Defense Media Network

China’s Military Modernizes, Declares Regional Strength

Robust Investments in hardware, technology, and modern operational concepts are yielding major benefits

“China’s leadership cites the Taiwan crisis of 1995-1996 and the 1999 U.S. bombing of the Chinese embassy in Yugoslavia as key turning points. These events spurred prioritization of PLAN developments, along with the Second Artillery Corps’ massive ballistic missile development programs, as China also seeks to use the land to control the sea, he said.”

After China fired short-range ballistic missiles off the coast of Taiwan during the crisis, conventional-missile coercion looked like a logical and essential tool to China’s military and civilian leadership, Erickson said. Ballistic missiles became a priority, and funding rapidly increased in forming a conventionally armed missile force. China also gained a significant insight through close observation of U.S. precision-guided missiles during the Gulf War.


China’s J-20 could be a long-range strike or interceptor aircraft, built as a direct counter to U.S. assets in the region.

“By the late 1990s, significant technical research was under way on Chinese precision-guided ballistic missiles, and the first serious technical advances emerged in the 2000s, reflecting sophisticated research and development progress. By 2004, the Second Artillery Force’s major doctrinal handbook emerged to specifically reveal ASBM use in operational scenarios. When you connect all the data points, this was coming at us for a while,” Erickson declared.

The solid propellant medium-range DF-21D prototype, with a range of 1,500 to 2,000 kilometers, is also known as the CSS-5, and, according to Erickson, is generally held to draw on technologies used in the U.S. Pershing II theater ballistic missile deployed from 1984-1988. The Pershing II used adjustable second-stage control fins for terminal maneuver. The ASBM’s re-entry vehicle is virtually identical to the Pershing’s. In addition to thwarting U.S. fleet operations, Chinese military writings also visualize holding hostage U.S. theater land bases such as Guam and Okinawa, as examples.

“It is quite significant that official U.S. and Taiwan government sources state that small numbers of the DF-21D started deployment in 2010, whatever their current state of overall capability. China, however, wouldn’t deploy these ASBMs if it wasn’t convinced it had the ability to promote a basic deterrent,” Erickson stated. “I’m sure they will continue improving, integrating, replacing, and expanding the number of units equipped with these missiles.

“China’s claim of a right to limit foreign military activities in its 200-mile EEZ is really a very difficult problem, as the work of my colleague, Peter Dutton, the director of CMSI, has made clear. Not only does China’s claim create operational challenges for U.S. and allied forces, it also reflects a different view of international norms, which is troubling. China’s argument that it has the right to control foreign military activities in the 200-mile EEZ misinterprets the relevant provisions of the United Nation’s Convention on the Law of the Sea. This is disturbing. Beyond China, only a handful of other states improperly claim the same rights. Making the 200-mile EEZ off limits to military operations, which could include humanitarian and policing functions, would create great instability.”

Simultaneously, there are major shifts under way as European nations, including Great Britain’s Royal Navy, precipitously decrease their navies. “The U.S. Navy is struggling, during a difficult budget period, to remain level, in terms of platforms. The Navy requires a significant number of ships equipped with Aegis and SM-3 ballistic-missile interceptors by 2024 to meet Chinese ASBM threats. It is very important to continue developing and deploying countermeasures to China’s ASBM and other types of ballistic and cruise missiles,” Erickson said.

China is building many effective missiles at an affordable enough price that we cannot rule out the possibility that its offensive measures may outpace the capacity of defensive systems. This situation places an emphasis on undersea systems. “China has little, if any, ability to track U.S. submarines, and we should fully exploit this limitation,” Erickson added.

Chinese H-6

China is modernizing and upgrading its H-6 bombers, derived from the Tupolev Tu-16, to carry long-range cruise missiles. Photo by Kevin A. McGill

The PLA Air Force (PLAAF) is also a major element in China’s A2/AD policy. The next-generation J-20 stealth fighter underscores the ambition to produce fighter aircraft with stealth-like qualities, advanced avionics, and supersonic cruise engines. The PLAAF also is upgrading its H-6 bomber fleet, redesigned from the Soviet Tu-16 Badger, with a longer-range variant. This bomber would be armed with new long-range cruise missiles.

Several types of airborne early warning systems are also in development for the PLAAF. These aircraft are designed not only for an airborne warning and control systems but also for intelligence collection and maritime surveillance. The KJ-200 aircraft is based on the Y-8 airframe, the Russian An-12, and the KJ-2000 is based on a modified Russian IL-76 airframe.

“Technology matters, but so does geography. For a long time to come, China will be influenced by its geography. The PRC will feel hemmed in by the ‘island chains.’ What they can accomplish in the maritime domain will require land-based support. China is likely to continue relying on land-based missiles and aviation well into the future,” Erickson predicted. China has a huge sub-strategic ballistic-missile force, the world’s foremost conventionally armed, without nuclear warheads or intercontinental capabilities.

Much less progress is being made by China in developing resources that extend global reach or power projection beyond regional waters. Nevertheless, China will likely build multiple aircraft carriers, naval aircraft, and their cruise-missile-armed support ships over the coming decade, as its influence grows. The PRC will continue exploiting technology for asymmetric advantages wherever possible. Beijing’s long-term goal is to create a wholly indigenous defense industrial sector, augmented by commercial industry and foreign technology acquisition to meet PRC modernization needs, Erickson concluded.

This interview first appeared in Defense: Review Edition 2011/2012.

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Clarence A. Robinson, Jr., is the author of Battleground High, a book in progress on...

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-27055">
    Scott W. Schenk

    One question comes to mind: How are relations between China and North Korea? If there is a battle to be waged, we had better clear out. Personally, I think The USA should embrace China’s attempt to militarize itself. It matters not if we agree politically. They, being a super duper power, should allow us to share the oceans. Nobody owns oceans. They just assume they do. Just keep at least 200 miles between us(US) and them

    li class="comment byuser comment-author-chuck-oldham odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-27117">

    Well, that’s a question on a lot of people’s minds. What goes on behind the scenes between North Korea and China is unknown. I’ll agree that no one owns he oceans. But China’s neighbors will also attest to the fact that China seems to think it owns the entire South China Sea. If China decides it also owns the entire Pacific, then where does that leave us?