The Buzz

2016 Was a Big Year for China's Military: Carriers, Missiles and More

China’s military advanced along several fronts in 2016 in its concerted program to develop new asymmetric and conventional warfare capabilities while continuing to challenge the United States for military control of key waterways in Asia.

As 2016 drew to a close, China flexed its military muscle with the high-profile dispatch of its lone aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, to an area of the western Pacific in a carrier battle group formation. Seven warships accompanied the carrier – three destroyers, three frigates and a supply ship.

Contrary to many western China analysts’ who said the Chinese carrier would take many years to deploy, Chinese state media trumpeted naval drills as a sign the the carrier will ready for combat operation sooner than expected.

“Compared with other countries, China has progressed ahead of expectations,” Zhang Junshe, a senior researcher at the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Naval Military Studies Research Institute, told state-run media, adding “other countries’ aircraft carriers normally spent five to six years or even 10 years to gain combat capability.”

The blue-water naval operations followed the disclosure earlier this month that weapons upgrades are not the only focus of the PLA. The new open ocean drills followed the adoption in December of a new force projection doctrine called “rapid force projection.” The doctrine will complete a transition from the previous focus fighting regional military conflicts to conducting larger-scale global operations involving what Beijing calls high-technology informationized forces.

A review of military developments in China and throughout the world over past year provides a clear picture of China’s military priorities, both conventional and strategic nuclear.

As the year ended, China conducted a flight test of a new missile known as the Dong Ning-3 that the Pentagon believes is a missile designed to hit US satellites in space in a crippling attack in the early phases of a conflict that would limit American military forces from navigating forces, pinpointing targets and gathering intelligence.

The DN-3 test took place in early December and was couched as a missile defense interceptor test in a bid by the Chinese military to mask its development of anti-satellite capabilities. The Chinese Defense Ministry dismissed published reports of the ASAT test as “groundless.” Pentagon officials confirmed the test took place and expressed concern about one of China’s most important asymmetric weapons.

The DN-3 is believed to be a missile capable of attacking satellites in high-earth orbit – the location of most strategic navigation and intelligence satellites.

For Pentagon intelligence analysts tasked with monitoring Chinese weapons development 2016 was also a year in which PLA began deploying multiple warhead weapons. China’s most potent intercontinental ballistic missile, the new DF-41 was flight tested in December 2015 and confirmed by the Chinese Defense Ministry as a normal “scientific test.”

But there is nothing normal about a strategic missile armed with multiple warheads that represent a quantum increase in strategic nuclear lethality. Most of China’s nuclear force until recently were designed to deliver a single large warhead over thousands of miles.

In February, US intelligence had detected what was described in classified reports as the uploading of additional warheads on older, single-warhead DF-5 missiles.

Between the new DF-41, still under development, and the increased warheads on the DF-5, strategic war planners are now beginning to re-calculate the warhead size and mix for the US nuclear arsenal to be better prepared to deter the expanding Chinese nuclear force.

Adm. Cecil Haney, commander of the Strategic Command at the time, disclosed in a speech in January that China was adding multiple warheads to its missiles and re-engineering its long-range ballistic missiles to carry multiple nuclear warheads.”

US President-elect Donald Trump surprised many strategic and foreign policy analysts Dec. 22 when he announced on Twitter that “the United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes.”

The United States is currently engaged in a slow but expensive strategic arsenal modernization that will invest US$450 billion in new missiles, submarines and bombers over the next 20 years.

Trump also set off a controversy by questioning a key premise of US-China relations that has limited American engagement with key regional partner in democratic-ruled Taiwan.

China appeared to react to the Trump remarks by seizing an underwater glider from a US Navy ocean survey ship earlier this month. The drone submersible was eventually returned to the Americans.

China would conduct a second DF-41 flight test on April 19 when two dummy warheads were monitored in flight over western China.

Also in April, China flight tested its new ultra-high speed strike vehicle known as the DF-ZF – a maneuvering missile stage that is designed to defense missile defenses. It was the seventh flight test of the missile-launched glider and a high priority weapon for the Peoples Liberation Army to deliver nuclear weapons or conduct precision conventional attacks, such as against ships at sea.

On maritime territorial disputes, China continued to fuel controversy with the militarization on some 3,200 acres of new islands it dredged in the South China Sea. In February, the Pentagon spotted the deployment of advanced Chinese HQ-9 surface-to-air missiles on Woody Island, in the Paracel island chain in the northwestern part of the sea.