This article is an abbreviated version of a longer essay written in September 2014. The full version can be provided on request.
Since the early 1990s, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has undertaken an ambitious programme of modernizing the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), one that continues vigorously today. Significant economic growth within the last 30 years has allowed the Chinese government to invest enormously in military development. In 2014, China spent an estimated 216 billion USD on the military, which makes up for 12 % of worldwide expenditure and is ranked second behind the USA. Indigenous military Research & Development competency has also significantly matured and decreased China’s former reliance on foreign (especially Russian) technology purchases or copies.
Quest for Improved Aerospace Power
China’s quest for improved aerospace power is based on the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) evolving strategic needs. The CCP’s claim to legitimacy has traditionally been based on the championship of national pride and the delivery of economic success. Challenges to these claims appear to have driven the CCP to resort to the exploitation of territorial sovereignty claims in the East China Sea and South China Sea. This is indicated by China’s recent increasing presence and assertiveness in its near seas (see map at Figure 1), which leads to regional tensions and potential confrontations with the US and its allies (in particular Japan).
The PLA has been prepared for a range of missions beyond China’s immediate periphery for more than two decades. The current modernization plan is designed to improve the PLA’s capacity to fight and win short, highly-intense regional contingencies, with a focus on deterring or defeating third-party intervention. It includes the development of capabilities to attack, at very long ranges, adversary forces that might deploy or operate within the Western Pacific in the air, maritime, space, electromagnetic, and information domains. To this purpose, China has been constantly increasing military spending with an emphasis on developing key Anti-Access / Area Denial (A2/AD) capabilities in the Asia-Pacific region, for which modern aerospace power and an ‘informationized military’ (see paragraph on Information Warfare) play a decisive role.
Although the PRC has never publicly acknowledged an A2/AD strategy, it is widely regarded as obvious that China is developing A2/AD in response to US dominance of the air and sea in the Pacific. China is, therefore, significantly upgrading its naval and naval aviation capabilities (notably, the first Chinese aircraft carrier ‘Liaoning’ was put into service in 2012). However, the primary modernization focus has been to update the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) along with the long-range strike and missile defence capabilities of the Second Artillery Forces.
Advanced Combat Aircraft
China began to acquire the Russian 4th generation Su-27 Flanker-family fighters in the 1990s and later produced its own variants. Meanwhile, China has gone beyond cloning Russian aircraft and is now designing and building modified or new military aircraft and systems with limited or no foreign assistance, including their own 4th generation designs.
The PLAAF currently possesses more than 2,800 (manned) aircraft in total. Approximately 2,100 of these are combat aircraft, 600 of which are modern. The PLAAF’s 4th generation aircraft include the FLANKER family with the J-11, J-15 (designed for carrier operations), and J-16, as well as at least three versions of the J-10 FIREBIRD family, which is frequently compared to the F-16. More than 50 % of the fighter inventory is expected to be 4th generation by end of 2016.
Furthermore, China is continuing to design, upgrade and produce the JH-7 and JH-7B FLOUNDER fighter-bomber, the JF-17/FC-1 light fighter, and the L-15 advanced trainer. An upgraded version of the H-6 bomber aircraft (Chinese version of Tu-16 Badger) will have the ability to launch the CJ-10 cruise missile.
Indigenous 5th generation fighter / bomber aircraft development is underway, with stealth capabilities, super-cruise capable turbofan engines, modern phased array radar technology, and internal weapons carriage. The J-20 will probably become operational in 2017 – 18. A second stealth fighter, the J-31, is also being tested. Finally, China is conceivably working on a new bomber concept, a large delta wing bomber with stealthy bomb bays.
The current and projected status of the PLAAF‘s combat aircraft modernization is shown at Figure 2.
The PLAAF has a considerable number of tactical air-to-surface missiles (ASMs) as well as precision-guided munitions (PGMs), including all-weather, satellite-guided bombs, anti-radiation missiles and laser-guided bombs. China is developing smaller-sized ASMs such as the AR-1, KD-2, HJ-10 (anti-tank) and Blue Arrow 7 (laser-guided) in conjunction with its increasing development of Remotely Piloted Aerial Systems (RPAS). China is also adapting PGMs similar to the US Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAM) such as the FT-5 and LS-6 for RPAS.
Integrated Air and Missile Defence and Air C2
Within 300 nm of its coast, China has credible Integrated Air and Missile Defence (IADS) that relies on robust early warning, fighter aircraft, and a variety of SAM systems designed to counter adversary long-range airborne strike platforms. China is the main buyer of advanced Russian long-range SAMs SA-20 (S-300) and the SA-21 (S-400) ‘Triumf’. It is also scaling up the production of at least four indigenous advanced medium-range SAMs: HQ-9 (Chinese-built SA-10), HHQ-9 (naval version of the HQ-9), HQ-15 (upgraded SA-10), and HQ-18 (Chinese-built SA-12).
China has developed and fielded advanced modern passive radar systems and active, phased array, over-the-horizon (OTH) radars. Other indigenous radars, the JL-1A and the JY-27A, provide the basis for a considerable Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) capability, supported by the development of an intercept capability at exo-atmospheric altitudes (kinetic energy) as well as within the upper atmosphere. Finally, two indigenous Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) programmes, known as KJ-2000 and KJ-500, improve detection ranges well beyond China’s borders. After initial testing and operating in several larger aircraft such as the IL-76 (Figure 3), Y-8W, as well as the Israeli type Beriev A-50, the development of the Y-20 multirole transport aircraft will likely solve China’s problems regarding the appropriate air frame for their AWACS.
Long Range Precision Strike
The development of China’s conventionally armed missile capability has been extraordinarily rapid. Improved accuracy has made China more capable against adversary air bases, ports and ships, logistic facilities, communications and other critical infrastructure. China’s ‘Second Artillery’ Force fields a large array of conventionally armed ballistic missiles (currently at least 1,200). Ground- and air-launched Land-Attack Cruise Missiles (LACM), as well as ground-, air-, ship- and submarine-launched Anti-Ship Cruise Missiles (ASCM), can hold targets at risk throughout the Asia-Pacific region. US and allied bases in Japan are in range of a growing number of Medium Range Ballistic Missiles (MRBM) as well as a variety of LACMs. The US territory of Guam could be targeted by air-launched LACMs as well as by a new Intermediate Range Ballistic Missiles (IRBM) whose development is reaching close to maturity. Anti-ship variants of those IRBM, in combination with seaborne detection radars and precision guidance, might be used for engaging adversary naval assets in distances up to 900 nm from the Chinese coast. See Figure 4 for more details.
Remotely Piloted Aerial Systems
In order to increase the ability to conduct long-range reconnaissance and strike operations, China is pursuing a major RPAS development and employment effort with impressive technological awareness and financial resources involved. The main High Altitude Long-Endurance (HALE) RPAS is the Xianglong, which can be compared with the US RQ-4 ‘Global Hawk’. The most important Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) RPAS are the Yilong (Figure 5), Sky Saber, and the stealthy Lijian, all of which are designed to carry precision-strike weapons.
Space and Counterspace Capabilites
China boasts the most dynamic space programme in the world today, supported by a robust capacity for space lift. Over the last five years, China has launched 15 – 20 Space Lift Vehicles (SLV) and placed 17 – 25 satellites annually. For military purposes, China increased the number of on-orbit assets including intelligence surveillance reconnaissance (ISR), meteorological, communications, and navigation satellite constellations, which are capable of supporting targeting and theatre missile operations. These include electro-optical / infrared (EO / IR) or synthetic aperture radar (SAR) imagery satellites and electronic intelligence (ELINT) satellites. China is also improving the current constellation of Beidou navigation satellites (NAVSATs), including the production of ground receivers. A global NAVSAT constellation is expected to be completed by 2020. This would provide the Chinese with a proprietary national satellite navigation capability independent of the US-governed Global Positioning System (GPS).
The PRC has successfully produced SLVs, called the ‘Long March (LM)’, in different payload classes (heavy, medium, and light). These LM SLVs are usually based on ballistic missile platforms and designed to launch small satellites into a low-Earth orbit with little effort and at low cost. In September 2015, China successfully launched the LM-6, its first liquid-fuelled SLV, which is intended to provide new flexibility for civil and military space missions. The LM-6 reportedly has a seven-day launch cycle which allows the PLA to rapidly replace satellite capabilities lost in the event of attack.
In terms of counterspace capabilities, the PLA is acquiring a range of technologies such as directed energy weapons and satellite jammers. In January 2007, China demonstrated a direct-ascent kinetic kill capability against satellites in low Earth orbit by destroying one of its own defunct weather satellites.
China has established imperatives for the PLAAF’s modernization in a way that allows an ‘informationized’ force to win an ‘informationized’ war. The concept of ‘informationization’ permeates the PLA’s doctrine, which emphasizes the holistic integration of digitally linked information, sensors, weapons, and an automated command and control system operating via common networks. PLAAF military writings furthermore describe informationized warfare as an asymmetric means to defeat a technologically superior, information-dependent adversary through dominating the battlefield’s information space, weakening its ability to acquire, transmit, process, and use information, and thereby forcing the adversary to capitulate perhaps even before the onset of conflict. The PLA therefore conducts military exercises simulating operations in complex electromagnetic environment, viewing Electronic Warfare (EW) and cyber operations as a means of information dominance.
The PRC appears to have undertaken a comprehensive development programme of aerospace capabilities and is clearly pursuing methodical and rapid modernization of its offensive air, air defence, missile defence, space, counterspace, ISR, EW and cyber capabilities. Given its will and resources, the PRC is likely to continue its military advancement programmes with increasing speed and ambitions. The material and technological disadvantages which the PLA has historically faced are therefore likely to decrease rapidly. Conversely, NATO and its allies cannot single-mindedly rely on superior technology. The PRC’s parallel advancements in ground and naval capabilities reveal that the PLA has significantly matured in all three pillars of a successful A2/AD strategy: modern technology, dominance of the maritime, air and space domains, as well as information superiority.
As General Frank Gorenc, Director of the JAPCC, stated in a September 2014 interview, NATO needs to come to the realization that it does not have complete air dominance. It might have to either suppress or destroy enemy air defences. ‘We tend to take some things for granted, like air superiority’, Gorenc asserted. ‘But in an A2/AD environment – the kind of layered long-range defense being built by Russia, China, and to a lesser extent Iran – we would have to earn air superiority.’ In other words, NATO would have to fight for it.
Readers who are employed in the current series of NATO exercises should therefore not be surprised: the ‘SOROTAN’ scenario confronts them with an enemy air order of battle that is designed to challenge NATO operators with a realistic A2/AD scenario.