Tag Archives: PLA

Second Sea Trials For China’s First Aircraft Carrier


China’s much-watched first aircraft carrier, a refitted old Soviet carrier, the Varyag, has set out on its second sea trial, state media report. (Defense ministry statement, in Chinese.) The photo above, taken on Nov. 29, shows the carrier heading out of Dalian, where its conversion work has been done.

The Varyag’s first sea trials took place in August. The vessel has since been back in its dock in Dalian for further fitting out. It second voyage is thought to be for additional systems testing and crew training. It is unclear whether the carrier will join up with any of the annual exercises the PLA-Navy is currently conducting in the western Pacific.

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China’s Military Modernization On Track But Still A Way To Go

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.

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Official Pictures Of China’s First Aircraft Carrier

The first official pictures released by China's defense ministry of the refitted Soviet-era carrier bought from the Ukraine.

China’s defense ministry has posted to its website for the first time pictures of its worst-kept military secret, the country’s first aircraft carrier (above), a refitted 1980s-era former Soviet carrier, the 58,500-ton Varyag, that China bought in 1998. The ministry has also talked about the vessel in public for the first time, though its spokesman didn’t add anything to what was already known. The vessel remains unrenamed and no date was given for the start of full sea trials. These, though, are expected to start imminently as the carrier is due to be brought into service next year, the year that China’s first batch of naval carrier pilots will graduate from the PLA’s Dalian Naval Academy. Online video of the carrier sailing under its own power in waters off Dalian, where the fitting out is being done, was posted back in January.

The spokesman also confirmed that the carrier was to be used for research and training, as has always been taken to be the case. As we noted last year, coming along behind are two 50,000-60,000-ton conventionally powered indigenous carriers being built in Shanghai with the first planned for launch in 2014. A nuclear powered carrier is scheduled to be launched by 2020. They will be warships of the line.

The pictures the ministry has posted are undated. There are four more here. The Google map below, also undated beyond this year, shows the vessel in the water in Dalian.

China's first aircraft carrier being fitted out at a shipyard in Dalian

Footnote: The Varyag is not the first ex-Soviet aircraft carrier that China has purchased. It bought two others, in 1998 and 2000, that went into theme parks in Shenzhen and Tianjin respectively. It also bought an old World War II-era British carrier that London had sold on to Australia and which Beijing bought for scrap. (H/t to Caixin.)

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General Chen Goes To Washington

General Chen Bingde, the PLA’s chief of staff, is due in Washington on May 15th for a week-long visit to his U.S. military counterparts. Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, is his host. It may prove to be the most significant bilateral exchange of the year.

For all the progress made by Beijing and Washington in managing their differences on economic and strategic issues through regular and frequent discussions, the military relationship has remained distant and suspicious. General Chen’s is the first visit to Washington by a chief of staff since 2004. Since then the PLA has made vast strides in its modernization program, particularly of its air and naval forces, to the consternation of both Washington and its regional neighbors. U.S. arms sales to Taiwan are another sharp point of conflict. Taiwan’s president Ma Yong-jeou has just called on the U.S. to sell it F-16 fighters, which are not part of the $6.4 billion weapons deal the U.S. agreed with Taiwan in January last year, a deal that sparked another rupture in Sino-American military relations when it was announced.

A determined effort is being made by both sides to bring the military dialogue into the mainstream of the bilateral relationship. Military officials were included for the first time in the Strategic and Economic Dialogue meeting held in Washington at the start of this week. Our man in Washington says that U.S. officials saw that as an opportunity to expose PLA leaders to aspects of Beijing’s civilian international agenda they haven’t much concerned themselves with as much as to get to know American counterparts. American officials were alarmed earlier this year that President Hu Jintao was apparently unaware of PLA test flights of its prototype stealth fighter during a visit to China by U.S. defense secretary Robert Gates.

General Chen is bringing a high-level team with him. His 24-member party includes eight other senior PLA officers. Their agenda will include U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, U.S. military reconnaissance within 200 miles of China’s coast, which Beijing claims, but the rest of the world does not recognize, as China’s exclusive economic zone, and U.S. restrictions on joint exercises between the two countries’ armed forces and exports of American technology to China. Beijing wants an end to all of the above. Cyberwarfare, space (Chen commanded China’s manned space flight program at one point), nuclear issues  and anti-terrorism and anti-piracy operations are also likely to be discussed.

State media have talked formulaically of Chen looking for “new” military relations based on “mutual respect and reciprocal beneficial cooperation”. Even distilling guidelines for what that means would be a start, given Washington is not likely to agree to any of Chen’s three main demands to stop arms sales to Taiwan, maritime reconnaissance in the western Pacific or limits on high-tech exports, the sort of respect Beijing is looking for. There may be some clues from a speech General Chen is due to give at the U.S.’s National Defense University during his visit. We expect no very great initial progress, but at least the visit–and a raft of lower level ones happening this year–will get a very necessary process underway.

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Turning The PLA Into A Modern Joint Command

We are starting to hear murmurs and whispers about the People’s Liberation Army’s new five-year plan. Unlike the detail made public about the national five-year plan and even the White Paper on the PLA published at the end of last month, the military budget is held close to the chest.

The headline spending number we do know, from the national five-year plan: a military budget of 601 billion yuan ($92.5 billion) for 2011 and an annual increase of 12.5% for the life of the plan, restoring the double-digit annual growth derailed by the 2008 global financial crisis. But that is only the half of it. Also to be taken into account are off-budget items, spending done under the aegis of internal security and disaster relief, in both of which the PLA plays a significant role, and R&D in industries whose technologies have dual military-civilian applications. Together they likely double the formal budget number.

As for the detail that lies behind, we are told that Xi Jinping, the man slated to succeed Hu Jintao as president next year and then after as chairman of the Party’s central military commission (he was appointed as first vice-chairman last October), has signed off on a final draft. Xi is said to have good relations with the group of more than 100 fellow princelings who hold the rank of major-general and above. (As an aside, that group may prove to be an important soft factor in the coming leadership transition.)

The heading of Section XV of the national five-year plan, the one that relates to the PLA, is “Advance Military Power.” The main thrust  will be, first, to continue to modernize the PLA and to make it a more professional fighting force, particularly its officer class, and, second, to turn it into a more integrated tri-service force, commensurate with the needs of China’s growing global presence and better equipped to fight what are being called information wars. For historic reasons, ground forces have dominated the PLA. Yet the PLA Navy (PLA-N) and the PLA Air Force (PLAAF) are at the forefront of the PLA’s modernization. Witness the new aircraft carriers, submarines, ballistic missiles, and fighter jets, in keeping with China’s desire to project regional power, particularly in the waters off its coast. The PLA command structure, including its communications and logistics, does not yet anything like fully reflect the growing prominence of the naval and air services, though progress is being made a great speed on the communications infrastructure. A unified joint military command is also needed for the tighter integration between the PLA and internal security forces that the national five-year plan envisions for ensuring domestic stability.

The process of integration is likely to be least comfortable for the army. Senior officers have already been fighting a rearguard to protect the structure of the seven military regions that Mao divided China into–and to protect the multiplicity of high ranking posts they provide. They will also have to deal with the overwhelming majority of a planned cut of 500,000 personnel during the five-year plan coming from the PLA’s 1.3 million-strong ground forces, 60% of its total strength of 2.3 million personnel (excluding 6 million militia). Better pay and conditions will be provided for those remaining.

The PLAAF has already undergone a similar slimming down, ridding itself of antiquated planes and equipment and the personnel to operate and maintain them. In the process it has become a stronger combat force through modernization of what was left. It is not just new aircraft, such as the much hyped J-20 stealth fighter flaunted earlier this year. The air force has undergone a makeover of its ability to deploy over large distances. Its relief efforts in the aftermath of the Sichuan earthquake in 2008 showed up shortcomings in its capacity to transport men and materials from all over the country to a distant front. These failings are since being redressed.

As well as modernizing the command and communications structure, upgrading hardware will continue apace. The navy and the air force will get more by way of newest and deadliest toys than the ground forces, although there will be some arm-wrestling between the air force and the Second Artillery Corps, the missiles force, over who owns space weaponry and counterweaponry. Money to be put into advanced weapons and their development is likely to drive an expansion of the country’s state-owned defense industries, too, creating stiff competition for Western arms makers in Asia and Africa in particular where Chinese firms will be less encumbered with ethical restrictions on arms sales than Western competitors; China is currently the world’s ninth largest arms exporter with sales of $2.4 billion in 2010. The five-year plan calls for this number to double over its duration, with profits being used to fund more R&D in weaponry, particularly fighters and missiles.

Defense companies have more expertise and experience than the PLA in aviation, electronics, transportation, machine-building and especially the IT necessary for infowar and electronic espionage. They will be able to tap into the $1.5 trillion being earmarked under the national five-year plan to expand seven strategic industrial sectors. Most of the septet have technologies with joint military-civilian applications.

Industrial companies now account for two-thirds of the institutions that are licensed for weapons R&D and production. Beijing is consolidating the country’s defense contractors into fewer than 10 giant state-owned groups. State funds are also being allocated to them to attract top science, technology and engineering talent to the R&D effort, and to match similar incentives for scientists and technical personnel in PLA research and weapons plants. These defense contractors are also able to strike civilian joint ventures with foreign groups to acquire technologies around composite materials, turbine blades and flight control systems where their own lags. As with civilian heavy engineering markets, Western companies will have to decide if access to China’s domestic market is worth the trade-off of giving up technology.

However, they decide, the PLA’s supply chain is going to become more blended with civilian industry over the next five years–with consequent implications for the pace of economic reform in strategic areas where the military interest, already strong in some parts of the economy, will coagulate as a strong vested interest against change.

China continues to stress publicly the defensive nature of its armed forces. Peace has certainly been good for its economic growth. Yet the PLA’s modernization seems aimed at giving a modernizing country modern armed forces and Beijing the ability to project regional power and to protect its growing global commercial interests–or at least to create the perception of sufficient strength to do so, an important deterrent in its own right.

Thus the military five-year plan is predicated on a continuation of developing leaner, more technologically sophisticated armed forces with a joint command structure capable of “winning local wars under conditions of high technology and informatisation”. At the same time, the PLA is being prepared to play a more central role in internal security should that be needed, particularly during the coming leadership transition, and one able to deal with the cyber side of modern civil unrest should the current crackdown on dissent by traditional means prove insufficient.

This Bystander could readily conclude that while China is not expecting, or wanting, a serious military conflict during the course of the current five-year plan, or beyond, it does see itself becoming strong enough to deflect others from doing so,  especially off its own coast and around islands large and small in those waters, and to be able to engage in–and win–information and cyber skirmishes at home and abroad.

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Four Points On China’s Military Build-Up

This Bystander takes four highlights away from the latest edition of The Military Balance, the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies’ (IISS), annual global defense spending  review (summary here).

  • ‘The global redistribution of military power now underway’ as a result of contracting defense budgets in developed nations and expanding ones in developing nations, means that Western arms manufacturers are facing strong and growing competition from non-Western defense industries, such as China’s, in markets for basic military equipment.
  • The attention to the build-up of Beijing’s aircraft-carrier and submarine fleets is misplaced. The IISS reckons that the PLA-Navy’s “new landing platform docks and its deployment of more effective anti-ship missiles hold greater strategic significance”. Similarly with the attention being paid to the PLA Air Force’s J-20 ‘stealth’ fighter. That may be an indication that China “is gradually closing the gap between itself and the West”, but it is the addition of Sukhoi Su30 multirole fighters, in-flight refueling tankers and AWACS aircraft that is “significantly strengthening China’s air capability”.
  • Beijing’s unremitting modernization of its military forces, which includes the development of anti-satellite and cyber-war capabilities, means that “that the balance of power across the Taiwan Strait is gradually changing in favor of the PLA.”
  • China’s increasingly assertive naval presence in the East and South China Seas has prompted a build-up of the defense capabilities of Japan and its Southeast Asian neighbors, while anti-piracy patrols in the Indian Ocean and  funding of port construction in Pakistan and Sri Lanka have provided a justification for India’s own naval expansion plans.

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China’s Military Spending: As You Were

China’s resumption of double-digit growth in its military budget for 2011 will prompt the usual alarms, but it represents no more than a return to business as usual. Last year was only the second since 1989, when Beijing launched its PLA modernization program, that China hasn’t increased its military budget by double digits, in keeping with its long-term economic growth and quest for global and regional influence. The proposed 12.6% increase for 2011 to 583.6 billion yuan ($88.9 billion) is actually a tad below the long-term average of 12.8% since 1989.

That modernization drive took China to being the world’s no 2 defense-spender in 2008 after the U.S., which still spends at least four times as much as China on its military, even accounting for China’s off-budget military spending, which has been guesstimated to take the total to $100 billion-150 billion. Foreign weapons-systems acquisitions, military-related R&D, the  paramilitary security forces and some expenses for peacekeeping and disaster relief operations are all off-budget as is income from the PLA’s commercial enterprises and defense industries, and international arms sales.

Part of the latest increase is to cover inflation in pay, benefits and basic provisioning for active military personnel and veterans. Pay and benefits for the 2.3 million-strong PLA already account for 35% of the official military budget. They are expected to see a big increase in step with the civilian pay rises being seen and planned for the economy as a whole (the new five-year plan envisions a tripling of the average wage for factory workers). That is also a sign at this time of significant political, economic and social transition that the Party leadership wants to be sure that it has the PLA onside, just as the higher and more assertive profile of the military in recent months is confirmation of the military’s continued political clout in the highest circles.

Beijing’s claims that its military programmes are purely defensive are not generally accepted, which suggests a continuing arms race in Asia (India, for example, is proposing a larger percentage increase in its military budget for 2011 than China). There is no doubt that there is to be no cutting back on the build-up of China’s military forces, particularly the navy, which is developing submarine and carrier fleets to the extent it can be a power in regional waters, and the logistics capability of the national command and support infrastructure. But China has been doing that for years. The 2011 military budget just keeps it on track.

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Footage Of China’s First Aircraft Carrier

Footage has appeared on the internet said to be the disused aircraft carrier hull China bought from Russia in 1998 and has been fitting out in Dalian. Work on the 58,500-ton Varyag appears to have been progressing rapidly. In the second half of the clip (via YouKu or, below, via YouTube), which changes from color to grainy black and white, the vessel is seen under power and taking an aircraft landing on its deck.

Due to come into service next year, the Varyag is being turned into a training carrier for the crews that will man China’s fleet of indigenous carriers now being built.

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Open Fighter


For a stealth fighter, the PLA’s new J-20 aircraft is certainly getting a lot of exposure. Chinese bloggers report the plane has made its first test flight, a 23-minute whirl with landing gear down, apparently, above the Chengdu airfield where the fighter had also been seen last week taxing on a runway (see video above). Pictures of the test flight are plentiful. There is also a video clip. Less clear is how much of a prototype it is that the PLA has got into the air. China has previously said it doesn’t expects the plane to be battle-ready until between 2017 and 2019.

Left to their own devices, all militaries, and the PLA in particular, cloak in strict secrecy such additions of cutting-edge military technologies to their forces. While the PLA has made no public comment about the J-20, such blogging couldn’t have been possible without some official facilitation. It is also surely no coincidence that the flight took place during the four-day visit of the U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. Gates met his counterpart, Liang Guanglie and other leaders including President Hu Jintao, who confirmed the J-20 flight to Gates, but also said it was a long planned test date.

There was little progress in easing the strains on this particular strand of the Sino-American relationship. Gates repeated that China’s military build up remains a leading security concern of Washington’s; Liang responded that the PLA’s modernization was appropriate given China’s growth. Gates asked for more formal strategic dialogue between Washington and Beijing on security issues. He received no more than a offer to set up a committee to study the proposal.

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China’s Open Secret: It’s Building Aircraft Carriers

Aircraft carriers are the big swinging ships of naval power. One reason that Beijing has been so insistent about the U.S. keeping its carriers out of the Yellow Sea (successfully on one occasion this year, not so with the more recent U.S.-South Korean naval exercises) is that carriers are a blatant display of the ability to project power far from home. It was embarrassing that Washington could do that but not Beijing. It has been widely assumed outside China that part of the PLA’s much-scrutinized rapid expansion of its navy would include a first carrier, and some circumstantial evidence has suggested that work was under way.

Now Japan’s Asahi newspaper has turned up the first Chinese confirmation of that being the case, having spotted a line buried in a State Oceanic Administration annual report published, remarkably, last May but, even more remarkably, overlooked by the rest of the world until now (that assumption subject to subsequent testing by WikiLeaks, of course).

South Korean intelligence sources believe two 50,000-60,000-ton conventionally powered carriers are being built in Shanghai with the first planned for launch in 2014. A nuclear powered carrier is scheduled to be launched by 2020. Meanwhile, China has bought the unfinished hull of a former Soviet Union carrier, the 58,500-ton Varyag. This it is turning into a training carrier in Dalian that is due to be in service in 2012.

The carrier programe started last year, according to the SOA. “This shows that China has started entering a new historic era of comprehensively building itself into a great naval power.”

That promises to change the security balance in the western Pacific. Japan’s announcement of a new defense strategy recognizes China’s growing naval power in and around its own waters, which it describes as an “issue of concern for the regional and international communities”. Beijing has issued the predictable rebuff that it has no intention of threatening anybody. Regardless, Japan plans to boost its maritime and air surveillance capabilities (against North Korea as well as China), bolster its troops on its southern Islands, and upgrade its submarine fleet, as Beijing is doing with its. Anchors aweigh.

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