Flexing Its Muscles – Chinese Power Projection Capabilities

A Russian was recently imprisoned for six years in Ukraine after being convicted of spying for China. The target of his nefarious activities was the Land-based Naval Aviation Testing and Training Complex (NITKA) in the Crimea, a facility for training Russian pilots to operate fighters aboard aircraft carriers. This spying scandal relates directly to the indigenous aircraft carrier that China announced last year, as well as to a pilot training complex in Xingcheng in northeastern China. This case of espionage illustrates the aggressive lengths China is going to so as to obtain more powerful military equipment.

In the 1990s, China observed Deng Xiaoping’s maxim: “Observe calmly, secure our position, cope with affairs calmly, hide our capabilities and bide our time, be good at maintaining a low profile and never claim leadership.” This era has ended, with China now displaying a growing willingness to flex its military muscles. China’s Defence Minister Liang Guanglie stated at a PLA anniversary speech on 1 August 2010: “We should strengthen our capability to deal with multiple tasks in today’s modern battlefields and be determined to safeguard our national sovereignty, security and interests in development…And we should enhance our preparations for big-scale and complicated military struggles.”

This article examines the increasing power projection capability of the Chinese military, primarily its air, sea and missile forces. Key drivers are China’s need to secure national and economic resources, as well as its perceived need to address the “Taiwan issue”. The latter is very sensitive for China, and much of its military capabilities are aligned to reclaim this ‘wayward’ island.

Stretching the naval boundaries

As part of a more assertive posture, China has already laid claim to 3.37 million km² of territory in the South China Sea (some 80% of the sea), including the Spratly and Paracel Islands. Such declarations do not sit well with neighbouring ASEAN countries, and China is also involved in a deep-rooted dispute with Japan regarding the Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea. The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is moving steadily from a coastal defence force to one that possesses a more forward-leaning offshore posture. Over the next 10-15 years, it will create a fleet able to fight far beyond its traditional operating area of the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait.

With the PLA maintaining strong guardianship of China’s land borders, the leadership views its coastline as its most vulnerable point. Approximately 90% of Chinese trade travels by sea, including millions of barrels of oil needed to feed the country’s insatiable appetite for energy. Indeed, China’s consumption of oil is expected to double by 2015. China must therefore secure its sea lines of communication (SLOC), and this intention resulted in the PLAN sending a naval task force to the Gulf of Aden in December 2008. This multinational counter-piracy mission allowed the PLAN to extend its reach to the far side of the Indian Ocean, and it marks a natural trajectory in China’s desire for a greater global reach. Intent on creating a blue-water navy, China now has a plausible reason for maintaining a presence in the Indian Ocean. Thanks to friendly relations with Myanmar, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Pakistan, China also has a string of ports it can utilise, much to the chagrin of India. It must be remembered that it was only in 2002 that PLAN ships completed their first round-the-world deployment, so the navy has already come a long way in the past decade.

The most important development for the PLAN will be the launch of a domestically designed aircraft carrier. The Russian-built Varyag is being restored for training and familiarisation purposes, and two other Type 089 Shi Lang-class carriers will likely join it. The first carrier will probably be constructed in Shanghai, and it could be fully operational by 2015. Multiple aircraft carriers could be a reality by 2020, including what are being named Type 085 nuclear-powered vessels. The fighter aircraft likely to operate from these carriers will be the Shenyang Aircraft Corporation (SAC) J-15, a Chinese copy of a Su-33 prototype obtained from Ukraine in 2001.

Aircraft carriers are vital for regional and global power projection, but China will also need to build capable vessels to protect these assets. The induction of modern destroyer designs like the Type 052B, 052C, 052D, 051C and future 051D, as well as frigates like the Types 054A and 054B, are helping modernise the PLAN fleet. Amphibious warfare ships such as the Type 071 Yuzhao class and future Type 081 Landing Helicopter Dock (LHD), ideal for an assault on Taiwan, are also being constructed.

The South Sea Fleet is the PLAN’s most powerful flotilla, and it is benefiting from new facilities such as underground submarine pens at Yulin Naval Base on Hainan Island.  The South China Sea offers submarines the quickest access to deep water in the Pacific Ocean. The number of submarines has expanded to 60, causing Japan to announce in its recent “National Defence Programme Guidelines, Fiscal Year 2011” document that it was enlarging its fleet of 16 diesel-electric submarines. The number of Japanese Maritime Self-Defence Force (JMSDF) submarines will rise to 22, the first time the inventory has grown in 30 years. The submarine threat to the USA is obvious too, with the US Navy positioning 60% of its submarine fleet in the Pacific.

Development of the JL-2 submarine-launched ballistic missile continues, and twelve such missiles will be fitted in the Type 094 Jin class of nuclear-powered submarine. The JL-2 will have an estimated range of 7,200km, putting targets like Guam and Hawaii within easy reach. The Type 093 Shang class is the most capable SSN in service, though the Type 095 is under development. China is producing submarines at a rapid rate of 2.5 vessels per year, and these more efficient designs offer a deterrent effect as well as an offensive capability.

The PLAN’s increased confidence was exhibited in an unprecedented exercise in April 2010, when a flotilla transited the Miyako Strait between Taiwan and Okinawa to conduct military drills in Japan’s maritime backyard. The fleet included frigates, destroyers, submarines and long-range aircraft. Another indication of Chinese aggression was the collision of a Chinese fishing trawler with Japan Coast Guard vessels on 7 September near the disputed Diaoyu Islands.

China is expected to achieve an initial operating capability (IOC) for the DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile within several years. The DF-21D is based on the CSS-5 medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM), and US intelligence sources estimate it will have a 1,500km range. This is a vitally important weapon, for this area-denial missile will keep at bay vessels such as those of the US Navy’s Seventh Fleet forward-deployed in Japan. The DF-21D will put valuable American assets such as aircraft carriers at grave risk, giving China far greater freedom of action.

Unfurling its wings

China stunned observers with the maiden flight of the Chengdu Aircraft Industry Group (CAC) J-20 stealth fighter on 11 January, the test coming 6-12 months earlier than US intelligence experts predicted. However, it will be a long time before the PLA Air Force (PLAAF) has an operational fleet of such aircraft. US Defence Secretary Robert Gates stated: “There’s still a huge disparity in terms of these aircraft. This is their first low-observable aircraft and, given the challenges we have had – and we have been at this for more than 20 years – they have a long road in front of them before this becomes a serious operational aircraft in any numbers.” By 2020, China may have produced 50 J-20 fighters.

The PLAAF combat fleet is still largely outdated, but it is progressively being overhauled with the arrival of new aircraft like the indigenously designed J-10 that entered service in 2005. Approximately 300 J-10 fighters will be inducted, while the upgraded J-10B with AESA radar is currently under development. The JH-7A from the Xian Aircraft Industry Corporation (XAC) is the latest-standard fighter-bomber, and it forms the backbone of the PLAAF and PLAN strike fleet. It is believed XAC is developing a stealthier JH-7B version. These aircraft are being fitted with more capable weapons like the SD-10 beyond-visual-range air-to-air missile (BVRAAM), with a claimed range of 100km. Furthermore, China unveiled the CM-802AKG air-to-ground land attack cruise missile (LACM) in Zhuhai last year. The designer credits this new missile based on the C-802A anti-ship missile with a range of 220km.

The PLAAF will need to improve its strategic airlift capacity if it is to think about effectively moving equipment and personnel beyond its borders. It currently relies on Il-76MD and Y-8 transport aircraft, but two new designs are in the works. One is the heavy-lift Y-20 from XAC, which is in the same league as the C-17 Globemaster III. The other is the Shaanxi Y-9 medium-range transport aircraft of similar size to the C-130 Hercules. The PLAAF received its first true strategic-strike capability in October 2009 with the conversion of H-6K bombers. Powered by Russian turbofan engines offering a range of 3,500km, the H-6K carries six under-wing DH-10A LACMs, these missiles able to carry nuclear warheads. The elderly H-6 is also used in the air-to-air refuelling role. Only ten such H-6U aircraft are known to be in service, which is surprisingly few. The PLAAF is doubtlessly seeking to urgently enlarge its fleet, with future refuelling aircraft likely to be based on the Y-20 or commercial Comac C919.

To truly take advantage of new equipment such as J-10 and J-11B fighters, China needs capable airborne early warning & control (AEW&C) aircraft. A shortage of Il-76MD airframes for the KJ-2000 led to production of the smaller KJ-200. The KJ-2000 is fitted with an active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar system mounted in a non-rotating radome, while the KJ-200 is based on the Shaanxi Y-8. A KJ-200 system was displayed in Zhuhai at the recent Airshow China, this aircraft having a linear AESA radar system mounted atop the fuselage. Only four KJ-200 systems are believed to be in existence, and the system is not fully operational yet. The fitting of data-links in aircraft and the creation of digital networks is critical for China to enhance its command-and-control capacity.

China is also investing heavily in unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), with a whole range of designs exhibited at Airshow China in October 2010. These included unmanned combat air vehicles (UCAV) like the ASN-229A Reconnaissance and Precise Attack UAV from ASN Technology Group, the nation’s largest UAV manufacturer. The missile-armed ASN-229A will have a cruising speed of 180km/h and 20-hour endurance. Other prototypical UCAV designs are the jet-powered WJ-600 and the CH-3. The PLAAF does not yet operate such unmanned craft, but the thought of armed UAVs patrolling the skies above the Paracel and Spratly Island groups will certainly cause anxiety among ASEAN members. Such a capability will greatly enhance China’s ocean surveillance.

Missile arsenal

The PLA has been downsizing in order to create a leaner, more deployable, and more modern force. (KYM TO TASHA, BPS) An expeditionary capability is provided via two PLAN Marine Corps divisions and three PLAAF airborne divisions. These units are equipped with specialised vehicles like the ZBD2000 amphibious vehicle and ZLC2000 infantry fighting vehicle respectively. Although a latecomer to the special forces arena (its first unit was only created in 1988), the PLA can now field seven special operations groups with up to 30,000 personnel.

China has approximately 1,100 DF-15 and DF-11 short-range ballistic missiles (SRBM) of the PLA’s Second Artillery Corps (SAC) aimed at Taiwan. At the 60th Anniversary Parade in October 2009, China exhibited its latest DF-15C and DF-11A missiles on 8×8 transporter-erector-launcher (TEL) vehicles. DF-21C MRBMs, mounted on 10×10 TELs, are also pointed at Taiwan. The SAC weapon with the greatest reach, however, is the DF-31A intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). With an 11,000km range, the three-stage rocket could deliver a 1,000kT-yield nuclear warhead on Washington DC if desired. The DF-31A is now more mobile thanks to it being mounted on a truck-and-trailer unit, making it harder for opponents to pinpoint.

The USA estimated China had 200-500 of the aforementioned DH-10 LACMs deployed by the end of 2009, with China unveiling this truck-mounted system at the 1 October 2009 parade. Admiral Robert Willard, head of the US Pacific Command (PACOM), said the USA was “very carefully” watching China’s formidable ballistic-missile capability.

China is not confining its military aspirations to missiles, for it is also exploring the outer atmosphere. “Space is no longer the preserve of the US and the Soviet Union, at the time in which we could operate with impunity,” said Gregory Schulte, the US Deputy Secretary of Defence for Space Policy. China launched its first navigation satellite in April 2009, and six are currently in orbit. By 2020 China should have an independent and fully functioning GPS-style network. The BeiDou-2 system will eventually consist of 35 satellites, aiding the guidance systems of Chinese weapons, as well as enhancing civilian and military navigation.

China is also developing counter-space weapons that can destroy satellites or jam their signals, as evidenced by the January 2007 shooting down of a Chinese weather satellite by an MRBM. The country is also developing directed-energy weapons that emit energy at targets without having to fire projectiles. “The investment China is putting into counter-space capabilities is a matter of concern to us,” divulged Schultze. To overcome the USA’s technological advantage, China must develop such weapons. Indeed, China’s efforts have resulted in a ten-year strategy to make the US more resilient in defending its vital space assets.

The USA is keen to strengthen military ties with China, and this was a refrain during Robert Gates’ visit to Beijing in January to meet President Hu Jintao. As China pursues its “active defence” policy and improves its power projection capabilities, the USA is mindful of preventing any military incidents. To follow another Chinese maxim, this time from Sun Tzu, “Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer.”


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