America, Take Notice: China's Five Military Game Changers

Beijing's military prowess grows with each passing day. Should Washington be concerned?

For decades, China has played catch-up with the world’s most advanced military powers. Starting from a very low technological base, and without the benefit of access to foreign technology markets, the defense base of the People’s Republic of China struggled to develop innovative technologies that could compete with Russian, European, and American systems.  China compensated for this deficiency by importing advanced foreign weapons and tech, and by orienting its military strategy around defense.

To some extent, China continues to play catch-up today.  However, new advances are bringing the Chinese defense-industrial base ever closer to its counterparts (indeed, in some ways Chinese technology has surpassed Russian).  This article examines five pieces of future Chinese military technology that could become “game changers.” These five systems each threaten to contribute to the transformation of China’s security environment, and by extension to revolutionize the politics of East Asia.

Aircraft Carriers:

China’s intentions with respect to its carrier fleet have remained mysterious for decades.  The completion of the Liaoning made clear that China does intend to develop a carrier force, but questions remain about the size of the force, and about its eventual capabilities.  The lack of transparency with respect to China’s carrier plans means that we don’t yet have a sense of what new ships will look like, although they may carry the stealth-style fighters and could possibly launch AEW (airborne early warning) aircraft.

To be sure, Chinese naval aviation still has a very long way to go before the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) can challenge the U.S. Navy (USN).  The planes and the carriers, while impressive, will lack the capabilities of a U.S. super-carrier air wing. While the Chinese are working out deck operation procedures on Liaoning, future carriers will undoubtedly demand different kinds of expertise.

Nevertheless, a carrier fleet fundamentally changes China’s approach to maritime affairs. Even if the carriers enjoy limited capabilities by American standards (ski-jump aircraft can’t carry much ordnance for strike missions), China will still radically increase its power projection capability as soon as the next two carriers hit the water.

Type 055 Cruiser:

China appears to be building its first big cruisers. Although shipbuilders have yet to lay down the first ship of the class, a mockup suggests that China could be planning a cruiser of (by contemporary standards) very large proportions. If built, these ships won’t be as large as the Russian Kirovs or the USN’s Zumwalt destroyers, but they still represent a jump forward for China’s naval capabilities.

Analysts have estimated the Type 055 at around 12,000 tons, and have suggested that it could carry up to 128 vertical launch cells.  A cruiser of this size could threaten to strike into the deep interior with cruise missiles, or could control the airspace in order to protect a task force.  The PLAN may consider ship size a useful substitute for the wealth of bases that the United States Navy enjoys.  Larger ships, with greater ranges and more internal stores, can operate far from China’s relatively restricted ports.

Perhaps as importantly, construction of these cruisers would represent a major political commitment on the part of the Chinese government to the future of the Navy, a vision which undoubtedly includes power projection.  Along with the continued development of the PLAN’s carrier aviation, it speaks to the important that Beijing now allocates to the development of a blue water fleet.

The J-20 Stealth Fighter:

The J-20 fighter first flew in January 2011.  Since that time, several additional prototypes have emerged.  Each prototype appears designed to help the work through different problems associated with a stealth aircraft. The J-20 is the more advanced of the two stealth projects China appears to be working on.  The J-31, a smaller aircraft, has trailed the J-20 in development, but could eventually serve on PLAN carriers.

We don’t yet know enough about the J-20s capabilities to appreciate what to expect from it.  However, it is certainly a large aircraft, presumably with a long range and a significant weapons load.  This presumably makes it capable of threatening US and allied military installations across the Asia-Pacific, especially when armed with air launched cruise missiles.  The J-20 could also conduct interception and long-range recon missions.

The J-20 promises to introduce a new element to the PLA’s system of anti-access systems (A2/AD).  These systems complement one another, and threaten to throw the military infrastructure of the United States and its Pacific allies out of balance.  The United States has become accustomed to using stealth aircraft, but it has yet to face a serious stealth threat.

DF-41:

Intercontinental ballistic missiles aren’t new, even for China.  But the DF-41 heralds a shift from minimal deterrence to secure second strike.  If China begins to build such missiles in large numbers, it can effectively equalize its nuclear relationship with Russia and the United States, as well as neutralize any effective national missile defense fielded by the U.S.

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