Tag Archives: PLA-N

The Modernisation of China’s Armed Forces That Wasn’t On Parade

WHAT MOST CAUGHT this Bystander’s eye at last week’s parade in Beijing to mark the 70th anniversary of Japan’s surrender to end World War Two in Asia was what wasn’t on show: the aircraft carriers, nuclear submarines and advanced blue-water ships being built for the PLA’s navy and the high-tech kit and code for its information, cyber and space warfare units.

Those are the cutting edge of China’s military modernization, not the ballistic missiles paraded through the streets of the capital on September 3rd with such patriotic pomp. We were slightly baffled by the fuss made in the popular prints of the DF-21D ballistic missile. The ‘carrier killer’ was, after all, deployed last year, officially acknowledged four years ago, and has been in development since the 1990s.

Like most of the hardware trundled through the streets in an overt display of hard-power prowess and progress, the DF-21D promises more than it can yet deliver operationally. It would take a bunch of the land-based DF-21s working in concert with aircraft and submarines to knock out a U.S. carrier group. Limited in range (1,750 kilometers), the missiles would, at best, provide a deterrent to a U.S. carrier coming to the aid of Taiwan or a regional neighbour in the event of conflict.

It is not yet the weapon of a world-class military force. More attention should have been paid to the DF-5B an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), which can deliver a warhead to any part of the United States. The latest addition to China’s ICBM arsenal, the mobile DF-41, was notably absent from the parade — as was the J-20 fifth generation fighter aircraft. And it is the new Jin-class submarines that are letting China make progress toward a credible sea-based second-strike capability.

China’s armed forces long ago pivoted from their role in the 1980s as a land force to defend the long border with Russia to a more mobile force to face threats from the sea. However, they are still far short of the ability to provide open-sea protection as against coastal-waters defense, just as, for all the years of double-digit spending on defense, the PLA as a whole is still yet no match for U.S. forces should it come to all-out war, as the chart below underlines.

That is not to say that Beijing is not expanding its arsenal, particularly its nuclear weapons, nor that it lacks ambition to have world-class fighting forces. It has been pursuing the modernization of the PLA for decades to that end. Much like with the economy as a whole, it is doing so by replacing low-skilled labour out with higher-value-add technology.

China vs U.S. Total Defence Spending, 1988-2013

The 300,000 reduction in the PLA’s numbers that President Xi Jinping announced on September 3rd is only the latest case in point. This cut will reduce the PLA’s strength to 2 million from 2.3 million by removing non-combatants, civilian employees and the lowest-skilled ground forces.

Once the cuts are done, though, it will mean the PLA will be about half the size it was when the modernization drive started three decades ago. (Many of those shed in the intervening years have found new employment in the People’s Armed Police Force and the Border Guard; a hard edge to internal security, a connection of long standing in military doctrine, remains.)

The PLA-Navy (PLA-N) has been in the vanguard of the modernization drive, followed by the PLA-Air Force (PLAAF), the strategic missile force, the Second Artillery Corps (SAC), and then the Ground Forces in that order.

The new shape of the PLA should be apparent by 2020, including a new joint command structure similar to that employed by the United States to manage lean, mobile and multi-functional rapid response units. The announcement of a joint command has been imminent for some time, suggesting that inter-service rivalry remains strong and an impediment.

It may be no coincidence that Xi’s anti-corruption campaign has reached deep into the command of the ground forces. We would surmise that was to clear out entrenched opposition to restructuring the military high command as well as to clear a path for a new generation of officers rising on professional merit rather than their ability to buy promotion.

The long-term target is to have armed forces capable of winning ‘informationised’ wars by the middle of the century. That means armed forces well equipped with the so-called soft elements of hard power — satellite surveillance and the ability to disrupt an enemy’s information superiority by destroying its satellites, irregular warfare capacity, computer network operations, and space capabilities.

Little of that was on parade in Beijing last week, but it comprises the new PLA’s marching orders.

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Cyber And Space, More Than Blue Water, Next Theatres Of War


Photo Credit: Flickr/Times Asi. Licenced under Creative Commons. China’s conventionally-armed ballistic missile, the DF-21C.CHINA HAS BEEN reclaiming land for the deployment of dual-use facilities such as radar stations and landing strips in the disputed waters of the South China Sea for a while. Long-standing readers may recall this 2012 photograph of a radar station at the Zhubi reef in the Nansha Islands (the Subi Reef in the Spratly Islands to much of the rest of the world).

Chinese fishing fleet at Zhubi Reef, South China SeaHowever, the rhetoric around the reclamation — and the reclamation itself — has been ratcheted up in recent weeks. Washington’s new defense secretary, Ashton Carter, is among those recently weighing in to air his concerns. Those of China’s regional neighbours have also been well and repeatedly advertised.

Beijing’s recently released new defense strategy document will do little to calm those concerns. While to this Bystander’s eye, the document does little more than codify developments that have been in train for sometime, explicitly laying out the greater priority China is placing on its navy and “open seas protection” makes a statement in more senses than one.

There is no doubt that China is modernizing its navy to ensure its access to open sea and its ability to defend its sea lanes beyond. Plans for new aircraft carriers, destroyers and nuclear-power subs bear ready witness to that. But for all its rapidly rising defence budget, Beijing still has a long way to go before it can match the capabilities of Washington’s blue-water fleet.

The United States will continue its Asian ‘pivot’ and, more particularly, military overflights to undermine the notion that land reclamation establishes sovereignty over the artificial islands created in those waters — ‘meddling in South China Sea affairs’ by Beijing’s lights, which is one of the risk factors for ‘security and stability along China’s periphery’, as the new strategy document puts it.

However, it is easy to be distracted by China’s naval build-out from the the other priority areas that the new strategy document highlights. The new frontiers of military competition are, to Beijing’s mind, outer space and cyber warfare. The new strategy document puts it thus:

The world revolution in military affairs is proceeding to a new stage. Long-range, precise, smart, stealthy and unmanned weapons and equipment are becoming increasingly sophisticated. Outer space and cyber space have become new commanding heights in strategic competition among all parties. The form of war is accelerating its evolution to informationization. World major powers are actively adjusting their national security strategies and defense policies, and speeding up their military transformation and force restructuring. The aforementioned revolutionary changes in military technologies and the form of war have not only had a significant impact on the international political and military landscapes, but also posed new and severe challenges to China’s military security.

We have noted before China’s ambitious space plans, and the opportunities they provide for developing dual use technologies. The new strategy document promises:

China will keep abreast of the dynamics of outer space, deal with security threats and challenges in that domain, and secure its space assets to serve its national economic and social development, and maintain outer space security.

Earlier this year, there was confirmation of the poorly kept secret that China has both military and state-security-services run cyber-warfare units. Previously Beijing had dismissed all suggestions made in Washington and Brussels that China was behind repeated cyber attacks on U.S. and European targets. Indeed, its sees itself as more hacked than hacker:

Cyberspace has become a new pillar of economic and social development, and a new domain of national security. As international strategic competition in cyberspace has been turning increasingly fiercer, quite a few countries are developing their cyber military forces. Being one of the major victims of hacker attacks, China is confronted with grave security threats to its cyber infrastructure. As cyberspace weighs more in military security, China will expedite the development of a cyber force, and enhance its capabilities of cyberspace situation awareness, cyber defense, support for the country’s endeavors in cyberspace and participation in international cyber cooperation, so as to stem major cyber crises, ensure national network and information security, and maintain national security and social stability.

In the case of international cyber cooperation, China has already been working more closely with Russia on cyber operations further extending Beijing’s strategic cooperation with Moscow.

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The China-Blue Waters Of The Mediterranean

IT WON’T BE the first time that the PLA-Navy and its Russian counterpart conduct joint exercises. But it will be the first time they do so in the Mediterranean Sea. And that sends both a certain and a provocative geopolitical signal to Brussels, London and Washington beyond.

The foreign ministry has confirmed that two Chinese frigates and a supply ship will be among the nine warships involved in the exercises, which, Beijing says, will focus on actions where the two powers are likely to coordinate such as maritime resupply, rescue missions and escort duties. No damp squibs, the exercises will include live-fire practices.

The three Chinese vessels have been on anti-piracy duty off the Somali coast and were used in March to evacuate some 500 hundred Chinese citizens from Yemen.

There are no international high seas in the Mediterranean. All of it falls into the economic zone claimed by at least one of the some two dozen countries in it or bordering it. However, Chinese warships are no recent strangers to the waters. They evacuated more than 30,000 Chinese workers stranded in Libya after the overthrow of Qaddafi in 2011. Since then, a PLA-N frigate has twice been involved in the removal of chemical weapons from Syria.

The timing of the exercises is pointed. They will come shortly after President Xi Jinping visits Moscow on May 8th-10th. While there, he will attend the May 9th military parade to mark the 70th Anniversary of the end of the Second World War, which Russia celebrates the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany. NATO and other Western leaders are boycotting the event in protest against Russian President Vladimir Putin’s adventurism in Ukraine. Xi will be fêted as the honoured guest.

A contingent of PLA troops will march in the parade. The message is that both NATO and Asian nations should regard the China-Russia alliance as a growing counterweight on land and sea to the one between the United States and Japan. Beijing sees Washington’s pivot of its foreign and defence policy towards Asia as intended to hem in China.

Beyond the geopolitical posturing, there is substance to the growing reach of the PLA-N. Beijing has increasing national interests far from home, including in the Maghreb and more broadly the Middle East and East Africa. The PLA-N’s capacity to project blue-water power far from home is still meagre, but it is being built up systematically—now in the balmy waters of the Med as much as in the shipyards at home.

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New Attack Submarines Boost PLA-Navy’s Long-Term Modernisation

attack submarines are being added to the PLA-Navy, according to state media, taking the country’s sub fleet to about 15 and providing more tangible evidence of the modernisation of China’s military. One report suggests the PLA-N took delivery of the vessels in late-February.

CCTV recently showed a satellite picture of the three subs docked at unidentified berths. This Bystander believes the location to be the Bohai shipyard at Huludao on the Bohai Sea. Our images, acquired from Google Maps, shows one sub in dry dock (above; the black square in the middle of the sub is its vertical missile launching tubes; vertical supersonic missile launching is the vessel’s big advance in capabilities), and two at berth (below). There is little advantage to keeping them hidden. Indeed, China stopped keeping its subs secret in 2009. It is the logistics systems for the latest subs that the rest of the world will want to get a look at.

CCTV said the vessels were Type-093Gs, a longer, faster and quieter (thus less easily detectable) version of the Type-093 nuclear subs of which six are believed to already in service. The PLA-N also has in its sub fleet three old Type-091s and four Jin-class Type-094s, which can carry ballistic missiles.


The Type-093Gs are reportedly capable of launching the new YJ-18 supersonic anti-ship missiles. The YJ-18, now in development as a replacement for a mishmash of Soviet-era models, is equivalent in capability for maritime attacks to the Russian (land attack) cruise missile that NATO has nicknamed the ‘Sizzler’. It will be the basis for a series of supersonic and hypersonic (faster than Mach 5) missiles that could be used to attack carrier groups; these missiles fly so fast towards the end that they are difficult for anti-missile systems to intercept.

China is already testing one such hypersonic weapon, the WU-14, which can travel at Mach 10. Were it to come to a hot war between China and, say, the U.S., these missiles would be Beijing’s best bet for knocking out the carrier groups that Washington would likely use to cut China’s maritime supply lines.

The early models in the series will be for attacking ships. The missile can carry a more potent warhead than the PLA-N’s current missiles, and thus be able to penetrate the increasingly heavy armor of U.S. and Japanese warships. Later models are intended for submarine and, eventually, land attacks. The YJ-18 will have a range of 300-400 kilometres from a carrier.

While China’s first carrier, the Liaoning, is operational, it is still far short of being battle ready, mostly because of a lack of pilots trained to operate from carriers. Training more is a priority. And not just for the Liaoning. As many as six carriers are planned, according to senior PLA-N officials quoted recently by the Hong Kong Commercial Daily.

That number has been bruited before. Construction on two improved and indigenously built Liaonings is underway in China Shipbuilding Industry Corp.’s Jiangnan yards in Shanghai with plans for three indigenous nuclear-powered carriers to follow. The newspaper report may be as close to confirmation of those plans as we have had to date.

It will be those latter three carriers that will propel the PLA-N into a blue-water force to be reckoned with. The Liaoning, a refitted ex-Soviet carrier, the Varyag, is, at 58,500-tons, lightweight by carrier standards — half the size of U.S. carriers. It also launches its aircraft with a ‘ski-jump’, not a catapult. That limits the fighters that can operate from it.

The Liaoning carries helicopters and modified Shenyang J-15 fighters, but couldn’t launch the fifth-generation J-31 fighter. It is better described as an aviation-capable patrol ship than a carrier of the line. Letting the PLA-N learn the ropes of carrier operations is its main purpose.

Modern catapult launchers use electromagnetic systems that require massive amounts of energy, of the magnitude a nuclear-powered carrier would be capable of generating. China Shipbuilding Industry was tasked in 2013 with developing nuclear power technology that would be compact and safe enough to install in ships such as carrier and icebreakers, and possibly into nuclear stealth bombers.

Nuclear bombers are probably years off, but a first nuclear-powered carrier is likely within a decade. The two second-generation Liaonings due to be commissioned in 2020 are likely to be conventionally powered. It is a racing certainty that the carrier after those would be nuclear powered.

To put that in perspective, China has had nuclear-powered subs for 40 years, but that is still 15 year fewer than the U.S. In 2022, the U.S. Navy will mark the 60th anniversary of its first nuclear-powered U.S. carrier while the PLA-N may still only be getting its first into the water. What is certain though is that the PLA-N is playing determined catch-up.


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Washington Lays Out Its Annual View Of China’s Military Capabilities

The U.S. military’s newly released annual assessment of China’s defense capabilities will surprise no one in saying that Beijing is improving its military training, weapons and surveillance so as to be able to conduct more sophisticated attacks against Washington and other adversaries closer to home. Neither is it any surprise that this is a result of China’s two-decades-long drive to modernize the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

If anything, this report to the U.S. Congress is a restatement of the justifications for Washington’s ‘Asian pivot’ announced in 2012. It is also perhaps the clearest statement to date of how that doctrinal shift is being tempered by U.S. budget cuts — and provides an implicit counterargument for curtailing them.

In light of those budget-cutting pressure, the Pentagon sees an opportunity for offshoring some of the cost of its increased Asian presence to its Asian allies. In every region of the world, the Pentagon says, it will seek to build the capacity of partners’ forces so that they, not Washington, can take the lead in providing security. That should also provide a bonus for America’s arms manufacturers who should see increased export demand for their wares as a result.

Equally predictably, Beijing has dismissed the report as a holdover of Cold War thinking, and says that its armed forces are still 20-30 years behind those of the U.S., which spends more than another nation on its military at 4% of GDP. Beijing also asserts that its military build-up is solely for defending its own sovereignty, though as the continuing conflicts in the South and East China Seas testify, sovereignty can be in the eye of the beholder.

“Probable” drone reconnaissance in the East China Sea was among the most significant military developments of last year identified by the Pentagon in its report. Others include:

  • air-defense upgrades to destroyers and frigates;
  • test flights of China’s Y-20 transport planes to move ground forces quickly across great distances;
  • at least eight launches to expand intelligence and surveillance from space;
  • integration of anti-radar missiles into the PLA Air Force’s fighter-bomber fleet; and
  • the PLA Navy’s development of long-range, over-the-horizon radar as a targeting mechanism for DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missiles carried on new Jiangdo-class corvettes, which previous Pentagon reports have identified as a threat to the U.S. new Littoral Combat ships.

The Pentagon’s assessment is couched in terms that suggest its working assumption for any future China-U.S. military conflict is that it would be a high-tech naval and missile fight. Thus the U.S. military’s need is to invest in technology more than capacity, and to ensure that its partner militaries in Tokyo, Manila and elsewhere in the region are willing and able to undertake U.S.-led training.

They may want to wait until after 2016 when the U.S. will have a new administration which may have a new set of priorities. Beijing will be quite happy to continue its PLA modernization in the meantime.

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China’s Navy Commissions Its First Aircraft Carrier

Military officers stand onboard China's aircraft carrier "Liaoning" in Dalian, northeast China's Liaoning Province, Sept. 25, 2012. China's first aircraft carrier was delivered and commissioned to the Navy of the Chinese People's Liberation Army Tuesday after years of refitting and sea trials. (Xinhua/Zha Chunming)
There was a certain symbolism to the timing of the formal commissioning of China’s first aircraft carrier into the PLA-Navy (above, with more pictures of the ceremony at a naval base north of Dalian here). It came as Beijing is embroiled in maritime sovereignty disputes with most of its neighbours in the East and South China Seas. Carriers project the epitome of naval power, and as many officials have repeated, are “symbols of a great nation”.

It is worth remembering, however, that China’s first carrier–a refitted ex-Soviet carrier, the Varyag, now renamed the Liaoning–falls into the class of light aircraft carriers. As a “ski-jump” not “catapult” carrier, it can’t launch the most advanced fighters. It is as much an aviation-capable patrol ship as a carrier of the line. It is primarily intended for the PLA to learn the ropes of carrier operations.

At the 58,500-tons, the vessel is small by carrier standards. It is about half the size of U.S. carriers, even if still large enough to dwarf the coast guard boats and fishing vessels now increasingly plying the more sensitive disputed waters off the coasts of China and its neighbours. This year was always the intended date of its commissioning, but state media have previously reported that the carrier won’t be ready for active service until 2017, which is not to say it won’t be available for flag-waving duties before then. But it is also worth remembering that two larger and more advanced carriers are under construction in yards in Shanghai planned for launch in 2014 with a first nuclear powered carrier scheduled for launch by 2020.

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China’s First Aircraft Carrier Not Expected To Be In Service Until 2017

Varyag, China's first aircraft carrier
China’s first aircraft carrier won’t be ready to be put into active service until 2017, state media report. The reports, accompanied by a set of mix’n’match pictures mostly of the Varag at berth in Dalian, go to some length to explain that sea trials of new carriers are a lengthy business everywhere.

Late last month the carrier completed its ninth and longest sea trial to date, a 25-day sailing in the north Bohai and Yellow seas, where it was first spotted at sea. There is a set of pictures of the a vessel returning from its most recent voyage here.

While it is thought that the Varyag is fully equipped with its missiles and other armaments, further tests are needed to ensure that the various electrical systems on the vessel don’t interfere with each other. Flight crews also need considerable practice in the all-important art of taking off and landing on the carrier at sea, and particular in simulated combat conditions. The Varyag is estimated to need 30 pilots, all of which will take some time to train.

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