The Chinese Sharpen Their Options

Oct. 1, 2001

Ever since its formation in 1949, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army has undeniably been about people–lots and lots of them. During the Cold War, it was China, not the Soviet Union or the United States, that fielded the world’s most populous military force. The PLA in 1987 boasted some 4.2 million troops at their peak, twice the size of the US armed forces.

Chairman Mao Zedong’s philosophy of “People’s War,” the cornerstone of Chinese defense planning for decades, called for swamping an invader with virtually limitless reinforcements in a defensive war of attrition. In Mao’s plan, China’s overwhelming numbers would simply grind down the enemy, overcoming any technological advantages he possessed.

That, however, was then, and this is now. Even the aging functionaries running the world’s last major bastion of communism have come to understand that bigger isn’t necessarily better. At present, the ranks of the PLA stand at about three million troops. The Chinese military, since the early 1990s, has been slimming down and smartening up, in preparation for some future combat against a technologically savvier foe.

The reasons for the change are twofold:

First, as China has expanded its security goals to include hegemony over much of Asia, it has concluded that its massive but antiquated army offers little or no real advantage in reaching its objectives. Its logistics are so outdated that it can barely deploy beyond its own borders, and even if its forces could actually deploy, they would lack staying power and operational swiftness to do much that could be considered decisive.

Second, there is Taiwan, and standing behind it, its muscular bodyguard, the United States. If Beijing ever attempted forcible reunification of China and Taiwan–and the United States intervened on Taiwan’s behalf, as President Bush promised earlier this year–China’s lumbering legions would suddenly come face-to-face with the highest of high-tech militaries.

No Illusions

China’s leaders harbor no illusions about being able to match America’s modern fighters, warships, or conventional power of any sort, and they certainly do not believe they could prevail in a standard type of conventional war. They do believe, however, that a few key high-tech advantages could make a war over Taiwan so painful that Washington just might bail out.

Underlying this strategy is a wish list of “asymmetric” capabilities:

  • Missiles able to threaten Taiwanese airfields and ports and keep US forces out.
  • Overhead reconnaissance systems capable of tracking US deployments, especially movements of carrier battle groups.
  • “Smart” mines and other nuisance weapons that are cheap and deadly and could slow down an American assault.
  • Anti-satellite weapons to shut down Washington’s space-based intelligence, communications, and targeting systems.

Such capabilities would be useful against regional competitors such as India, Vietnam, or Japan. Still, they seem clearly designed for use in a future face-off with the United States.

While the US military now looms large in China’s defense planning, it is a relatively new arrival at the dance. Throughout most of the Cold War, China worried primarily about a showdown-perhaps a nuclear showdown–with the Soviet Union, with which it shared a tense, militarized 3,600-mile border. Then, as the USSR weakened and collapsed in the 1980s, China turned its attention to regional competitors on its territorial rim.

Only after the 1991 Persian Gulf War did China focus on possible conflict with the United States. Chinese defense experts were awestruck by the devastating effect that could be generated by a relatively small force armed with “smart” bombs and other high-technology equipment. They gaped at the kind of damage that such a force could inflict on a numerically superior foe such as the Iraqi army–or, theoretically, the PLA. Looking critically at the PLA, its leaders found a “Short Arms-Slow Legs” problem.

In a paper for the USAF Institute for National Security Studies, Chinese-military analyst Russell D. Howard wrote the following:

” ‘Short Arms-Slow Legs’ is an idiom first used by a Chinese general to describe the PLA after he had analyzed the Gulf War. It is symbolic of the PLA’s present dilemma: They do not have the transportation to get to a fight, and even if they get there, they cannot hit anybody, unless their opponent has even shorter arms and slower legs than the PLA.”

Ever since then, Chinese strategists have been conducting regular wargames simulating high-tech battles against US forces. The apparent lesson: Load up on missiles.

“[Communist China] is developing one of the most daunting conventional theater missile challenges in the world,” wrote Air Force Maj. Mark A. Stokes, a former Defense Intelligence Agency analyst, in a comprehensive 2000 report by the Army War College called the “People’s Liberation Army After Next.” Stokes cites Western estimates claiming that China may build up to some 1,000 theater ballistic missiles in the next decade, most of them with a range between 180 and 1,200 miles.

War by Salvo

Taiwan clearly is the prime target. Western analysts maintain that China may deploy 650 short-range ballistic missiles directly across the Taiwan Strait from the island nation. It is their belief that PLA leaders might fire off up to half of the total missile arsenal in an opening salvo. But dozens of China’s missiles also could reach Japan and South Korea, the principal basing areas for US troops in the region. Even if China declined to attack those neighbors, the threat alone could force them to think twice about allowing US forces to use their bases in support of Taiwan. The result could be neutralization through self-deterrence.

Some of China’s ballistic missiles were designed in the 1950s or 1960s for nuclear attacks and are inaccurate, with Circular Error Probable radii of 2,000 feet or more. But China is producing modern missile technology as well. The DF-11 short-range ballistic missile under development may have a CEP as low as 495 feet. And China is working on terminal guidance systems that could improve the accuracy of incoming warheads to a CEP of 100 feet or less.

The Chinese also are developing varying payloads for their ballistic missiles to make them more effective against different types of targets. These include a submunition warhead packed with numerous bomblets for cratering runways or damaging aircraft, penetration warheads for attacking hardened facilities such as command centers, and fuel-air explosives that can produce three to five times the blast damage of a conventional high-explosive warhead.

China also is working on ways to overcome Taiwanese–and, presumably, American–air defenses. An attitude control mechanism for the old DF-15 ballistic missile would make the warhead maneuverable as it approaches the target and therefore far more difficult to shoot down with anti-missile systems like the Patriot, which the US has sold to Taiwan.

Chinese designers have reduced the radar signature of the DF-11 and DF-15 warheads by changing their shapes. They also have tested chaff packages, jammers, and other countermeasures. “Saturation” is considered a countermeasure as well. Stokes claims that Chinese engineers have established a saturation rate for American Patriot missile defenses and “are confident” that they can get their warheads onto the proper targets–in other words, overwhelm Taiwan’s air defenses.

The cruise missile is given a high priority because it is cheaper, more accurate, and more operationally effective than the standard ballistic missile. China already builds the powerful Silkworm anti-ship cruise missile and exports it to countries such as Iran.

Cost-Benefit Analysis

The first Chinese land attack cruise missile probably will be an air launched Silkworm derivative known as the XY-41. More-advanced systems, such as the YJ-8 and the larger YJ-82, could be available within five years and will probably have some kind of GPS-style and digital mapping guidance systems. That could improve CEPs to as low as 30 feet-nearly comparable to accuracy rates for the Tomahawk fielded today by the US Navy. Chinese engineers also are working on stealth coatings to make cruise missiles harder to spot. Stokes cites one Chinese estimate which contends that the cost of producing an effective defense against a robust arsenal of cruise missiles could exceed the cost of producing such a force by a factor of nine.

Not to be forgotten are China’s intercontinental ballistic missiles, capable of carrying nuclear warheads. Its total arsenal is still small–probably numbering no more than 20 weapons–but planners intend to develop two new types of mobile ICBMs over the next decade, the DF-31 and the DF-41.

Those, along with a planned ballistic missile submarine, could give China the capability to launch several hundred nuclear warheads at the United States, from locations that could be hard to pinpoint. As for Chinese strategists, they “probably assume that our missile defense programs are directed in large measure at blunting their offensive forces,” said Aaron L. Friedberg, a China specialist at Princeton.

Growing Chinese missile arsenals give Western planners plenty to worry about, but China’s bark often is worse than its bite. “The Chinese still confront severe problems when moving from prototypes to production, including drawn-out development times, program slippage, and small and fitful production runs,” wrote James R. Lilley, former ambassador to China, in “People’s Liberation Army After Next.”

In the same report, Asia specialist Richard A. Bitzinger cited particular shortcomings: The inability to integrate dozens or hundreds of disparate components into a finished weapon system, a lack of technical expertise in the workforce, wasted resources due to Soviet-style overcapacity, and a defense industry that is highly compartmented and secretive.

Beijing’s concept of “jointness,” or combined air, ground, sea, and space operations, is so primitive that it considers the simultaneous activity by ground and air forces in nearby areas to be a “joint operation”–regardless of whether those operations are integrated or not.

Beijing may also lack the wallet to fulfill many of its ambitions. With GDP growth continuing at about seven percent per year, China’s economy is still expanding rapidly, but China’s bills also are mounting. Maintaining economic growth will require major investments in imported oil and transportation, which may be nonnegotiable: Allowing the economy to backslide could produce revolt in a society increasingly enamored of free enterprise.

Many China analysts doubt that Beijing’s aging autocrats would jeopardize internal security–and their own futures–for the sake of a more capable military. “Are they really going to spend all this money on defense,” asks retired Army Col. Richard Dunn, an Asia specialist now working for a Washington, D.C., defense consulting firm, “when they’ve got to spend it on things like energy and transportation?”

Chinese Weaknesses

China’s huge emphasis on missiles also reflects weaknesses in other areas of its military.

“Dependence on theater missiles,” says Stokes, “reflects a failure of China’s aviation industry to provide the types of aircraft that normally would carry out this mission.” A salvo of 600 missiles launched at Taiwan, for instance, would doubtless produce a tremendous shock effect and do considerable military damage. However, damaged airfields can be repaired, hardened command centers can survive, and ground troops can ride out an air attack. What China lacks is the air force to sustain high-intensity bombardment of Taiwan.

Recent purchases of the advanced Russian Su-27 fighter and orders for Su-30 strike aircraft have set off alarms in Asian and American defense councils. However, only about 45 of China’s 5,300 fighters and bombers combat aircraft are fourth-generation aircraft like the Su-27, according to a 2000 Pentagon report on the balance of power between China and Taiwan. More than half of the total fleet is obsolete, says the Pentagon. Only the Su-27s–which China hopes to begin producing domestically–are capable of extended combat operations beyond China’s border. By contrast, the air force of little Taiwan numbers only about 400 combat aircraft, but they are mostly modern US-made F-16s, French Mirage 2000s, and a modern, homemade indigenous air defense fighter. Those jets give Taiwan a sizeable qualitative edge over the Chinese air force.

Still, the Pentagon’s 2000 report states, “After 2005, … if projected trends continue, the balance of airpower across the Taiwan Strait could begin to shift in China’s favor.”

By then, China could have as many as 70 uprated Su-27s and an equal number of domestically built fourth-generation fighters. Aerial refueling airplanes and airborne early warning aircraft, similar to the USAF E-3 AWACS aircraft, could be operating by then. China hopes to shed about 2,300 older aircraft from its fleet to make the whole more modern. It will upgrade its air-to-air missiles as well. China already fields Russian-built air-to-air missiles that are superior to the AIM-9 Sidewinder that the US has supplied to Taiwan. And China is developing or planning to purchase advanced beyond-visual-range and active-radar air-to-air missiles that could outgun Taiwanese armaments by 2005. Its bomber force will remain old, slow, and vulnerable, although the aging B-6 is being reconfigured to launch anti-ship cruise missiles and air launched land attack cruise missiles.

Minimal Pilot Training

When it comes to pilot training, China’s ambitions exceed its resources. Over the past decade the PLA air force has made air combat training more realistic, forming aggressor forces that play the role of the enemy, conducting live missile firings, and developing fairly sophisticated flight simulators. But overall pilot training remains “minimal at best,” argues China analyst Kenneth W. Allen. He estimates that most Chinese combat pilots fly between 100 and 110 hours per year, about half what their US counterparts fly. The collision this year between a Chinese fighter jet and a US EP-3 surveillance aircraft off the Chinese coast has been widely attributed to poor airmanship by the Chinese pilot.

The PLA will be outgunned by the US military for the foreseeable future. So China is seeking to augment its raw power with improved intelligence and reconnaissance systems and other kinds of advanced warfare. By 2010, China is expected to have a satellite-based surveillance system that would include synthetic aperture radar capable of seeing through clouds, electronic eavesdropping sensors that, among other things, could monitor emissions from US ships in the western Pacific, and mid- to high-resolution optical imaging satellites.

China also has developed anti-satellite technology, such as lasers that could temporarily blind or “dazzle” US intelligence satellites, although the Pentagon is vague about whether its satellites are actually vulnerable to Chinese tampering. China has experimented extensively with computer attacks and other kinds of information warfare, though, again, Washington reveals little of what it knows of these capabilities.

The modernization of the Chinese navy parallels that of China’s air force: Recent purchases of a few advanced platforms mask widespread obsolescence in the broader fleet. China recently acquired two Sovremenny-class destroyers from Russia, which represent a fledgling capability to operate in blue water far off the coast. Those ships will be equipped with Russia’s SS-N-22 Sunburn anti-ship cruise missile, meant to strike carriers. Aside from small numbers of newer platforms, however, China’s fleet of about 50 destroyers and frigates and 50 landing ships are mainly old designs outclassed by other regional navies.

One exception, however, is China’s submarine force. China is in the midst of purchasing at least four Russian-built Kilo-class diesel submarines, and has as many as 60 Chinese-made boats. That fleet gives China an overwhelming undersea advantage over Taiwan. China’s subs are primarily focused on using torpedoes and mines to interdict surface ships, especially around Taiwan. As their capabilities improve, they will represent “a growing threat to submarines in the East and South China Seas”-i.e., US subs-says a 1999 Pentagon report on China.

China’s ground force-while still the world’s largest, at about two million men-remains a bloated appendage of the Communist Party. Officers are commissioned and promoted based more on party loyalty than ability. Only now is the PLA making efforts to establish an effective corps of noncommissioned officers. The Pentagon describes morale in the PLA as “poor.” About 80 percent of the force is armed with weapons commonly derided as “museum pieces,” dating to the 1950s or 1960s.

Shrinking Ground Force

As a remedy, China announced in 1997 that it would reduce its ground forces by 420,000, as part of an overall reduction of 500,000 military troops. The army has already transferred 14 light infantry divisions-four divisions more than the entire active duty US Army-to China’s internal police force. By 2010, according to Western estimates, further reductions could bring the size of the Chinese army down to as few as 932,000 troops.

Remaining units will become smaller, with more emphasis on special operations forces. Savings from force reductions could be used to purchase more sealift and airlift platforms, since China can currently transport only 20,000 or 30,000 ground troops beyond its borders. Better deployability could bring Chinese ground troops to bear in an invasion of Taiwan–now considered well beyond China’s capabilities–although the army will also focus strongly on internal hot spots such as Tibet and a disputed border area near India.

With analysts on both sides of the Pacific dismissing any possibility of US land operations in mainland China, PLA ground forces may be the one component of the Chinese military that at present doesn’t have to worry about confronting the American military machine. For that, they should give thanks.

Richard J. Newman was until recently the Washington-based defense correspondent and senior editor for US News & World Report. He now is based in New York. His most recent article for Air Force Magazine, “Space Watch, High and Low,” appeared in the July 2001 issue.