There isn’t anything eye-openingly new in the U.S. Defense Dept.’s latest annual report to the U.S. Congress assessing the state of China’s military. Like many others outside China, Pentagon planners remain nervous and uncertain about the geopolitical and military implications of the steady modernization of the People’s Liberation Army. Yet, their overwhelming, and, we hazard, accurate assessment is that the modernization of the PLA remains a work in progress, but one that is progressing to plan as China closes its military technology gap with the U.S., Russia and Japan. This passage sums it up:
Over the past decade, China’s military has benefitted from robust investment in modern hardware and technology. Many modern systems have reached maturity and others will become operational in the next few years. Following this period of ambitious acquisition, the decade from 2011 through 2020 will prove critical to the PLA as it attempts to integrate many new and complex platforms, and to adopt modern operational concepts, including joint operations and network-centric warfare.
Beijing set the PLA an objective of turning itself into a modern, regionally focused military by 2020. As the Pentagon’s report notes, it is pretty much on track. This year has seen two high profile milestones passed, the unveiling of a stealth aircraft, the J-20, in January and the sea trials of China’s first aircraft carrier earlier this month. But the Pentagon believes it will be the end of this decade before China is able to project even a modest scale of long-distance force, which it defines as several battalions of ground forces or a naval battle group of up to a dozen ships, in even low-intensity operations.
This evolution will lay the foundation for a force able to accomplish a broader set of regional and global objectives. However, it is unlikely that China will be able to project and sustain large forces in high-intensity combat operations far from China prior to 2020.
The key question is how effectively the PLA will meld its emerging platforms and capabilities, such as its growing number of ballistic missiles, into an effective fighting force. This will take time. Training and integration are a crucial task for the PLA high command in the coming years. It may be getting new toys, but its human capital is only now being upgraded. The PLA is poor at inter-service command cooperation and lacks experience in both joint exercises and operations, one reason that China is becoming more engaged in international humanitarian, disaster-relief and anti-piracy missions as well as undertaking more bi- and multilateral joint military exercises.
Recent reshuffles of the PLA’s top brass and new appointments are bringing about generational change among the military leadership, raising professional standards and accelerating the modernization of its command-and-control structures. The Central Military Commission named six new full generals and 20 new lieutenant-generals in July; all of the latter group are members of the so-called fifth-generation leadership. This generational change is also, incidentally, increasing the predominance of princelings, the offspring of the first generation of Mao’s revolutionary leaders and generals. That may mean the PLA gets even stronger support from civilian leaders (and vice versa as President assumptive Xi Jinping is himself a princeling); princelings are now the largest bloc within the military leadership. The CMC itself is likely to have a radical overhaul next year when many of its senior officers will have reached the age limit at which they have to stand down. The incoming leadership will be the most competent, best educated and professional the PLA has ever had, as well as being largely formed as individuals and officers in a China that has only been in the ascendant.
Taiwan contingency planning has largely dominated the PLA’s agenda throughout its modernization. Many of the PLA’s most advanced systems are based in its military regions opposite the island.
Although the PLA is contending with a growing array of missions, Taiwan remains its main strategic direction…The PLA seeks the capability to deter Taiwan independence and influence Taiwan to settle the dispute on Beijing’s terms. In pursuit of this objective, Beijing is developing capabilities intended to deter, delay, or deny possible U.S. support for the island in the event of conflict. The balance of cross-Strait military forces and capabilities continues to shift in the mainland’s favor.
China’s ability to sustain military power at a distance remains limited, if expanding, primarily through the PLA-Navy. A section of the report dealing with energy and security underlines the importance to China’s energy supply of securing sea lanes.
The report also flags up advances in China’s space and cyber operations, saying [Beijing] was “developing a multi-dimensional programme to improve its capabilities to limit or prevent the use of space-based assets by adversaries during times of crisis or conflict”. More importantly, China’s military strategists emphasize the importance of gaining the upper hand in electronic warfare early in a war as being one of the primary tasks to ensure battlefield success. The report notes:
PLA theorists have coined the term “integrated network electronic warfare (wangdian yitizhan 网电体战)’ to describe the use of electronic warfare, computer network operations, and kinetic strikes to disrupt battlefield information systems that support an adversary’s warfighting and power projection capabilities. PLA writings identify integrated network electronic warfare as one of the basic forms of integrated joint operations,” suggesting the centrality of seizing and dominating the electromagnetic spectrum in PLA campaign theory.
However, the report also notes that, “In the case of cyber and space weapons, however, there is little evidence that China’s military and civilian leaders have fully thought through the global and systemic effects that would be associated with the employment of these strategic capabilities.”
As a footnote, this Bystander’s eye was caught by this sentence in the report, “For over a decade PRC leaders have identified the so called ‘China threat theory’ as a serious hazard to the country’s international standing and reputation.” True to form and theory, Beijing has denounced it. “The report does not hold water as it severely distorted the facts,” said defense ministry spokesman Yang Yujun.