The Pentagon's 2016 China Military Report: What You Need to Know

What does the Department of Defense really think about China's military? 

Not to be eclipsed by the PLAN, the PLA Air Force (PLAAF) “is the largest air force in Asia and the third largest in the world, with more than 2,800 total aircraft (not including UAVs) and 2,100 combat aircraft (including fighters, bombers, fighter-attack and attack aircraft).” As with the PLAN, improvements in quality are prioritized over quantity. China’s air force is replacing old platforms with new ones, thereby “rapidly closing the gap” vis-à-vis Western counterparts “across a broad spectrum of capabilities from aircraft and command-and-control (C2) to jammers, electronic warfare (EW), and datalinks.”

As “the only country other than the United States to have two concurrent stealth fighter programs,” China is developing “fifth-generation aircraft, which could enter service as early as 2018.” DoD believes this will “significantly improve China’s existing fleet of fourth-generation aircraft.”

Strongly emphasizing UAVs, the PLAAF has employed the Yilong (Pterodactyl) for disaster relief. “China is advancing its development and employment of UAVs. Last year, the Shendiao (Divine Eagle) was reported to be the PLA’s “newest high-altitude, long-endurance UAV for a variety of missions such as early warning, targeting, EW, and satellite communications.”

Rocket Force to be Reckoned With:

A major beneficiary of recent reforms, the PLA Rocket Force boasts a new name and elevation to a bona fide service. Unenviably abbreviated as “PLARF,” it controls the world’s most enviably extensive inventory of sub-strategic nuclear and conventional ballistic missiles—notably including 75-100 ICBMs. In addition to constant upgrading and as part of an effort to evade missile defenses, China’s Rocket Force is “developing and testing several new classes and variants of offensive missiles, including a hypersonic glide vehicle.”

PLARF “may be enhancing peacetime readiness levels for [its] nuclear forces to ensure responsiveness.” Other nuclear highlights include the road-mobile, solid-fueled CSS-5 Mod 6 (DF-21) medium-range ballistic missile “for regional deterrence missions.” Unveiled in the September 2015 Beijing military parade, when fielded the DF-26 intermediate-range ballistic missile may hold ground targets as far away as Guam at risk. A nuclear version, “if it shares the same guidance capabilities, would give China its first nuclear precision strike capability against theater targets.”

Space and Counter-space:

Long a top-tier power in both areas, China is working hard to enhance its space systems and be able to threaten those of potential opponents. Space accomplishments for 2015 included the launch of 19 rockets bearing 45 spacecraft, including navigation, surveillance, and test satellites. The Long March (LM)-6 and the LM-11 “next generation” launchers debuted, the latter a militarily-relevant “quick response” system to orbit a small payload. A single LM-6 orbited 20 satellites, including four Xingchen femtosatellites weighing only 100 g each. Meanwhile, China’s Beidou/Compass positioning, navigation, and timing satellite network is on track to achieve global coverage by 2020.

Chinese counter-space capabilities under development include directed energy weapons, satellite jammers, and kinetic kill vehicles. The report notes multiple tests. A 2013 ballistic missile test to over 30,000 km altitude “could have been a test of technologies with a counterspace mission in geosyncronous orbit.” An antisatellite missile system tested in summer 2014 has likely enjoyed subsequent progress. As part of increasingly-complex orbital operations, China is “probably testing dual-use technologies in space that could be applied to counterspace missions.”

Counter-intervention Capabilities:

The aforementioned developments are geared primarily to improving China’s prospects for furthering its outstanding Near Seas claims and deterring—and, in a worst case scenario, defeating—U.S. and allied efforts to intervene in related disputes. Additional assets with particular “keep out” applications include a “credible” integrated air defense system extending “300 nm (556 km)” from China’s coast. Designed to counter enemy aircraft and ballistic missiles, it is composed of “robust early warning, fighter aircraft, and a variety of SAM [surface-to-air missile] systems as well as point defense.” As part of this counter-intervention complex, “The PLAAF possesses one of the largest forces of advanced long-range SAM systems in the world….” Notably, “China’s airshow displays claim that new Chinese radar developments can detect stealth aircraft.”

Radiating Ripples: