Strongly emphasizing UAVs, the PLAAF has employed the Yilong (Pterodactyl) for disaster relief. “China is advancing its development and employment of UAVs. Last year, the Shendiao (Divine Eagle) was reported to be the PLA’s “newest high-altitude, long-endurance UAV for a variety of missions such as early warning, targeting, EW, and satellite communications.”
Rocket Force to be Reckoned With:
A major beneficiary of recent reforms, the PLA Rocket Force boasts a new name and elevation to a bona fide service. Unenviably abbreviated as “PLARF,” it controls the world’s most enviably extensive inventory of sub-strategic nuclear and conventional ballistic missiles—notably including 75-100 ICBMs. In addition to constant upgrading and as part of an effort to evade missile defenses, China’s Rocket Force is “developing and testing several new classes and variants of offensive missiles, including a hypersonic glide vehicle.”
PLARF “may be enhancing peacetime readiness levels for [its] nuclear forces to ensure responsiveness.” Other nuclear highlights include the road-mobile, solid-fueled CSS-5 Mod 6 (DF-21) medium-range ballistic missile “for regional deterrence missions.” Unveiled in the September 2015 Beijing military parade, when fielded the DF-26 intermediate-range ballistic missile may hold ground targets as far away as Guam at risk. A nuclear version, “if it shares the same guidance capabilities, would give China its first nuclear precision strike capability against theater targets.”
Space and Counter-space:
Long a top-tier power in both areas, China is working hard to enhance its space systems and be able to threaten those of potential opponents. Space accomplishments for 2015 included the launch of 19 rockets bearing 45 spacecraft, including navigation, surveillance, and test satellites. The Long March (LM)-6 and the LM-11 “next generation” launchers debuted, the latter a militarily-relevant “quick response” system to orbit a small payload. A single LM-6 orbited 20 satellites, including four Xingchen femtosatellites weighing only 100 g each. Meanwhile, China’s Beidou/Compass positioning, navigation, and timing satellite network is on track to achieve global coverage by 2020.
Chinese counter-space capabilities under development include directed energy weapons, satellite jammers, and kinetic kill vehicles. The report notes multiple tests. A 2013 ballistic missile test to over 30,000 km altitude “could have been a test of technologies with a counterspace mission in geosyncronous orbit.” An antisatellite missile system tested in summer 2014 has likely enjoyed subsequent progress. As part of increasingly-complex orbital operations, China is “probably testing dual-use technologies in space that could be applied to counterspace missions.”
The aforementioned developments are geared primarily to improving China’s prospects for furthering its outstanding Near Seas claims and deterring—and, in a worst case scenario, defeating—U.S. and allied efforts to intervene in related disputes. Additional assets with particular “keep out” applications include a “credible” integrated air defense system extending “300 nm (556 km)” from China’s coast. Designed to counter enemy aircraft and ballistic missiles, it is composed of “robust early warning, fighter aircraft, and a variety of SAM [surface-to-air missile] systems as well as point defense.” As part of this counter-intervention complex, “The PLAAF possesses one of the largest forces of advanced long-range SAM systems in the world….” Notably, “China’s airshow displays claim that new Chinese radar developments can detect stealth aircraft.”
Meanwhile, far from China, prospects remain more modest. Among manifold Chinese interests ever-further afield, the Pentagon highlights oil imports. Currently at 60% of total supply, they are expected to reach 80% by 2035. Currently “unable to support major combat operations in South Asia,” the Middle Kingdom is nevertheless steadily making power projection progress. In an incremental step, China started building its first domestically produced aircraft carrier last year. Its “next generation of carriers will probably be capable of improved endurance and of launching more varied types of aircraft, including EW [electronic warfare], early warning, and anti-surface warfare [ASuW], thus increasing the potential striking power of a PLAN ‘carrier battle group’ in safeguarding China’s interests in areas beyond its immediate periphery.” Likely carrier missions include “patrolling economically important sea lanes, conducting naval diplomacy, regional deterrence, and [humanitarian assistance and disaster relief].” Distant submarine deployments to date, most in conjunction with anti-piracy operations, “support an apparent Chinese requirement to project power into the Indian Ocean.” “Sea-based land attack probably is an emerging requirement for the PLAN,” the report judges, predicting long-range land-attack cruise missile (LACM) development for its surface combatants as well as the aforementioned submarines. Arming new Luyang III-class destroyer with LACMs would give the PLAN “its first land-attack capability.”
China’s Indian Ocean support footprint is expanding to support missions of lower intensity. Noting both ongoing logistics and intelligence limitations and Beijing’s official acknowledgement of its first overseas facility in Djibouti, DoD forecasts that China “will probably establish several access points” in the Indian Ocean “in the next decade,” most likely “in countries with which it has a longstanding friendly relationship and similar strategic interests, such as Pakistan, and a precedent for hosting foreign militaries.” At the same time, however, “China’s overseas naval logistics aspiration may be constrained by the willingness of countries to support a PLAN presence in one of their ports.”
Highlighting Bright Spots:
While the Pentagon raises numerous concerns with Chinese military development, it works to emphasize more positive aspects: Chinese cooperation, agreements, and contributions. To this end, it includes lengthy lists of exchanges and appends the full text of Sino-American memoranda of understanding. Additionally, it explains, a five-day Sino-Indian military standoff along the nations’ disputed border in September 2015 gave way to a conciliatory meeting, discussion, and stand-down. Beijing also contributes increasingly to global security. Keen to avoid portrayal as a selfish superpower (PKO), China has over 3,000 personnel in UN peacekeeping operations and is “the sixth largest financial contributor to the UN PKO budget…pledging 6.66 percent of the total $8.27 billion budget for the period from July 2015 to June 2016.”
Parting Shot, Remaining Tasks:
With this generally substantive report, the Obama Administration is not going gently into a good night, but it leaves its successor an already-overdue task. Congress should mandate that next year’s iteration include significant coverage of China’s Maritime Militia, as well as greatly-enhanced treatment of China’s Coast Guard. Only by understanding, publicizing, and countering the negative actions of all three of Beijing’s major sea forces can Washington ensure a positive future for the South China Sea and throughout the Asia-Pacific.
Dr. Andrew S. Erickson is a Professor of Strategy in, and a core founding member of, the U.S. Naval War College’s China Maritime Studies Institute. You can follow him on Twitter: @AndrewSErickson.