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. 

Rocket Forces

A top-tier missile producer, China is the world’s most active ballistic missile developer and boasts some of the world’s leading nuclear and conventional systems. China’s nuclear forces include 90 ICBMs. A new variant under development, the multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle (MIRV)-capable, road-mobile DF-41, may also be rail-mobile and silo-based. Filling a void created by Moscow and Washington’s adherence from 1988 until recently to the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, Beijing possesses the world’s largest land-based missile force. Schriver related: “I think [Admiral Harry Harris, former commander, U.S. Pacific Command] used to say 90 percent of [China’s ballistic and cruise missiles] would be non-INF-compliant if [China] were in fact in the INF.” This includes 150-450 medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBMs), 7,750-1,500 short-range ballistic missiles, and 270-540 ground-launched LACMs. Additionally, in the emerging area of hypersonic glide vehicles, China successfully tested a “hypersonic waverider vehicle,” the Xingkong-2, in August 2018.

China has deployed two major ASBMs, the DF-21D MRBM and DF-26 intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM). Both are supported by new OTH radars. The 1,500km+-range DF-21D can “attack ships, including aircraft carriers, in the western Pacific Ocean… and is claimed to be capable of rapidly reloading in the field.” The DF-26’s three variants, respectively, can conduct “conventional and nuclear precision strikes against ground targets as well as conventional strikes against naval targets in the western Pacific [as far away as the Second Island Chain] and Indian Oceans and the South China Sea.” China’s DF-26 inventory continues to grow. 

Distant Areas

Given tremendous uncertainties confronting even Xi himself, the report is necessarily less clear regarding China’s constantly evolving security efforts abroad. It nevertheless offers some useful indications. Building on previous editions’ probing of Beijing’s energy security interests, it cites International Energy Agency projections that China’s percentage of oil imported will rise by 9% to reach 80% by 2035. Natural gas imports are forecast to rise just 2% to 46% over that seventeen year period. It also highlights a growing doctrinal focus on “forward edge defense,” and the PLAN’s engagement in an “OBOR [Belt and Road Initiative/BRI-focused] cruise” in mid-2017. It advances the noncontroversial proposition that “China’s advancement of global economic projects will probably drive new PLA overseas basing through a perceived need to provide security for OBOR projects.”

The report further suggests that BRI-related port investments and access could enable China “to pre-position the necessary logistics support to sustain naval deployments in waters as distant as the Indian Ocean, Mediterranean Sea, and Atlantic Ocean to protect its growing interests.” In an allusion that echoes typical Chinese telegraphing of possibilities by citing foreign sources, the report states, “International press reporting in 2018 indicated that China sought to expand its military basing and access in the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and the western Pacific.” This statement was significant enough for Schriver to repeat it in his oral overview. Meanwhile, Beijing is collecting intelligence through military attaches in more than 110 offices worldwide, in addition to the manifold cyber means mentioned throughout the report.

Where the report becomes more substantive and specific is in its survey of China’s first overseas base in Djibouti and what sort of basing approaches Beijing may pursue moving forward. It posits that “a mixture of military logistics models, including preferred access to overseas commercial ports and a limited number of exclusive PLA logistics facilities, probably collocated with commercial ports, most closely aligns with China’s overseas military logistics needs.” 

Djibouti is a new operating area for the rapidly expanding PLAN Marine Corps. It is the first location in which the PLAN MC has been seen to deploy wheeled armored vehicles. The fifteen such combat vehicles are garaged in a massive walled complex that contains substantial underground facilities. Overall, the PLAN MC has major plans but remains a work in progress in organization, training, and equipment. To achieve requisite air assault capability, for instance, the Pentagon projects that the PLAN MC will “likely need a minimum of 120 attack and medium-lift helicopters.”


The level of coverage this year’s report devotes to Chinese space and counter-space development represents a major advance over previous years when the Pentagon sometimes seemed to shy away from the subject in public. Clearly renewed focus is warranted: 2018 was Beijing’s most prolific space launch year yet, with 38 of 39 space launch vehicles lofted successfully and roughly 100 spacecraft orbited. The fact that “China is working to develop a space-based early warning capability” could enable a “launch on warning” nuclear posture, raising important questions for the Sino-American deterrence relationship. To address this robust new content, the author obtained permission from noted space capabilities and law expert Michael J. Listner to share his observations on the subject:

The report emphasizes space as one of the eight strategic tasks or missions China must be ready to execute and gives robust attention to this strategic task—the most comprehensive treatment yet—which underlines the importance the Pentagon and the PLA both place on the space domain. This continues a trend of more public disclosure to highlight space security challenges, which also includes a report on threats to space security by the Defense Intelligence Agency. The PLA’s emphasis on this strategic task underlies its understanding of the importance of space control, or a nation’s ability to ensure its own access to outer space and to deny access to a geopolitical adversary, which it identifies as “information dominance.” The PLA intends to implement its information dominance strategy through organization and capabilities to ensure space access to the PLA and deny it to an adversary in any conflict.

A prominent discussion in the report is how the PLA is dynamically altering the organizational structure of its space forces to achieve information dominance. Following China’s 2015 Defense White Paper, which identified space as a commanding height, the PLA began in 2016 to reorganize its space operations under the Strategic Support Force (SSF). The Pentagon’s 2018 report glossed over the SSF but the current report goes into much greater depth, outlining the structure of the PLA to include reorganization of departments and activities in 2018 to bring the SSF to operational status. The report makes clear that the SSF is intended to resolve bureaucratic power struggles that have plagued PLA space operations and streamline not only operations but acquisitions. This has a familiar ring as the proposed U.S. Space Force and reorganizations for acquisitions seeks a similar outcome.  

The report categorizes capabilities into two groups: space and counter-space capabilities, which appears to designate separate capabilities for military and civilian use. While some capabilities and plans may not play into information dominance, the PLA is still a player and in many cases has a dominant role. It is also worth noting that China’s space program and capabilities not only play into future plans, including the BRI, but also further China’s geopolitical interests through cooperation agreements and national prestige. They serve as a means of wielding soft power and gaining influence in less-developed nations and international bodies alike.

The report outlines space capabilities, including ground infrastructure and data relay and tracking stations, with emphasis on the Neuquén Deep Space Facility in Argentina. It also focuses on moon-related successes and ambitions for both exploration and exploitation, including a lunar base. One interesting item is commercial space activities to develop launch capabilities in China. The report stresses that these companies are state-backed ventures, as opposed to the paradigm of U.S. commercial space companies. The goal of these state-backed companies is to increase innovation and bring capabilities to fruition sooner than would strictly government efforts. While the report has identified some success, it still uncertain whether commercial ventures will pan out in the long term should state bureaucracy choose to assert itself if it perceives the commercial sector as a rival to government-owned industry. Conspicuously missing (aside from a brief mention) is China’s space station, which will begin assembly in 2020. Aside from being a symbol of national prestige and technical prowess, China is using it to exert and extend its soft power in the UN, and particularly the UN Office of Outer Space Affairs, which has an agreement with and receives funding from the Chinese National Space Agency (CNSA) to promote partnerships with nations and non-governmental entities to utilize the facility upon completion.

Counter-space capabilities continues to be the focal point of the PLA’s information dominance strategy. The report notes the PLA is acquiring and testing technologies that could have dual-use as counter-space activities. Hard-kill anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons similar to the instrument used in the 2007 test garner the most attention but the report notes the PLA is developing other technologies that employ soft-kill to or cripple or otherwise sideline space assets. The report remarks no official comments on what ASAT technology China has developed, deployed, or demonstrated since its dramatic 2007 test. Schriver likewise studiously avoided this topic during Q&A with the media. Despite the lack of official comment, the applicability of the technology being developed, combined with Chinese writings, suggests space assets as specific targets at the opening stages of a conflict and targets of opportunity during the conflict. This is consistent with pursuit of information dominance.