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byKris Osborn- Warrior Maven
China plans to surpass U.S. military power by 2049 as part of an ambitious effort to massively expand Beijing’s global reach, economic and political influence and international military superiority, according to the Pentagon’s 2020 China Military Power report.
“It is likely that China will aim to develop a military by mid-century that is equal to, and in many cases superior to, the United States’ military or that of any other great power that the Chinese view as a threat,” Chad Sbragia, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense, China, told reporters according to a Pentagon transcript.
Indeed, China’s defense budget has nearly doubled during the past ten years. Moreover, in early 2019, the PRC announced a 6.2-percent inflation-adjusted increase in its annual military budget to $174 billion, the report cites.
The Chinese Navy is already the largest in the world with more than 350 ships to include a fast-growing fleet of destroyers, carriers and submarines, a reality which continues to raise concern and make an impression upon Pentagon and Navy weapons developers.
By the end of this decade, China is expected to operate as many as 360 to 400 ships, according to the Pentagon’s report which, among other things, catalogues the pace and extent of China’s ambitious military modernization.
“China is the top ship-producing nation in the world by tonnage and is increasing its shipbuilding capacity and capability for all naval classes,” Sbragia said.
While China’s growing fleetis already much larger than the U.S. Navy’s 293 ships, some Navy leaders and observers make the point that pure numbers may not ultimately be the measure of superiority. The Pentagon report does make this point, yet with the clear caveat that China’s emerging fleet size is indeed concerning.
“There is certainly more to naval power than ship counts, total counts of the Chinese vessels, there's tonnage, but for -- and -- but I would also draw your attention to weapons systems and it's important to highlight the Chinese ship building advantages in terms of its size of fleet,” Sbragia added.
China’s internal ship building apparatus is, according to the report, concerning. The text of the document cites the merging of China’s State ShipbuildingCorporation and the China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation, creating the world’s largest shipbuilder.
“China domestically produces its naval gas turbine and diesel engines, as well as almost all shipboard weapons and electronic systems, making it nearly self-sufficient for all shipbuilding needs,” the Pentagon China report states.
In order to better discern the scope of China’s shipbuilding enterprise, one need only to examine its current construction of carriers and destroyers.
Having already launched its second carrier, the Shangdong, the Chinese are already starting work on a third aircraft carrier, according to a May 2020 Congressional Research Service Report, “China Naval Modernization: Implications for U.S. Navy Capabilities.” The report says the PLA Navy may have as many as 400 ships and four aircraft carriers by 2025.
China’s first indigenously-built carrier, the second carrier in the fleet overall, appears to be modeled after its first carrier, the ski-jump-configured Ukrainian-built Liaoning,
For its third carrier, the People’s Liberation Army Navy seeks to build a smoother, flatter carrier deck similar to theU.S. Ford-classwith an electromagnetic catapult. An electromagnetic catapult generates a fluid, smooth launch, which is different than a steam-powered “shotgun” type take off. Also, an electromagnetic catapult extends an attack envelope well beyond what China’s existing ski jump.
China’s emerging Type 055 destroyer is also attracting attention from U.S. planners. Interestingly, the ship represents an apparent Chinese effort to build a stealthy destroyer.
The ship does not have large protruding deck masts or many external deck-mounted weapons and appears to have a blended body-bow with a smooth exterior. In some respects, the ship does appear to resemble some elements of the U.S. Navy’s stealthy USS Zumwalt destroyer.
Also, the central placement of the deckhouse, blended with a back end area, might represent a deliberate effort to align the ship’s center of gravity and therefore decrease the possibility of capsizing in rough seas. The Nanchang has very similar-looking deck-mounted guns and a smooth, flat, roundly curved deckhouse. Like the USS Zumwalt, there is a decidedly linear, inwardly-angled hull-deckhouse connection.
The radar panels of the Type 055, appear blended into the sides of the ship and the vessel appears to have narrow, yet flat command post windows. Overall, the exterior of the ship clearly seems to have fewer “sharp edges” or contours potentially more detectable to enemy radar.
Chinese Air Power
New attack drones, 5th-generation stealth fighter jets, reconfigured cargo planes and Russian-built air defenses are making China’s Air Force even deadlier. In fact, all of these advances present a great concern to U.S. war planners.
The size of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force is reported to include a total of 2,500 aircraft, making it the third largest in the world, according to the Pentagon’s 2020 China Military Power report.
U.S. threat assessors are not merely concerned about the size of the Chinese Air Force but the increasing technical sophistication and multi-mission tactics with which it operates. For instance, as part of its discussion of Chinese air power, the report notes that China operates highly advanced, Russian-built S-400 and S-500 air defenses.
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These systems, argued to be among the best in the world, increasingly use networked digital processors, faster computer speeds and a wider range of frequencies to detect aircraft. Russian media reports have claimed that their air defenses can even track stealth aircraft, a claim that has yet to be formally verified.
Yet another concern with China’s air power is its fast-increasing attack range. The Chinese Y-20 cargo plane, for instance, is likely being configured into a tanker aircraft to nearly double the attack range of Chinese fighter jets. Technically speaking, while the U.S. Air Force’s KC-46 tanker is certainly different from its C-130s, it would not be at all technically difficult to convert a large Y-20 into a tanker configuration.
This not only better enables a potential attack on Taiwan but also massively expands the Chinese reach into more areas of the South China Sea from the mainland. While many of China’s fighters are within range of attacking Taiwan on a single sortie, expanded combat radius would not only increase surveillance options but also enable much longer “dwell time” for fighter planes searching for targets in the skies above Taiwan.
Operating a large tanker of this kind might also greatly improve China’s aircraft carrier power-projection capabilities by virtue of creating possibilities for longer-range, more expansive combat missions from the ocean.
Such a possibility is further strengthened by ongoing Chinese efforts to engineer a carrier-launched variant of Beijing’s J-31 stealth fighter for domestic use. Such a platform, described by Chinese newspapers as a J-31B, brings stealthy 5th-generation attack possibilities to maritime warfare, not unlike the U.S. F-35B and F-35C.
These factors are quite likely just one of many reasons why the U.S. Air Force continues to seek accelerated modernization and large size increases. Many senior Air Force leaders express great concern that not only is the force aging and in need of revamped sustainment efforts, but is also insufficient to meet the requested mission demands of combatant commanders forward-deployed around the globe. Air Force leaders are continuing to ask for the increase in size up to 386 squadrons first requested several years ago.
While many believe current efforts are inadequate to meet the threat, there are a number of impactful sustainment activities underway with U.S. Air Force platforms. F-15 continue to be revamped with new weapons, radar and high-speed computer systems to ensure the 1980s aircraft can stay in front of the Chinese 4th-generation J-10. In addition, the Air Force recently completed software upgrades to F-22 weapons to enhance range, guidance and accuracy. Furthermore, the service is reconfiguring some of the “wing boxes” of its fleet of aging C-130s and a wide swath of upgrades have already made the well-known B-2 bomber much more advanced than it was during its inception. The B-2 is receiving new air-defense warning sensors, upgraded weapons and massively improved computer processing speed, among other things.
None of this, however, Air Force weapons developers say, removes the need for new platforms and weapons as soon as possible.
Chinese Nuclear Power
China’s clear ambition to massively expand its nuclear arsenal is generating extreme concern among U.S. military leaders who recognize the pace at which new weapons are being added dramatically alters the global calculus, according to the Pentagon’s 2020 China Military Report.
“We do believe that over the next decade, that China is likely to at least double the size of its nuclear stockpile in the course of implementing the most rapid expansion and diversification of its nuclear arsenal in its history, China’s history,” Sbragia said. “An ability to double the stockpile demonstrates a move away from their historical minimum deterrence posture.”
The report specifies China’s fast increase in the number of warheads arming Beijing’s intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) capable of threatening America will likely grow to 200 in the next five years. As an element of this expansion, China is increasing its inventory of long-range land-fired DF-26 Anti-Ship missiles able to fire both conventional and nuclear missiles.
“Combined with a near-complete lack of transparency regarding their strategic intent and the perceived need for a much larger, more diverse nuclear force, these developments pose a significant concern for the United States,” the report explains.
The report also makes the point that China is solidifying a nuclear triad by developing nuclear-capable air-launched ballistic missiles and, according to the text of the report, “publicly revealed a modified bomber that would carry this missile.”
Meanwhile, all of this is taking place within the context of U.S. nuclear modernization which, among many things, includes the construction of 400 new ICBMs. However, many U.S. Air Force leaders believe the new Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD) may not come soon enough, given the age and obsolescence issues associated with the decades-old Minuteman III ICBM. Interestingly, the Air Force is working aggressively to sustain its arsenal of Minuteman IIIs while concurrently developing GBSD. In fact, Air Force leaders often cite the high-number of ongoing Minuteman III modernization programs, adding that the service recently test-fired a Minuteman III as part of an effort to demonstrate nuclear readiness.
“A team of Air Force Global Strike Command Airmen launched an unarmed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile equipped with a test reentry vehicle at 12:03 a.m. Pacific Time Sept. 2 from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif.,” an Air Force statement said.
Given all of these dynamics, the report makes the clear statement that the “United States believes it is time for China to participate in nuclear arms control. While China has praised agreements such as the New START and INF, it has also sought to avoid participating in the arms control itself.”
Chinese Global Reach - Expansion
Overseas economic and political expansion, including the construction of military bases, is fundamental to China’s ambition. China’s overarching goal, as explained by Sbragia, is to “revise the international order.”
China has recently added a military base in close proximity to a U.S. facility in Djibouti, Africa, in what could be seen as a transparent move to rival U.S. influence in the region.
Chinese African involvement is of great significance to the United States for a variety of pressing strategic issues. The roughly 6,500 U.S. troops based in Africa train local allied forces, conduct a range of counterterrorism missions and seek to expand U.S. security amid instability, terrorism threats and potentially malicious foreign intrusions.
Chinese ambitions expand far beyond Africa, the report explains, adding that China appears to be developing concepts for “offensive operations” within the second island chain, in the Pacific and Indian Ocean.
China’s undersea reach is expanding as well, as multiple reports have spotted sightings of new Jin-class ballistic missile submarines far from Chinese shores, in what can be seen as an overt expansionist move to spread influence and expand the areas it can potentially attack. Some of China’s new JL-3 submarine launched ballistic missiles have a reported range of up to 4,000 miles. Depending upon where submarines are on patrol, these weapons could clearly threaten certain parts of the continental United States.
China is seeking to establish a more robust overseas logistics and basing infrastructure beyond its current base in Djibouti. Beijing is also, according to the Pentagon assessment, quite likely looking to add military logistics facilities in Myanmar, Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, United Arab Emirates, Kenya, Seychelles, Tanzania, Angola, and Tajikistan.
Kris Osborn is the new 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 Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.