Key point: America's technological advantage is decreasing.
Aircraft carriers, stealth fighters, anti-satellite weapons, drones, cyber attack technology and a growing arsenal of ballistic missiles are all among a series of Chinese weapons said to present serious concerns for Pentagon leaders and weapons developers, according to DoD’s annual China report.
The Pentagon 2018 report, called “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China,” details a broad spectrum of risks to include global economic expansion, massive military modernization and breakthrough weapons technology able to threaten US superiority.
While of course the report emerges within the context of a complicated, multi-faceted and stressed US-China relationship which includes growing tensions, military rivalry and some measure of cooperation as well. A recent DoD news report, for instance, was careful to mention China as a potential “adversary,” not “enemy.”
Nevertheless, the Pentagon assessment is quite detailed in its discussion of the fast-growing military threat posed by China. A few examples, for instance, include the report’s discussion of China’s short, medium and long-range ballistic missile arsenal. China is believed to possess as many as 1,200 short-range missiles and up to 300 intermediate range missiles, according to the report. With this in mind, the report specifies that some of China’s longer-range, precision-guided ballistic missiles are able to reach US-assets in the Pacific region.
The Pentagon report, along with previously released Congressional assessments of China’s military, catalogue information related to China’s nuclear arsenal and long-range intercontinental ballistic missiles - such as the existing DF-31, DF-26 and DF-31A along with the DF-41. In fact, the Pentagon report specifically cites the DF-26 as presenting a particular threat; the intermediate range ballistic missile, the report says, can carry both conventional and nuclear explosives out to ranges of 4,000 kilometers.
“US bases in Japan are in range of a growing number of Chinese MRBMs and LACMs. H-6K bomber flights into the Western Pacific Ocean demonstrate China’s ability to range Guam with air-launched LACMs. The DF-26, which debuted publicly in 2015 and was paraded again in 2017, is capable of conducting precision conventional or nuclear strikes against ground targets that could include U.S. bases on Guam,” the 2018 report says.
The Chinese are believed to already have a number of road-mobile ICBMs able to carry nuclear weapons, the report says. The DF-41 is reported to have as many as 10 re-entry vehicles, analysts have said.
China is known to have conducted several hypersonic weapons tests. Not surprisingly, US Air Force leaders are currently accelerating prototyping, testing and development of hypersonic weapons.
In addition, China's well-documented anti-satellite, or ASAT, weapons tests have inspired international attention and influenced the Pentagon and US Air Force to accelerate strategies for satellite protection such as improving sensor resiliency, cyber hardening command and control and building in redundancy to improve prospects for functionality in the event of attack.
China's rapid development of new destroyers, amphibs, stealth fighters and long-range weapons is quickly increasing its ability to threaten the United States and massively expand expeditionary military operations around the globe, according to this years’ Pentagon report as well as several previous Congressional reports from the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission.
In recent years, the Chinese have massively increased their foreign presence around the globe, in a transparent effort to rival the US as a global superpower. The Chinese have made large incursions into Africa, and even set up a military base in Djibouti, Africa, right near a strategically vital US presence.
“China’s military strategy and ongoing PLA reform reflect the abandonment of its historically land-centric mentality. Similarly,doctrinal references to “forward edge defense” that would move potential conflicts far from China’s territory suggest PLA strategists envision an increasingly global role,” the report cites.
Many of the details of the Pentagon’s 2018 report are aligned with similar claims made in a 2016 US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, a Congressional report which also specified China's growing provocations and global expeditionary exercises.
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Additional instances of Chinese provocation in recent years include placement of surface-to-air-missiles and fighters in sensitive areas of the South China Sea, along with its announcement of an "air exclusion zone" in recent years. While the US military flew B-52 bombers through this declared zone in a demonstration of defiance, the move did demonstrate China's growing willingness to be aggressive. In addition, Chinese "land reclamation" and territorial claims in the South China Sea continue to prompt US "freedom of navigation exercises" to unambiguously challenge China's claims.
While Chinese naval technology may still be substantially behind current U.S. platforms, the equation could change dramatically over the next several decades because the Chinese are reportedly working on a handful of high-tech next-generation ships, weapons and naval systems.
China has plans to grow its navy to 351 ships by 2020 as the Chinese continue to develop their military’s ability to strike global targets, according to the Congressional reports.
Also the Chinese are building their own indigenous aircraft carriers; their first self-built carrier was launched last year and is expected to enter service by 2019, the Pentagon report says. More are being built to joint China’s first carrier, the Ukrainian-built Liaoning.
Looking to the future, the 2016 report says "future Chinese carriers are likely to be flat deck ships, like U.S. aircraft carriers, that utilize steam or magnetic catapults and would enable the PLA Navy to employ aircraft armed with heavier munitions intended for maritime strike or land attack missions. According to DOD, China could build several aircraft carriers in the next 15 years. China may ultimately produce five ships—for a total of six carriers—for the PLA Navy."
The report also cites the LUYANG III, a new class of Chinese destroyers are engineered with vertically-launched, long-range anti-ship cruise missiles. The new destroyers carry an extended-range variant of the HHQ-9 surface-to-air missile, among other weapons, the report says.
As evidence of the impact of these destroyers, the reports point out that these new multi-mission destroyers are likely to form the bulk of warship escorts for Chinese carriers - in a manner similar to how the US Navy protects its carriers with destroyers in "carrier strike groups."
"These 8,000 ton destroyers (the LUYANG III) . . . have phased-array radars and a long-range SAM [surface-to-air missile] system which provides the [navy] with its first credible area air-defense capability," the 2016 report states.
The Chinese are currently testing and developing a new, carrier-based fighter aircraft called the J-15.
Regarding amphibious assault ships, the Chinese are now adding more YUZHAO LPDs, amphibs which can carry 800 troops, four helicopters and up to 20 armored vehicles, the report said.
"The YUZHAO can carry up to four air cushion landing craft, four helicopters, armored vehicles, and troops for long-distance deployments, which DOD notes ‘‘provide[s] a . . . greater and more flexible capability for ‘far seas’ operations than the [PLA Navy’s] older landing ships.,’ according to the report.
The Chinese also have ambitious future plans for next-generation amphibious assault ships.
"China seeks to construct a class of amphibious assault ships larger than the YUZHAO class that would include a flight deck for conducting helicopter operations. China may produce four to six of these Type 081 ships with the capacity to transport 500 troops and configured for helicopter-based vertical assault," the report says.
Some observers have raised the question as to whether this new class of Chinese amphibs could rival the US Navy's emerging, high-tech America-Class amphibious assault ships.
The Chinese are also working on development of a new Type 055 cruiser equipped with land-attack missiles, lasers and rail-gun weapons, according to the review.
China’s surface fleet is also bolstered by production of at least 60 smaller, fast-moving HOBEI-glass guided missile patrol boats and ongoing deliveries of JIANGDAO light frigates armed with naval guns, torpedoes and anti-ship cruise missiles.
Pentagon and Congressional reports also say that Chinese modernization plans call for a sharp increase in attack submarines and nuclear-armed submarines or SSBNs. Chinese SSBNs are now able to patrol with nuclear-armed JL-2 missiles able to strike targets more than 4,500 nautical miles.
The Chinese are currently working on a new, modernized SSBN platform as well as a long-range missile, the JL-3, the commission says.
Chinese Air Force:
A 2014 Congressional report states that the Chinese People’s Liberation Army currently had approximately 2,200 operational aircraft as far back as four years ago, nearly 600 of which were considered modern.
Regarding stealth aircraft, the Chinese now operate their first 5th Gen stealth fighter, the J-20. The aircraft is reported to be more advanced than any other air platform currently deployed in the Asia-Pacific region. The Chinese are also testing a smaller stealth fighter variant called the J-31 although its intended use is unclear, according to the report.
In 2014, China displayed the Shenyang J-31 stealth fighter at China’s Zuhai Air show, according to various reports. However, several analysts have made the point that it is not at all clear if the platform comes close to rivaling the technological capability of the US F-35.