The Pentagon Reports: China’s Military Power

The Pentagon Reports: China’s Military Power

The Department of Defense is out with its latest report detailing the rise of Beijing's military. Here is what you need to know. 

In the South China Sea, “China has built a state-owned fishing fleet for at least part of its maritime militia force….” Hainan’s provincial government “ordered the building of 84 large militia fishing vessels with reinforced hulls and ammunition storage, which the [Sansha City Maritime Militia] received by the end of 2016, along with extensive subsidies to encourage frequent operations in the Spratly Islands.” Comprising China’s most professional PAFMM units, Sansha’s “forces are paid salaries independent of any clear commercial fishing responsibilities and recruited from recently separated veterans.” Meanwhile, China’s development and fortification of outposts on the South China Sea features it occupies allows China to “maintain a more flexible and persistent military and paramilitary presence in the area.” 

In his Q&A with journalists, Schriver explained how the U.S. government’s understanding of China’s three sea forces affects U.S. policy in practice: “We’re less interested in the color of the hull than the activity and the actions. So what we’re most interested in is China behaving in a manner that’s respectful of international law and norms, and behaving in a manner that is not destabilizing and is more constructive. …if its coast guard and maritime militia or classic gray-hulled navy, if the design is to infringe upon the sovereignty of another country… with the objective of creating some sort of tension that results in a favorable outcome for them…. If they’re engaged in provocation or infringement on another country’s sovereignty, particularly our allies, then we would treat them differently than if they were doing what we would regard as more normal coast guard activities, or we don’t have necessarily the equivalent of a maritime militia, but peaceful activities.”

All these points emerged independently from extensive open-source research on the PAFMM that the author, Conor Kennedy, and colleagues conducted at the Naval War College’s China Maritime Studies Institute (CMSI) over the past five years. The Department of Defense has now validated our more specific findings and recommendations explicitly.

Naval Forces

Beyond the Near Seas, the PLAN, PLA Air Force (PLAAF), and other PLA services are charged with increasing power projection. This challenging task remains very much a work in progress. Each of China’s three sea forces is the world’s largest by the number of ships. Greater than the U.S. Navy in numbers although far behind it in tonnage at 1.8 million to 4.6 million, the PLAN is growing rapidly in force structure and related capabilities. Over the past decade, it has dispatched over 30 antipiracy task forces to the Gulf of Aden and beyond; the 29th escorted 40 ships over six months and provided medical assistance to two Chinese merchant ships. 

The speed of growth for the PLAN’s already large submarine force has slowed, but remains impressive: the Pentagon’s revised projection still predicts 65-70 submarines by 2020. As for nuclear-powered variants, China has built six Shang-class attack submarines (SSNs) and four Jin-class SSBNs. In 2018, a Shang “sailed underwater in the vicinity of the Senkaku Islands.” While neither the report nor Schriver offered specifics regarding patrols, the report terms the four Jins already operational with JL-2 submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) “China’s first credible, sea-based nuclear deterrent.” Using the 40+-year service life of China’s first-generation Han-class SSNs as a yardstick, the Pentagon forecasts that the PLAN will continue to operate Jin-class SSBNs even as it begins building next-generation Type 096 variants with JL-3 SLBMs the early 2020s.

Employing the world’s largest shipbuilding industry by tonnage, China is series-producing several major surface combatants. It has launched four 10,000-ton Type 055 Renhai-class cruisers, with several more under construction. Already capable of carrying various ASCMs and SAMs, “it will likely be able to launch ASBMs [anti-ship ballistic missiles] and LACMs [land-attack cruise missiles] once these weapons are available.” Chinese development of a sea-launched ASBM, presumably its third ASBM variant, is intriguing; the author knows of no previous reference in a public U.S. government report.

Nine Type 052D Luyang III-class destroyers are operational. Their vertical launch system can fire “cruise missiles, SAMs, and anti-submarine missiles.” 27+ Jiangkai II frigates are in service, with several more being built. Over 40 Jiangdao-class corvettes are operational, with more than a dozen under construction. Rounding out these surface fleet mainstays are 60 Type 022 Houbei-class missile catamarans. 

China’s submarines and warships alike are outfitted with large quantities of potent cruise missiles, guided by increasingly precise over-the-horizon (OTH) data fusion and targeting capabilities. As the PLAN goes increasingly global in its deployments, LACMs will constitute a growing proportion of its weapons loadouts. This will offer new capabilities while exposing Beijing to unprecedented charges of gunboat diplomacy and aggression. While it brings enviable benefits unavailable to all but a select few, great sea power comes at a great financial and political cost.

This brings us to the PLAN’s largest and most avidly discussed vessels: aircraft carriers, which—operated effectively—are the apex predators of the seas. For many readers, one of the report’s most exciting revelations is that China began constructing its third aircraft carrier in 2018. This news was not confirmed conclusively by previous open sources, allowing the Pentagon to make a unique contribution with its disclosure. This second indigenously built carrier is poised to be China’s largest thus far, with the greatest endurance; and only one thus far with a catapult launch system capable of dispatching larger, more capable aircraft. It follows China’s first indigenously built carrier, slated for commissioning later this year. That platform, in turn, is based on China’s only operational carrier to date, the Ukrainian-built but Chinese-refitted Liaoning

As the PLAN forms carrier groups, the Type 055 cruiser “will be China’s premier carrier escort for blue-water operations.” China is also operating new replenishment ships and is building “two new ships… specifically to support aircraft carrier operations.” Other PLAN vessels supporting power projection include large amphibious and logistical support ships and specialized blue-water auxiliaries “including high-capability intelligence collection ships (AGIs/AGOS).” Already, in 2018, the PLAN sent AGIs well beyond the First Island Chain. It dispatched a Type 815 Dongdiao-class AGI to continue a long-established pattern of spying on Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercises off Hawaii. Ironically, in May 2018 Washington disinvited the PLAN from RIMPAC “as a result of China’s continued militarization of disputed features in the South China Sea, violating a pledge by Chinese President Xi Jinping not to militarize the Spratly Islands.”

For all these advances, the PLAN “continues to lack a robust deep-water anti-submarine warfare capability.” But, in a widespread pattern of waterfront-wide work, China strives to improve in these and other areas, and is “installing undersea monitoring systems.” Already, China engages in behaviors that the Pentagon deems highly objectionable. These include applying a legal double standard to foreign military activities in such sea areas as the Exclusive Economic Zone; and escalating coercive tactics in contravention of rules, norms, and safety of seamanship, as seen in the PLAN destroyer Lanzhou’s unsafe encounter with the USS Decatur in September 2018.

Air Forces

China has the world’s third largest aviation forces, with more than 2,700 aircraft, of which more than 2,000 are combat aircraft. Among the latter, J-20 low-observable fighters “may have begun active service in small numbers, possibly with a testing and training unit.” Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are a particular area of Chinese focus and achievement. The Pentagon details a panoply of systems that have been respectively displayed, developed, and deployed. Aeroengines remain a critical Chinese weakness, but China is finally investing heavily in improvements. The 13th Five-Year Plan (2016-20) prioritizes turbofans as a top technology focus area, together with hypersonics and the deployment and hardening of satellites. 

Like a 1950s Cadillac in today’s Havana, the H-6 bomber has been refitted exquisitely over time. The latest H-6K variant features improved engines and weapons, giving it range to strike Guam with a payload of six precision-guided CJ-20 air-launched cruise missiles (ALCMs). “Since at least 2016,” the report relates, “Chinese media have been referring to the H-6K as a dual nuclear-conventional bomber.” H-6K bombers could be escorted by Su-30 fighters. Refueling Su-30s with the PLAAF’s three Ukraine-purchased Il-78 tankers could extend their range beyond the First Island Chain. 

As part of a larger effort to become a “strategic air force” capable of greater power projection, the PLAAF is also overseeing the development of at least one new bomber. The report predicts that this “H-20” bomber will have 8,500+-km range, 10+ metric tons payload, “and a capability to employ both conventional and nuclear weaponry.” To realize this in practice, China “is pursuing a viable nuclear ‘triad’ with the development of a nuclear-capable air-launched cruise missile” as well as a conventional ALCM. The report adds: “China may also be developing a refuelable bomber that could reach initial operating capability before the long-range bomber, which could expand long-range offensive bomber capability beyond the second island chain.”

The PLAAF controls one of the world’s largest advanced long-range surface-to-air missile (SAM) forces. Within it, China is test-firing the S-400 it purchased from Russia. It is also testing its own HQ-19 with reported ballistic missile defense (BMD) capability; one unit “may have begun preliminary operations.” Other SAMs in China’s inventory may have some BMD capability as well. SAMs, early warning radars, and fighter aircraft (the majority under PLAAF control)—as well as radars, jamming equipment, and anti-ship and anti-aircraft missile systems proliferating on Beijing’s South China Sea outposts—support a robust integrated air defense system already extending 300 nautical miles (556 km) from China’s shores.