What weapons should China be developing and building right now? There’s an inherent tension between defense procurement and innovation. On the one hand, the Chinese military needs platforms now in order to fulfill the increasing scope of its responsibilities. On the other hand, funds committed to production and operations don’t go into innovation, or to the integration of new weapon systems.
With this trade-off in mind, this article takes a look at five kinds of weapon that China can develop in the short, medium, and long terms. China needs systems to secure its borders, ensure the defense of its trade routes, and potentially challenge the United States in the Western Pacific. The list concentrates on systems that enable these missions, with a focus on weapons that other countries either already have or are developing.
Nuclear Powered Aircraft Carriers:
Chinese naval aviation has developed in impressive fashion since the commissioning of the Liaoning (CV-16). The PLAN has done good work with the J-15 navalized Flanker, as well as several support aircraft. In the short-to-medium term, we can expect China to press forward with the construction of conventionally powered carriers currently on the slips (reportedly a pair of Type 089 conventional carriers, although accounts vary). These ships will give the PLAN a real, operational naval aviation capability, and will provide the service with additional experience in carrier operations.
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In the future, however, China may have need to defend its interests in the Indian Ocean, especially given India’s advantageous position along China’s energy routes. For its long-term carrier force, China should think nuclear. In the Cold War, the United States could take advantage of a host of friendly local naval bases to operate large conventional carriers around the world. China, with fewer such bases, will need to reduce the logistical requirements of its carrier forces as much as possible.
China might also consider the construction of nuclear-powered support vessels, along with the variety of aircraft (early warning, transport, support) needed to maintain presence on distant postings.
Cruise Missile Nuclear Submarines or SSGNs:
During the Cold War, the Soviet Union developed a type of nuclear attack submarine dedicated for surface warfare, sprouting an array of cruise missiles designed to attack NATO carrier battle groups. The SSGN, or cruise missile nuclear submarine, has expanded its purview for land attack and other missions. Towards the end of the Cold War, the United States re-designed its 688 attack subs to carry Tomahawk cruise missiles in vertical tubes. The United States also modified four of its Ohio class ballistic missile submarines to launch cruise missiles.
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The PLA has developed a dizzying array of cruise missiles designed for land, air, surface, and sub-surface launch. And to be sure, the PLAN has already begun to equip its nuclear attack submarines with cruise missile capabilities. The Type 093B may carry a 24 cell Vertical Launch System (VLS), and the Type 095 is also expected to sport VLS cells. China should continue production of these vessels, but may also consider the construction of larger submarines in the future.
By comparison, both the Oscar class SSGN and the Ohio class SSGN are over twice the size of the largest Chinese boats. The Oscars (still in service with the Russian Navy) carry 24 cruise missiles, albeit much larger than those carried in the VLS of the Chinese subs. The Ohio class SSGNs each carry up to 154 Tomahawks. Large Chinese submarines could threaten extensive cruise missile strikes against U.S. ships and U.S. land-installations, and could also serve as platforms for deployment of special forces teams, or as motherships for undersea unmanned vehicles.
Air Superiority UAV:
Although the Chinese military has devoted considerable attention to developing drone technology, it has not thus far fielded a large number of drones. In the short term, China should step up the production and fielding of surveillance drones, such as the BZK-005 Giant Eagle, Chengdu Sky Win III, or Guizhou Soar Eagle, which will allow it to maintain a presence over disputed island territories, and provide the eyes that the PLA’s reconnaissance-strike complex needs.
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In the longer term, China should consider pursuing the development of autonomous air-superiority UAVs. This represents not so much a leap of technology, than the development of a system of technology and doctrine that will allow the PLAAF to fight with autonomous vehicles. While the complications associated with autonomous air-superiority UAVs remain significant, the cost of the next generation of manned fighter aircraft could prove too high even for China and the United States.
Of course, the legal context of autonomous weapons remains murky. Air superiority UAVs require a degree of autonomy because of the threat of electronic disruption, and because of the potential for communication delays and breakdowns. But China can play a productive (or unproductive) role in the formulation of international laws for regulating autonomous weapon systems.
Sea Control Ship:
The PLAN has enjoyed great success with its Type 071 amphibious transport dock. One of the ships (among the largest and newest in the fleet) recently made a goodwill visit to the United Kingdom. If China is to maintain and increase its ability to threaten Taiwan with invasion, as well as its capacity to seize and hold islands in the East and South China Seas, then it will require more such ships.
For the future, China could consider pursuing a light carrier capability more seriously. A large flat deck amphib, perhaps on the scale of the Australian Canberras or the Japanese Izumos, could enhance the PLAN’s amphibious capabilities while also fulfilling several other roles. These ships could offer China the enhanced anti-submarine capability that the PLAN so desperately requires, as well as giving China local presence when its large carriers are occupied.
The United States Navy believes that it requires high end carriers, flat-decked amphibs, and amphibious transport docks. As the responsibilities of the PLAN grow, it may also find that combination useful for projecting power and influence around the world.
China is poised to make two major steps forward in airlift capability. Until recently, the Chinese military has relied on aging, obsolete Soviet-era transport aircraft that did not match the growing needs of the PLA.
This is starting to change, however. On the one hand, the development of the Shaanxi Y-9 promises to give the PLA an aircraft similar to the U.S. C-130, or the Airbus A400M.
On the other, China is ready to make a big move into heavy airlift with the Y-20 transport. Reminiscent of both the C-17 and several large Antonov aircraft, the Y-20 could offer the PLA the serious heavy airlift capacity that it has thus far lacked.
Air transport is an area in which the demands of the present and of the future are in close accord with one another. China can use Y-20s as soon as they begin rolling off the assembly line, and the plane (assuming that engineers can resolve engine problems) will serve Chinese interests for the foreseeable future.
We can draw the production/innovation divide too starkly. The Chinese military industrial complex has long concentrated on incremental innovation, learning as much as possible from a platform, then incorporating improvements in new designs. This ties innovation and production together, although the lack of wartime experience means that many systems are never tested under combat conditions.
Still, even China faces a tension between solving current security problems, and solving projected future defense problems. International conflict is unpredictable, and both the East and South China Seas have flashpoints that could draw the PLA into war much earlier than it expects.
Robert Farley is an assistant professor at the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce. His work includes military doctrine, national security, and maritime affairs. He blogs at Lawyers, Guns and Money, Information Dissemination and The Diplomat. Follow him on Twitter:@drfarls.
Image: Flickr/Official U.S. Navy/CC by 2.0