Video Above: If China Invades Taiwan, how will the U.S. React? Roundtable's Rob Nelson and Warrior Maven's Kris Osborn discuss
The People’s Liberation Army and Marine Corps are taking aggressive measures to substantially enhance an ability to conduct expeditionary warfare and project power well beyond the Pacific theater, a DoD 2021 report on China’s military says.
China’s ambition is to quickly assert itself as a dominant global power not restricted to the Pacific but global in scale. The communist country’s move to migrate far beyond being a regional power has been known for many years now, yet it is something which is gaining a lot of momentum recently given Chinese force size growth and military modernization.
The 2021 DoD report, called Report on Military and Security Developments involving the People’s Republic of China, makes the point that PLA weapons development has in recent years been characterized by an effort to produce platforms “focused on mobility and ease of transport.”
Examples cited in the report include ‘the PLC-171 assault-vehicle based 122mm howitzer, the PCL-181 wheeled howitzer, 3rd-generation Dongfeng Mengshi assault vehicles, and the Z-8L wide-body transport helicopter.”
China has also built tactical trucks armed with mobile artillery, VT 5 light tanks and several expeditionary transport vehicles built for high altitude combat operations.
The PCL-181, for instance, weighs only twenty tons, whereas China’s legacy howitzer weighs nearly twice as much, making transportation and maneuverability much more challenging.
A report in the Chinese government-backed Global Times newspaper quotes a military expert describing the new weapon’s advantages by stating “Its lightweight also gives the weapon an edge in high altitude areas when the lack of oxygen could impact the power of the engine, and it is also very agile and fast in quick-reaction deployments.”
I cited some relevant details with the PCL-181 in a report I wrote last year about the arrival of the PCL-181. From my report:
“The PCL-181 relies upon an advanced, digitized control panel which helps enable automatic gun calibration and semi-automatic ammunition reload. The new weapon seems specifically suited for Chinese expeditionary operations, given the country’s well-known mountainous terrain.For instance, the PCL-181 appears to attach an artillery cannon to a medium-sized tactical truck, a circumstance that invites certain questions.
Would a 20-ton Howitzer, mounted on a lightweight tactical truck, offer the requisite survivability needed to support a mechanized armored column? While mobility and rapid deployability would of course be crucial in a fast-moving modern war environment, it would seem that artillery supporting advancing armored forces might need to operate with heavier protective armor to be less penetrable to enemy fire. While 155m cannons are able to fire at less vulnerable stand-off ranges, modern long-range sensors and weapons might make a twenty-ton platform much easier for adversaries to destroy or disrupt. These factors may provide some of the strategic basis for the U.S. efforts to engineer a forty-ton M109 Paladin Self-Propelled Howitzer, a system which also integrates semi-auto-loading technology, digital targeting and advanced, more versatile kinds of ammunition. (Army 2011 report on Paladin modernization)
Also, a lightweight tactical truck such as China’s PCL-181 would also encounter certain restrictions in mountainous terrain, as it would not be able to ascend through steep, rocky inclines. Therefore, it would make sense to examine these tactical nuances in light of U.S. maneuvers in Afghanistan. Specifically, the U.S. M777 is engineered to be transportable in mountainous terrain, given that it can sling-load beneath a CH-47 Chinook cargo helicopter. This enables ground forces to air-drop its artillery cannon into higher altitudes where mountainous terrain would prove unpassable for tactical trucks. This kind of transportability, not possible for a 20-ton tactical truck, would give U.S. ground forces an advantage in any kind of mountainous large-scale force-on-force war.”
However, despite what could be called an explosion of new fast-transport, deployable yet armed land platforms, China does seem to operate with a helicopter deficit. Global Firepower cites China as only operating roughly 900 helicopters, very few when compared with the thousands operated by the U.S. Army.
While China does operate the Y-20 troop transport cargo planes, the lack of helicopters would likely greatly hinder any PLA effort to descend upon a hot zone, seize an airfield with fast-arriving infantry or reinforce a ground assault with air-delivered infantry.
Should China find itself in any kind of major mechanized land engagement, it will undoubtedly need to deliver soldiers, MEDEVAC aircraft, supplies and ammunition from the air. China is reported to operate as many as 975,000 active duty forces, yet the PLA might be challenged to take advantage of its numbers advantages in the absence of a greater amount of helicopters or combat air transport.
The People’s Liberation Army Navy Marine Corps is also moving in a much more expeditionary direction to enable sea-land combat mobility operations “beyond the First Island Chain,” the report says.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Master’s Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.