In considering Paul Dibb’s analysis on the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA), I’d recommend anyone interested in the state of China’s military start by reading Roger Cliff’s China’s Military Power: Assessing Current and Future Capabilities. Cliff argues that “…by 2020, the quality of China’s military doctrine, equipment, personnel and training will likely be approaching, to varying degrees, those of the US and other Western militaries.”
Although prevailing weaknesses in organizational structure, logistics and organizational culture will limit the effectiveness of PLA weapons and platforms, “defeating China in these scenarios [Taiwan and South China Sea] could nonetheless be difficult and costly for the United States’ primarily as a result of the geographic advantages that China enjoys, as well as specific systems capabilities.”
Finally, he suggests, “the 2020s are likely to be a time of power transition in East Asia, from a region in which the United States has had the capability to defend its allies against virtually any form of aggression, to one where China has the capability to, at a minimum, contest control of the seas and airspace and where an attempt to oppose a Chinese use of force will be dangerous and costly for any country, including the United States.”
Cliff’s conclusion is also echoed in a recent RAND report, “The US China Military Scorecard,” which argues that China is catching up to the U.S., is becoming more assertive and confident, and has geography on its side. The report notes that “China [has been able] to narrow the military gap in almost every area and move ahead in some” and that the “overall capability trend lines are moving against the United States.” The report also highlights the speed of change in China’s military: it’s pushing forward in key capability areas and its modernization is occurring more rapidly than that of the U.S. China is leapfrogging, whilst the U.S. is plodding.
These two accounts suggest worrying trends and highlight that an analysis of the PLA which is based on superficial glimpses of selected areas of capability misses the bigger picture. The speed of China’s military modernization, its sustained investment in terms of double-digit spending levels, and the types of capabilities it is acquiring highlight China’s strategic objective of eroding America’s military–technological advantage so that Beijing may resolve territorial disputes and ensure the success of the China Dream.
Even though China does face real domestic challenges, so does the U.S. in the form of growing national debt and destructive political partisanship in Washington that together reduces its ability to sustain defence spending in coming years to offset Chinese capability growth. That’s occurring as security risks in Europe and the Middle East multiply to impose greater burdens on shrinking forces. The end result is reduced U.S. readiness and overall effectiveness at a critical time later this decade.
Paul’s dismissal of PLA capabilities seems to lack operational context and overlook PLA capabilities now in service. A key emerging issue is the survivability of naval surface forces in the face of PLA anti-access-area-denial (A2/AD) capabilities. Here PLA ability to wage information warfare against vital U.S. C4ISR networks through counter-space operations with ASATs, integrated network-electronic warfare (INEW), and cyber warfare need to be considered more deeply as winning the information battle against China is vital to countering their A2/AD capabilities. The RAND report notes that Chinese offensive counterspace capability, for example, is growing faster than the U.S. defensive counter-space options. There may be technological silver bullets to mitigate such developments but they must first be funded through to operational status, and then proven to work in battle.
While Paul is certainly correct to suggest that the U.S. isn’t ‘sitting on its hands’ as its ‘Third Offset’ strategy clearly demonstrates, this argument can also be reversed. China has flown hypersonic glide vehicles, is deploying counter-stealth radars, and has the world’s largest unmanned air vehicle capability.
China is catching up in anti-submarine warfare, with the deployment of fixed acoustic arrays and Jingdao class ASW corvettes, as well as new maritime patrol aircraft. In air defence, China will likely acquire the S-400 SAM which is effective against stealth aircraft, and long-range air combat capabilities epitomised by the J-20 can exploit the U.S. reliance on forward-deployed AEW&C and airborne refuelling aircraft to further reduce US ability to project airpower.
In terms of submarine quieting, nuclear submarines are always going to be noisier than conventional boats. China deploys both the Yuan and Kilo 636 conventional submarines which are very quiet and difficult to detect in acoustically challenging waters in the South China Sea. The RAND report notes that “China’s newer submarines are becoming quieter and better armed, and there is every reason to believe that their capability to find and attack U.S. surface ships has vastly improved [since 1996].” It is the ability of these boats to fire long-range supersonic anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCMs), such as the new 290nm range YJ-18, that according to Andrew Erickson allow China to “out-stick” the U.S. in long-range anti-surface warfare. This submarine-ASCM combination is quite deadly.
Paul Dibb is correct to caution against seeing the PLA as ten feet tall, but it would be equally unwise to dismiss China as inconsequential in military-technological terms. China is rapidly catching up, and what matters is where the PLA goes from here, and how Beijing uses its growing military power across Asia.
This piece first appeared in ASPI’s The Strategist here.