Breaking Down the Pentagon's 2020 China Military Power Report: A Quest for PLA Parity?

Breaking Down the Pentagon's 2020 China Military Power Report: A Quest for PLA Parity?

The report puts key concerns front and center: arguably, China's meteoric military progress in recent years has not simply narrowed the gap in limited niches, but has in fact pursued parity and even selective superiority to the degree that, broadly interpreted, "China is already ahead of the United States in certain areas". 

The potential ramifications are nothing short of explosive: if China can successfully operate so many advanced missiles within that range category, it could well pursue a targeting doctrine that employed additional numbers of missiles fired to compensate for any remaining limitations in their accuracy. That math already has the potential to look problematic. Unfortunately, given its world-leading missile production capabilities and asymmetric advantage in making the most of them, it is scarcely plausible that China stopped producing DF-26s at the end of 2019. As early as next year’s report, we may receive worrisome news of further brigades’ worth of missiles added to the PLARF’s DF-26 arsenal.

Should China’s DF-26 inventory grow significantly larger still, what will the related operational equations look like then? At what point might exchange ratios begin to look so unforgiving for U.S. and allied navies as to impose highly-disruptive psychological effects of their own? U.S. officials will need to get out ahead of this potential crisis with solid answers to China’s missile challenge and the questions that it may soon generate. If there is one issue revealed in the report that policy-makers should follow up on immediately, this is arguably the one!

This raises a related point: given its determination to increasingly deter and thereby effectively restrict U.S. Navy operations along China’s contested maritime periphery and its Indo-Pacific approaches, it is no coincidence that the PRC has developed and deployed two major anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBMs)the DF-26 and DF-21D.

Consider their potential complementarity, as detailed by the Department of Defense: “The DF-21D has a range exceeding 1,500 km, is fitted with a maneuverable reentry vehicle (MARV) warhead, and is claimed to be capable of rapidly reloading in the field. The PLARF continues to grow its inventories of DF-26 IRBM, which it first revealed in 2015 and fielded in 2016. The multirole DF-26 is designed to rapidly swap conventional and nuclear warheads and is capable of conducting precision strikes in the Western Pacific, the Indian Ocean, and the South China Sea from mainland China.”

If Beijing increasingly believes that it has real prospects of targeting effectively U.S. and allied vessels (1) out to the First Island Chain with the DF-21D and (2) out to the Second Island Chain in the Western Pacific as well as into the Indian Ocean with the DF-26, what will be the ramifications? (My hunch: some increasingly strong version of “not good.”) All the more reason to digest and address the report’s key findings with alacrity.

Returning to the subject of China’s emphasis on systems that risk blurring the distinction between conventional and nuclear capabilities, particularly in complex real-time scenarios, the PLA Rocket Force is clearly investing heavily in hypersonic glide vehicles. In crisis conditions, the rapid maneuvering capabilities of such systems may frustrate the ready determination of precisely where they were launched from; and hence whether it was by a brigade known to have conventional or nuclear weapons (or both). Specifically, “China has placed a heavy emphasis on developing and testing hypersonic glide vehicles. In August 2018, China successfully tested the XINGKONG-2 (Starry Sky-2), which it publicly described as a hypersonic waverider vehicle. The PLARF also paraded the DF-17 missile for the first time as part of the PRC’s 70th anniversary parade in 2019”.

Tidal Waves: Naval and Other Overwater Capabilities:

Thanks to impressive shipbuilding, one of three areas of advantage for China emphasized upfront in the report, China has the world’s largest navy numerically at 350 ships. This is already at least four dozen more than the U.S. Navy, even if the equivalent figure of 293 that the report cites is replaced with the service’s current official figure of closer to 300 total deployable battle force ships. Moreover, the PLA Navy (PLAN) is not simply running up the numbers with flotillas of small craft: its total of 350 warships includes “more than 130 major surface combatants” (44).

And quality is riding shotgun with quantity. Consider the following analysis regarding the aforementioned major surface combatants: “The PLAN remains engaged in a robust shipbuilding program for surface combatants, producing new guided-missile cruisers (CGs), guided-missile destroyers (DDGs) and corvettes (FFLs). These assets will significantly upgrade the PLAN’s air defense, anti-ship, and antisubmarine capabilities and will be critical as the PLAN expands its operations beyond the range of the PLA’s shore-based air defense systems. In December 2019, China launched the sixth Renhai class cruiser (Type 055) and was set to commission the first hull of the class in early 2020. The Renhai [will] carry a large load out of weapons including ASCMs [anti-ship cruise missiles], surface-to-air missiles (SAMs), and anti-submarine weapons along with likely LACMs [land-attack cruise missiles] and ...ASBMs... when those become operational.” Recall the previous discussion of China’s DF-21D and DF-26 ASBMs, and now imagine multiple large PLAN warships with some form of ASBMs (even if range-limited by shipboard size restrictions) among their weapons load-outs.

Cruise missiles are a similarly potent area of emphasis for China: “The PLAN continues to emphasize anti-surface warfare capabilities in its force development. The PLAN’s frigates and FFLs [light frigates], as well as modernized older combatants, carry variants of the YJ-83/YJ83J ASCM (97 nm, 180 km), while newer surface combatants such as the Luyang II class DDGs [destroyers] are fitted with the YJ-62 (215 nm, 400 km). The Luyang III class DDGs and the Renhai class CGs [guided-missile cruisers] will be fitted with a variant of China’s newest ASCM, the YJ-18A (290 nm, 537 km). A few modernized destroyers have been retrofitted with the supersonic YJ-12A ASCM (250 nm, 285 km). Eight of the PLAN’s 12 Kilo-class SSs [diesel-electric submarines] are equipped with the Russian-built SS-N-27 ASCM (120-nm, 222-km). The PRC’s Song class SS, Yuan class SSP [air-independent propulsion-powered submarine], and Shang class SSN [nuclear-powered attack submarine] will field the PLAN’s newest domestic submarine-launched YJ-18 and its variants, which constitute an improvement over the SS-N-27 ASCM.”

Among cruise missiles, the impending introduction of land-attack versions will likely enable a significant transformation outward and upward in fleet capabilities and orientation: “As the PLAN continues to transition into a global multi-mission force, the addition of land-attack capabilities to its modern array of anti-surface and anti-air capabilities is a logical next step. In the coming years, the PLAN will probably field LACMs on its newer cruisers and destroyers and developmental Type 093B nuclear attack submarines. The PLAN could also retrofit its older surface combatants and submarines with land-attack capabilities as well. The addition of land-attack capabilities to the PLAN’s surface combatants and submarines would provide the PLA with flexible long-range strike options. This would allow the PRC to hold land targets at risk beyond the Indo-Pacific region.”

This concerted effort to increase long-range precision-strike capabilities has an important airborne component as well. In addition to the long-serving H-6G, “PLAN Aviation has begun operating the H-6J, a maritime strike version of the H-6K with six weapons pylons for ASCMs. This aircraft carries six supersonic long-range YJ-12 ASCMs and can attack warships out to the Second Island Chain – significantly extending PLAN Aviation’s reach. During the PRC’s 70th anniversary parade in 2019, the PLAAF publicly revealed the H-6N, a derivative of the H-6K optimized for long-range strikes. The H-6N features a modified fuselage that allows it to carry externally either a drone or an air-launched ballistic missile (ALBM) that may be nuclear-capable. The H-6N’s air-to-air refueling capability also provides it greater reach over other H-6 variants that are not refuelable in air.”

Looking forward, the PLAN continues to pursue a multiple-carrier, carrier-centric navy as the ultimate gold standard. China “continued work on its second domestically built aircraft carrier in 2019, which will be larger and fitted with a catapult launch system. This design will enable it to support additional fighter aircraft, fixed-wing early-warning aircraft, and more rapid flight operations and thus extend the reach and effectiveness of its carrier based strike aircraft. The PRC’s second domestically built carrier is projected to be operational by 2024, with additional carriers to follow.” The larger picture: “China’s aircraft carriers and planned follow-on carriers, once operational, will extend air defense coverage beyond the range of coastal and shipboard missile systems and will enable task group operations at increasingly longer ranges.” Underwriting these long-term efforts, “the PLAN now has a sizable force of highly capable logistical replenishment ships to support long-distance, long-duration deployments, including two new Fuyu class fast combat support ships (AOEs) built specifically to support aircraft carrier operations.” Further underscoring its importance and fleet centrality, as well as the systematic seriousness of PRC efforts, “The Renhai CG will be China’s premier carrier escort for blue-water operations. Four units are currently outfitting, with several more under construction.”

These findings regarding China’s naval shipbuilding and the fruits of its massive labors are sufficiently concerning to underscore the following further assessment on my part, which draws on a major research effort spearheaded by the Naval War College’s China Maritime Studies Institute (CMSI). I believe that, to the extent that any such thing is possible amid real-world complexity, PLAN force structure development is informed by a coherent, structured, well-articulated, executable strategy. It benefits from a world-class system and operations. Working off a well-thought-out plan for maintenance and modernization, China produces good ships at a good rate and maintains them. China’s maintenance capacity has not been tested in volume yet, but seems competent so far. (Whether China can continue to implement its maintenance plan effectively when midlife ship deadlines trigger massive increases in capacity requirements over the next few years remains to be seen.)