Key point: Just as China has transformed its economy in a short period of time, the same has happened with its military.
In 2017, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (“PLA”) announced plans to bring down its 2.3 million strong forces below 1 million with the Army’s share falling below 50 percent. Then last year the PLA slashed three-hundred-thousand ground troops from its rolls and announced that more than half of all noncombat positions had been eliminated. On top of that, it claims to have reduced its officer rolls by thirty percent.
China is not disarming. Instead, the PLA has pursued an ambitious program to be able to fight future, not past wars. The PLA no longer sees a need to maintain a large land army to fight World War II or Korean War-style conflicts. Instead, it has organized cyber and missile commands and is significantly modernizing and strengthening its Air Force and Navy.
Just as China has transformed its economy in a short period of time, the same has happened with its military. The Chinese navy has become the world’s largest, and there is no realistic chance that the United States will catch up under its present shipbuilding program. Compounding that, the United States has a global naval role and cannot concentrate all its naval forces near China’s coasts. The balance of naval power in the eastern Pacific has moved toward China.
Along its coastal shores on the China Seas, including the Taiwan Straits, China is the major maritime power—a point noted by Admiral Philip Davidson, the commander of Indo-Pacific Command, when he described China as a “peer competitor” and one “capable of controlling the South China Sea in all scenarios short of war with the United States.” Considering that U.S. aircraft carriers can no longer operate within the first island chain, this understated assessment underscores that the era of American naval dominance, particularly in East Asia, is ending.
China’s maritime power has been multiplied by shore-based, anti-ship missile systems. The PLA Rocket Force has deployed on the mainland a new generation of medium range, anti-ship missiles, the DF21-D (with a nine-hundred-mile range) and the DF26-D (a thousand-six-hundred-mile range). They are believed to be potentially capable of hitting naval targets, including Nimitz class carrier battle groups, up to two-thousand-five-hundred miles from China’s coast.
The DF26-D, called “the Guam Killer,” by Chinese media, was first seen in a parade in 2015. It has recently been deployed, according to the PLA Rocket Force, in China’s remote, northwest plateau desert region, where it is ferried from place to place for quick launch on mobile trucks. Such capabilities mark the opening of a new era of naval strategy in which hard to locate, land-based, anti-ship missiles could become dominant over the seas.
This could be particularly true against surface ships with an inherently limited ability to fend off swarming missile attacks. Armed with anti-ship missiles, China’s land mass is transforming into one big, unsinkable ship. Those conventional systems are also capable of striking all U.S. and allied bases in the region, including Japan and Korea, raising concerns over Chinese preemptive, conventional attacks against such installations in any crisis.
The 1988 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty with Russia, to which China is not a signatory, has prohibited for over three decades the United States from developing comparable land-based, medium-range missiles (three-hundred to three-thousand-four-hundred miles). The United States, and supposedly Russia, has been required by the treaty to rely only on ship and aircraft for the launch of such systems.
At the time that the INF was ratified, it made sense. The two superpowers, the Soviet Union and the United States, were in a nuclear standoff in Europe. Intermediate range missiles in Europe, capable of carrying nuclear weapons, created hair-trigger tensions, giving at best only a few minutes of reaction time for either side to assess whether or not it was under a nuclear or conventional missile attack. The treaty was a positive move to reduce tensions, and it helped spur broader disarmament initiatives between the superpowers including the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) and NEW START treaties.
The treaty’s prohibition on intermediate land missiles was made global, principally to remove, as well, the threat of Russian missile attack against Japan in the Pacific. China, a considerably weaker military power at the time, was not a factor in the INF treaty-making process, and no thought was given to including it as a treaty participant.
The Cold War era scenario that underpinned the INF for thirty-one years has disappeared. Today the United States and its Pacific allies face a Chinese peer military power that has been free for decades to develop a mid-range missile capability on air, sea and land.
And even on the sea and in the air, U.S. intermediate-range missiles have less reach today than China’s two-thousand-six-hundred mile, DF26-D. The Navy’s prime missile is the Tomahawk with a distance of about one-thousand-five-hundred miles. To launch Tomahawks, the U.S. Navy would have to risk moving its surface ships within range of China’s ground-based, DF26-D. Likewise, U.S. nuclear carriers would have to approach China’s coast, well within the range of China’s ground to ship missiles, to be able to launch attack aircraft with the necessary air to ground missile reach.
The Air Force’s latest generation of air to surface missiles is the JASSM and JASSM-ER, and their ranges are also less than those of China’s DF26-D. Both are cruise missiles which public sources indicate have ranges of two-hundred-and-thirty miles and six-hundred-and-twenty miles respectively. Deep penetration into China’s missile range by U.S. stealth bombers, the B1 and B2, carrying such missiles, could presumably threaten China’s land missile forces, but they would need tanker support, flying from U.S. bases within range of China’s ballistic missiles. Then the bombers would have to evade increasingly sophisticated antiaircraft defense networks and find those missiles—a challenge with mobile, truck-mounted systems.
The bottom line is that while the United States has complied with the INF, China has developed over the last decades a mobile, hard to locate, ground-based missile system that can strike with precision land and sea-based targets up to more than two-thousand miles from its shores. North Korea and Iran have also worked to develop and deploy such land-based weapons.
Abrogation of the INF will enable the United States to catch up and deploy such systems, a capability that is likely to play a far more important role in conventional warfare in years ahead, along with drones and cyber. Just as machine guns and artillery changed warfare in World War I, and just as tanks, carriers and air power revolutionized warfare in World War II, so will missiles, cyber, and drones fundamentally change future conventional conflict.
Furthermore, land-based medium range launchers can carry significant advantages over their sea and air variants. Missiles fired from land are both less expensive to deploy, and easier to conceal and defend, compared to launching missiles from costlier surface ships, or from manned aircraft taking off from nuclear carriers or airbases. For instance, during the first Gulf War, despite prodigious efforts, the U.S. military was never able to track down and eradicate completely Iraqi Scud missile launchers that kept moving from place to place in the open desert where it was presumably easier to spot large, transportable erector launchers.
Additionally, like the Army’s Patriot anti-aircraft missile system, land-based missiles can be swiftly deployed to global trouble spots not only in the Pacific but in the Middle East or anywhere in the world in support of allies. The ability to deploy quickly medium range, land missiles to such allies as Japan, South Korea, Australia and the Philippines could have a major impact on Chinese military calculations, exposing their navy and military bases to new risks. It would also provide the United States with a less expensive and more defensible option than costly surface ship and air platform missile delivery systems.
The United States announcement that it will abrogate the INF because of Russian treaty violations has raised understandable concern that a nuclear arms race with Russia may be reignited. The fact remains, however, that continued Russian violations caused by the deployment of its 9M729 cruise missile (with a range of one-thousand-four-hundred-and-sixty miles)—which it has steadfastly refused to rectify—left the United States with no other choice. After all, Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung FAZ reports, based on unidentified intelligence sources, that Russia has already deployed at least four 9M729 missile battalions, each equipped with four-wheeled launchers with each launcher containing four 9M729 missiles—a total of sixty-four missiles capable of striking European targets in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
Continued compliance with the INF placed the United States in an impossible position, forced to face both Russian INF violations, and a full array of Chinese (Iranian and North Korean) land-based systems. Breaking Defense reports that in recent war games with China and Russia conducted by RAND, the United States “gets its ass handed to it” according to RAND analyst David Ochmanek.
Having been frozen out of developing such capabilities for over thirty years, the U.S. military has a lot of catching up to do. The United States must not only develop such missiles as quickly as possible—it must also integrate those capabilities into its warfighting strategies and tactics.