For nearly thirty years, China has been on a military research tear, pouring enormous sums of money into weapons research and development. The arms embargo placed on the country after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre put a halt to arms technology transfers, and suddenly Beijing was on its own.
The country has made great strides since then, developing long-range missiles, its own military aviation industry, and cranking out prodigious numbers of naval vessels—with locally sourced weapons and electronics.
Still, there are plenty of gaps in China’s weapons platforms and, in some categories, the People’s Liberation Army can still only gaze longingly at the Pentagon’s war inventory. The gap between the two countries continues to close, but until closed here are five American weapons systems the PLA wishes it had.
China is currently working on a long range fifth generation fighter, the Chengdu J-20, but it’s unlikely the new plane will be in the same class as the F-22 Raptor. But what if China had Raptors of its own?
The F-22’s stealth and maneuverability would make it very useful as an air superiority fighter in a neighborhood crowded with potentially hostile air forces. Japanese F-15J Eagles, Russian/Indian PAK-FA fifth generation fighters and Vietnamese Su-30 multi-role fighters are all potential adversaries.
The F-22 would be the ideal solution for fending off these enemy air forces—or sweeping the skies clear on the first day of an offensive air campaign. The F-22’s relatively long range would be helpful in rapidly repositioning the jets from one end of China to the other, from the Indian border to the East China Sea.
F-35 Joint Strike Fighter
China is standardizing the Chengdu J-10 multi-role fighter to make up the bulk of its fighter fleet. The J-10 is a decent fighter that ticks off all the right boxes for a fourth-generation aircraft… circa 1996.
In 2016, however, the “Vigorous Dragon” is a second-rate performer compared to regional competitors, especially Taiwanese F-16s with active electronically scanned array radar and upgraded Japanese F-15Js. Against even newer stealthy fifth generation aircraft, sharing sensor data and coordinating attacks over their own network, China’s new fleet of J-10s will suffer badly.
The solution? The F-35. The F-35 is the only medium-weight fifth generation fighter in production. Designed to replace many different planes in U.S. Air Force and Allied inventories, it does however essentially fill the same niche as the J-10. The F-35 will be competitive for at least another twenty years, making it a better investment than a plane largely stuck in the 20th Century.
USS Wasp-class Landing Helicopter, Dock
Despite its goal of having the amphibious capability to invade Taiwan, China is still relatively weak when it comes to sealift. The People’s Liberation Army Navy is making strides in improving the situation, having constructed the Type 071 class Landing Platform, Dock ships and Mobile Logistics Platforms.
What China really needs is a ship along the same lines as the U.S. Navy’s Wasp-class. Although the Type 071s have a flight deck, it can only handle two helicopters at a time. The full-length flight deck of the American ships would allow the PLAN to quadruple that capability while retaining the 071’s large well deck. The Wasp class can also carry more than twice as many marines and armored vehicles.
Wasp-class LHDs would vastly increase the Chinese military’s ability to project power both in the near and far abroad, against regional potential adversaries and at greater distances than ever before.
China’s military helicopter industry, although a vital area of national defense production, is progressing slowly. China’s medium lift helicopter is still the Z-8, a copy of the 1960s-era French Super Frelon.
Acquiring the V-22 Osprey would introduce a tiltrotor with vastly superior range, lift capacity, and power, enabling Chinese forces to respond quickly to threats. The V-22 would be useful in a variety of local scenarios, such as pilot search and rescue in Vietnam, or sending Chinese marines on a high-speed sprint to the Diaoyu/Senakaku Islands. The self-deployable V-22 would also be useful to respond to earthquakes and other natural disasters.
Virginia-class Attack Submarine
If China wants to keep keep the U.S. Navy out of the Western Pacific, a good place to start would be nuclear submarines. A long-range fleet of nuclear submarines would greatly enlarge the contested area in the Western Pacific, a substantial threat to not only the U.S and Taiwan, but Japan and other countries.
Unfortunately for Beijing, her nuclear submarines are vastly inferior to the designs of other, established naval nuclear power states. The solution? Chinese-branded Virginia-class attack submarines. A fleet of nuclear-powered Virginia-class attack submarines would be able to quietly patrol beyond the Second Island Chain of Japan, Guam and Indonesia, to the mid-Pacific and beyond. It would also force the U.S. Navy to reinvest in anti-submarine warfare, a capability that has atrophied since the end of the Cold War.
Kyle Mizokami is a defense and national security writer based in San Francisco who has appeared in the Diplomat, Foreign Policy, War is Boring and the Daily Beast. In 2009 he cofounded the defense and security blog Japan Security Watch. You can follow him on Twitter: @KyleMizokami.
Image: An F-22 Raptor flies over Kadena Air Base, Japan. Wikimedia Commons/U.S. Air Force