Just How Strong Will China's Military Be in 2025?

The big question Asia—and the world—needs an answer to.

The People’s Liberation Army and its constituent branches have undergone extraordinary change over the last fifteen years.  Doctrine, equipment, training, and strategic orientation have all evolved to the point that the PLA, the PLAN, and the PLAAF have become nearly unrecognizable from the vantage of the 1990s, when they used antiquated equipment, concentrated on making money rather than preparing to fight, and still looked for threats from the north rather than from the east.

The PLA has taken great steps forward over the past decade, just as it took great steps forward in the previous decade. What might it look like ten years from today?  What trends do we expect to continue?

Increased Operational Experience:

One area in which China remains dramatically behind the United States is in operational experience.  For good or (mostly) ill, the United States has embroiled itself in a series of “wars on terror” which have given its armed forces tremendous experience in the day-to-day execution of military force.  These wars have not, to be fair, allowed the military services of the United States to engage in high intensity combat against a peer competitor, but they have nevertheless illuminated key concepts, provided the opportunity for training under fire, and forced the various elements of the U.S. military machine to figure out how to work together. This is experiential, tacit knowledge, and it sets functional military organizations apart from ones that look good but have never been tested under fire.

The PLA lacks such hands on experience, and it’s not clear that China is planning to start an endless, pointless series of wars in order to acquire it. However, there’s little question that China has stepped up its efforts at building experiential knowledge through improving its realistic training procedures (China’s version of Red Flag) and by conducting more overseas deployments of air, land, and naval forces.

Increased Focus on Jointness:

In every war, the U.S. armed services grow closer together, developing the procedures and communications techniques they need in order to perform as an effective team. In every peace, the U.S. armed services grow farther apart, as each pursues internal, parochial goals at the expense of joint training, procurement, and planning.  Congress intended the Goldwater-Nichols reforms of 1986 to ameliorate this problem, and to an extent they have; the serious problems of inter-service conflict suffered by the U.S. military in Iraq (1991), Afghanistan, and Iraq (2003) were less consequential, and less dangerous, than those suffered in Korea, Vietnam, or the brushfire operations of the late 1970s and early 1980s.

The PLA has developed an incredibly complex “system of anti-access systems” that relies on air, sea, and land assets in order to deny U.S. forces control of China’s littoral.  This system of systems only functions properly if the organizations responsible for it can work together.  As of yet, there’s not much indication that the land forces of the PLA, the Second Artillery, the PLAAF, and the PLAN have engaged in the work necessary to make them function as a coherent whole.  The Chinese military in the Sino-Vietnam war did not do well on this score; land forces could rarely rely on air or naval support, with predictable results.  The stakes are even higher now, and there seems to be some indication that Chinese military leaders understand that the different components of the PLA need goading in order to support a shared vision of warfare.

Gradual Reduction in Foreign Dependence

Despite the extraordinary steps that China’s defense industry has taken in the last decade, it remains depressingly dependent on Russian technology and Russian suppliers. Chinese weapons need Russian spare parts, and Chinese industry continues to require Russian advice. As of this writing, China continues to strongly consider the possibility of buying advanced Russian equipment off-the-shelf, including Su-35 fighters and advanced surface-to-air missile systems.

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