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.
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.