The People’s Republic of China is rapidly growing into a peer competitor to the United States in the Western Pacific.
China has historically dominated the region since before there was a United States, but as the Qing Dynasty’s power faded in the 19th Century, so too did the Middle Kingdom’s dominance over Western Pacific. After a long period of stagnation, China is once again on the rise and is starting to reassert its power—its leaders still smarting from the humiliations of the Opium Wars and Boxer Rebellion.
Under reforms launched by Deng Xiaoping 35 years ago, the People’s Republic of China has dropped most of the tenets of communism and has rapidly morphed into an economic colossus. But along with economic might has come military modernization—and a willingness to try pushing the United States out of what Chinese leaders see as their turf.
As such, the People Liberation Army has started to develop a host of weapons that it hopes will one day enable it to challenge American power in the Western Pacific. Here are four such weapons that are part of what the Pentagon calls the Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) challenge.
The Chengdu J-20 is China’s first attempt to build a fifth-generation stealth fighter that might be able to challenge U.S. airpower in the Pacific. While there are few hard facts that are known about the new Chinese fighter, some things are clear.
The J-20 is a large twin-engine jet, with stealthy features and it carries a large payload. The aircraft is thought to boast an active electronically scanned array radar and an electro-optical targeting system similar to the Pentagon’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. But how capable its avionics and weapons are is an open question.
Further, the J-20 is almost certainly reliant on Russian-built engines. China—for all of its economic progress—has not yet mastered building a reliable jet engine. But eventually, they will get there.
The J-20 promised to be a formidable adversary.
While the DF-21D receives much of the attention from defense media outlets, the YJ-12 supersonic anti-ship cruise missile might be a deadlier threat to the U.S. Navy in the Pacific. The weapon has range of more than 200 miles and would allow Chinese aircraft, ship and subs to launch mass salvo missiles at the carrier strike group from outside the range of the current Aegis/SM-2 combo.
While future Aegis modernization would afford the strike group more protection with the incorporation of the extended range SM-6—in conjunction with the Naval Integrated Fire Control-Counter Air construct—the Navy does not seem to have the money to upgrade much of its fleet.
Versions of the YJ-12 can launched from the air, ships and submarines. Future Chinese cruise missiles are likely to be deadlier still.
The People’s Republic of China boasts some of the most formidable air defenses on Earth. While many of the PLA’s systems are Russian-built, China’s domestic defense industry produces some formidable hardware. Among the most capable of China’s home-grown air defenses is the HQ-9.
Most versions of the weapon have a range of about 120 miles and can hit a target flying at 90,000ft. The radar-guided missile itself has a speed of Mach 4.2 and has an active radar terminal seeker. Overall guidance can be provided from any number of different type of surface-based radar systems. The weapon can also be installed on surface warships like the Type 52D destroyer.
So capable is the HQ-9, that NATO-member Turkey is insisting on purchasing the weapon over U.S. and European objections. That suggests that the Chinese weapons is not only cheaper, but comparable in performance to Western weapons like the Patriot.
Yuan-class diesel-electric submarine
The People’s Liberation Army Navy does not have a very threatening submarine force—however, China is learning. While not nearly as capable as a Western submarine, the Type 039A submarine is China’s first diesel-electric boat that is fitted with an air independent propulsion system—which gives it extended range underwater.
While the Yuan is not a particularly advanced or even necessarily a good submarine, it is an indication of China’s progress. Future Chinese vessels will likely be much more formidable. The problem for the U.S. Navy and American allies in the region is that conventional diesel-electric boats are extremely difficult to detect because they are so quiet.
There was a well-publicized event in Oct. 2006 when an antiquated Chinese Song-class submarine surfaced close to the carrier USS Kitty Hawk without the American vessel having any idea that it was there before hand. Even a primitive diesel-electric submarine can pose a serious threat.
Dave Majumdar has been covering defense since 2004. He currently writes for the U.S. Naval Institute, Aviation Week and The Daily Beast, among others. Majumdar previously covered national security issues at Flight International, Defense News and C4ISR Journal. Majumdar studied Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary and is a student of naval history.
Image: Wikimedia Commons/Luo Shaoyang/CC by 2.0