolf-packs' to act as swarming vessels against heavier, less mobile ships. This fits in well with the PLA's current focus on 'asymmetric' tactics when considering conflict against more advanced navies.

Anti-ship missiles are also a crucial part of this strategy, particularly in the Taiwan Strait, as they potentially allow Chinese forces to sink or cripple large vessels relatively cheaply. The PLAN's inventory of anti-ship cruise missiles is now a mix of Russian and nationally developed systems. Along with the Raduga 3M80 (SS-N-22 Sunburn) rocket/ramjet-powered missile that arms the Russian-built Sovremenny-class destroyer, and the Novator 3M54 (SS-N-27B Sizzler) for the PLAN's Russian-designed Kilo-class submarines, the PLAN is now fielding the Chinese-built YJ-62 anti-ship cruise missile to complement the shorter-range YJ-8 family of weapons. The SS-N-27B Sizzler presents a unique challenge for naval air-defence systems in that while the missile fly-out to target is at subsonic speed, in the terminal phase the missile body sheds its saddle-mounted wing and uses a rocket motor to increase the velocity during the final stage of the engagement to greater than twice the speed of sound.

The Pentagon report also alludes to the development of an anti-ship cruise missile intended for submarine deployment. (It is designated as CH-SS-NX-13, with the X indicating that the system is in development rather operational. Previously the Western reporting format for Chinese naval missile systems has been CSS-N-...) The Type 39 Song, 39A/B Yuan and 093 Shang classes of submarine are identified by the DoD as possible launch platforms for the missile. As no Chinese designation is given, it is not known whether the missile is completely new or related to a system already in service. Song-class boats are presently fitted with the YJ-82 anti-ship cruise missile.

A further aspect of China's developing anti-ship capabilities is the as-yet-unfielded land-based anti-ship ballistic missile. Probably a modified DF-21 (CSS-5) medium-range ballistic missile, it would, if deployed, be the only type of its kind in service anywhere. Likely targets for this kind of weapon would be aircraft carriers or significant naval task forces, although the guidance systems currently used may be insufficient to guarantee a direct strike on any particular vessel. According to the report: 'The missile has a range in excess of 1,500km, is armed with a maneuverable warhead, and when integrated with appropriate command and control systems, is intended to provide the PLA with the capability to attack ships, including aircraft carriers, in the western Pacific Ocean.'

The Pentagon report opines that China 'has the most active land-based ballistic and cruise missile development program in the world'. Beijing's strategic and tactical guided-weapons prowess has grown notably over the past two decades, with the state's capacity for design, development and manufacturing much improved. In particular, deployment of the ground-based DH-10 land-attack cruise missile (known in China as the Long Sword or CJ-10) is continuing, with the Pentagon revising upward the number of these missiles now thought to be in China's inventory to between 200 and 500. The Pentagon includes the ground-launched variant of the DH-10 among several systems that provide a 'conventional anti-access' capability out to 2,000km, bringing the South China Sea and East China Sea within its range.

Beyond Taiwan
Such capabilities could clearly be used in theatres other than the Taiwan Strait. The Pentagon's report says that 'Beijing is already looking at contingencies beyond Taiwan as it builds its force'. While its immediate focus is strengthening what the DoD calls 'anti-access/area-denial' capabilities in readiness for a Taiwan-related crisis, Beijing is also looking at military capabilities for soft- and hard-power projection well beyond Taiwan. The Pentagon notes that territorial disputes in the South China Sea and the East China Sea, as well as along the Sino-Indian border, are of particular concern for Beijing.

For example, a variant of the DH-10 is being developed for the air-launched role, reflecting the PLA Air Force's (PLAAF) ambition to field more precision-strike weapons to improve its offensive capability. The missile would be deployed on China's H-6K and H-6M variants of the Russian-designed 1950s-era Tu-16 Badger bomber, which remains the core of the air force's medium-range strike force. The YJ-63 (KD-63) cruise missile is already in service, using an electro-optical sensor for terminal guidance. However, the DH-10's maximum range - around 2,000km - would be much greater than that of the YJ-63.

But extending operational reach poses challenges for the PLAAF. The H-6, in spite of upgrade programmes, remains a limited platform given the age of the design. The PLAAF is also struggling to acquire adequate long-range transport aircraft and a long-range tanker aircraft, for which it is dependent on the H-6U. Efforts to purchase additional Ilyushin Il-76 airlifters from Russia have so far proved fruitless, in part as a result of internal Russian issues regarding relocating the aircraft production site. As the Pentagon notes: 'Neither Russian nor domestic [Chinese] manufacturers have proven able to fill the PLAAF's requirement for long-haul transports in support of peacekeeping, disaster relief, and other requirements.'

On the naval side, two aspects of China's military modernisation are attracting attention overseas given their potential to provide a power-projection capability. The first is the continued development of the country's only aircraft carrier, the former Soviet Varyag. The hull is still without propulsion over a decade since it was purchased from Ukraine. While it may not become operational, it is offering the PLAN valuable reverse-engineering and training possibilities. The Pentagon report is in little doubt as to the desire of the PLA to field aircraft carriers, citing an alleged programme to train 50 carrier pilots and stating that: 'The PLA Navy is considering building multiple carriers by 2020.'

The second dimension of China's naval power projection is represented by the ongoing counter-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden, under way since January 2009. Now in its sixth rotation, the deployment currently showcases the PLAN's new major surface combatants, with the Kunlun Shan, a Type 071 amphibious-assault dock, and the Lanzhou, a Type 052C guided-missile destroyer, being supported by the Weishanhu, a Qiandaohu-class replenishment ship. The mission demonstrates what the Pentagon report describes as a new phase of military development by articulating roles and missions that go beyond China's immediate territorial interests. The ships themselves are also significant, as they 'reflect the leadership's priority on an advanced anti-air warfare capability for China's naval forces, which has historically been a weakness of the fleet'. The current rotation is the first to include the Type 071, the only ship of its class in China's navy.

China's ambition for global reach is also apparent in other types of capability. According to the Pentagon, its comparatively small strategic-missile arsenal is being upgraded and expanded, while Beijing is also looking to bolster its deterrent capability by improving its ability to defeat ballistic-missile defences. The report points to Chinese research into 'maneuvering re-entry vehicles, MIRVs [multiple independent re-entry vehicles], decoys, chaff, jamming' as reflecting Chinese aims to counter American missile-defence efforts. Washington also suggests China is developing a new road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missile with a MIRV capability.

The Type 094 Jin-class ballistic-missile submarine (SSBN) is continuing apace, with one boat already in service, according to the Pentagon (the IISS Military Balance 2010 says that two are in service). These submarines are expected to eventually field the JL-2 submarine-launched ballistic missile, which when operational will provide a sea-based nuclear deterrent by extending the range of operational submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) to 7,200km as opposed to the 2,500km of the JL-1. However, as the report, notes, the operational date for the Jin-class SSBN/JL-2 SLBM combination is uncertain given the failure of flight tests.

China, like Europe, intends to establish an alternative to the US Global Positioning System (GPS) satellite navigation system. It is using its own BeiDou-1 constellation of three satellites, in addition to GPS and the Russian Glonass. The BeiDou-1, however, only covers East Asia. The DoD believes the system 'will be replaced by a more capable, but still regionally constrained, BeiDou-2 system that is expected to become operational in 2011'. Continued improvements, suggests the DoD, could see global coverage provided by an upgraded BeiDou-2 constellation in 2015-2020.

Near and far
The Pentagon report should not be taken as gospel. It contains inaccuracies and inconsistencies, such as conflicting numbers for the DF31/31A intercontinental ballistic missile, totalling either approximately 30 or fewer than 25 depending on which page in the report is referenced. Some inconsistencies have been carried over from previous reports. However, the report does serve to underline not only China's focus on the near-abroad, particularly Taiwan, but also its ambitious and longer-range plans to extend operational reach.

For the present, the PLA remains a major regional force rather than an extra-regional power. As the report states, 'China's ability to sustain military power at a distance, today, remains limited.' Regional countries are already responding to China's plans. Vietnam, for example, has orderedsix Kilo-class attack submarines from Russia, and Malaysia and Singapore have each purchased two submarines (although Singapore's have yet to enter into service) - each seeking to limit the PLAN's use of the South China Sea. China's submarine capabilities, particularly its relatively quiet, conventionally powered attack submarines like the Song and Kilo classes, are also clearly a concern for regional powers. Taiwan has acquired new fast missile-attack craft in the form of the Kwang Hua 6, as well as working on a new 'stealth' catamaran attack craft similar to the PLAN's Type 022. This signifies Taiwan's ambition to acquire its own asymmetric 'carrier killer', much like the PLAN.

However, the more pressing issue in the South China Sea - where the sovereignty of many small islands is disputed by several states - is a game of cat and mouse between the 'unofficial' navies of the countries involved - maritime surveillance, coast guard and fisheries vessels fielded by the Chinese, and armed 'fishing boats' and various small naval patrol craft fielded by the Vietnamese, Indonesians and Malaysians. This is not covered by the Pentagon report, despite the fact that it is these unofficial 'melées' that are most likely to be the cause of conflict in the region in the future.

Copyright ©2006 - 2010 The International Institute For Strategic Studies.

Sponsored Links
Related Articles
May 16, 2012
Asia as Global Leader - Not So Fast - Ho Kwon Ping
May 5, 2012
The Erosion of China's Soft Power - Frank Ching
May 15, 2012
Grading Medvedev's Foreign Policy - International Institute for Strategic Studies
May 17, 2012
U.S.-India: A Soft Power Tie That Binds - Aparna Pande
International Institute for Strategic Studies
Author Archive