Chinese Military Capabilities - Strategy, Technology & The Changing PLA

Chinese Military Capabilities -  Strategy, Technology & The Changing PLA

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China's military modernisation has been rapid, wide ranging and strategically significant. It's a story of how what was previously overwhelmingly a land-based power has increasingly evolved into one capable of projecting power and influence in its region and globally. In the past I've covered narrow parts of that story, questions like budget, industry and individual pieces of technology. But today I think it's finally time to take a step back and look at the PLA as a force, covering core questions around things like strength, strategy and capability.

Trying to get a sense of where the Chinese military stands relative to its neighbours and competitors. And ask what sort of force the greatest peacetime military modernisation effort of the 21st century is ultimately building towards. To do that, as I often do I'll start with China's geography, strategic environment, and some elements from key strategic documents they have released to the public. That should help tell us what Beijing thinks it needs the PLA to be able to do. Then we'll go through the PLA branch by branch, including very high visibility elements like the Air and Ground Forces, as well as the less talked about but incredibly important Strategic Support Force. As we work through, I'll try and include benchmarks of Chinese capability against various comparators, be that Russia or the United States, before closing with a discussion of some of the soft factors that might underpin capability and performance, things like wartime experience, training and doctrine.

Note that normally these videos would contain a significant history segment. But given I've already covered some of that in two other videos on China and there will likely be more in the future, today I'm mostly going to be focused on the relatively recent side of the PLA's history. I'll also add a quick note around sourcing, and that's that this video has relied on a composite of sources ranging from officially published Chinese strategy documents, through to publicly released assessments by Western government agencies. Given the breadth of sources, they'll sometimes have gaps and they'll sometimes be in conflict with each other. And given the relative opacity of the Chinese system, it can be very difficult to determine where exactly the truth lies. So as always sources have been listed, I encourage you to go through some of them if you are interested, and I've done the best I can with what I've got.

So with that said, let's try and look at some strategic geography from a Chinese perspective. I think this might be a particularly interesting exercise if you have already watched my episodes on Japan, Korea or India. Because in those countries, China is a major geopolitical factor that has to be accounted for in planning. But today as best we can, we're going to try and reverse that equation and try to look at things from Beijing. From a geographic perspective, China has some of the longest land borders in the world. According to China's 2019 Defence White Paper, China's armed forces are expected to, "Maintain a rigorous guard against encroachment, infiltration, sabotage or harassment."

Along more than 22,000 kilometres of land border, and 18,000 kilometres of coastline. And while some countries operate in comparatively simple neighbourhoods, the US for example only borders Canada, Mexico and the salmon, some of China's land borders abut with nations that are famous for their geopolitical stability and predictability: like North Korea, Myanmar and Afghanistan. That last one of which it actually does have by virtue of the narrow Wakhan Corridor, which actually ends up separating Pakistan and Tajikistan. Now as we've described before, geography can sometimes shape your strategic environment, and your strategic environment can shape your force requirements. But critically, the geography alone isn't always definitive. Having a long border is one thing, but only a political context can turn a long border into a military pressure.

Norway and Sweden for example have a border that is more than 1,000 miles or 1,600 kilometres long. But for some strange reason, neither side have yet felt the need to plough millions of dollars into setting up minefields and defensive positions all the way along it. Many of China's claimed land and maritime borders however, are not exactly that settled.

China's territorial claims overlap with those of a significant number of its neighbours. Often those claims are in direct conflict with the current de-facto situation on the ground. And so you can see significant points of tension occasionally emerge with countries like India, Japan and just about everyone in the South China Sea. In part (and I'll skim over this because we'll probably look at it again in the future) this comes down to a clash between China's territorial claims in the region, which have most often found their basis in historical claims and the so-called "nine-dash line". Which as you should see on screen there encompasses the majority of the South China Sea, and the claims of the various other nations in the region usually relying on the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. In 2016 the South China Sea Arbitration (in which the People's Republic did not participate) handed down a ruling that was very adverse to some of Beijing's core contentions.

For example saying that, "The Tribunal concludes that between the Philippines and China, China's claims to historical rights or other sovereign rights or jurisdiction with respect to the maritime areas of the South China Sea encompassed by the relevant part of the nine-dash line are contrary to the convention and without lawful effect to the extent that they exceed the geographic and substantive limits of China's maritime entitlement under the convention. The tribunal concludes that the convention superseded any historic rights or other sovereign rights or jurisdictions in excess of the limits imposed therein." There is obviously a lot of context to fit around that, and I will link the entire arbitration award. But suffice to say there might be reasons that the Philippines said that they welcomed the ruling, while Chinese state media described it as ill-founded. But unlike most courtroom dramas where the judge renders judgement and then the credits roll, in this case the arbitration to settle the issue settled very little. China rejected the ruling, many others called for it to be respected, and the region remains one of confrontation, competition and security concern to this day.

It might also have something to do with why the Chinese Coast Guard felt the need to get a pair of patrol cutters that each displace more than an Arleigh Burke destroyer, and whose primary armament includes a 76mm naval gun. All of this and other factors help put China in a regional and global context where it often finds itself competing, or appearing to compete, with what is arguably the incumbent global superpower, the United States and its allies. The US and China are still significant trading partners, their economies are still significantly linked. But from an economic political and security perspective, there are a lot of friction points. There are cross-strait issues, the two countries support different Koreas. Their visions for the political and economic future of the globe are significantly divergent.

And Beijing's relations with a number of American allies like Japan are, shall we say, more than a little frosty. China of course does have a range of nations with which it enjoys very good relations and significant degrees of military cooperation. Pakistan for example has become a major market for Chinese weapon sales, and a recipient of Chinese loans and financial assistance.

But as we covered in our India episode, that in turn arguably has implications for China's relations with another one of its very important neighbours, India. Another relevant factor, this time being where geography and economics collide, is that China's current economic growth model is highly dependent on international economic integration. A relevant but somewhat oversimplified comparison would be to a country like Russia. Russia's ability to confront NATO and the wider west in Ukraine was partly shaped by the fact that Russia was a country with low debt, significant foreign exchange reserves, energy independence, food independence, primarily reliant on the export of essential commodity goods like hydrocarbons in order to make its budget and economy work. The Chinese economy by contrast is not food independent, not energy independent, with an industry whose most valuable goods tend to be discretionary in nature, even if highly valuable.

While much of the economy in turn relies on the importation of inputs from overseas. China is a massively net exporting nation, but a lot of those exports can't exist cost effectively without corresponding imports. And so in that sense China's economy in strategic terms is probably more comparable to something like Japan's than Russia's. Powerful, indebted, and highly reliant on global trade flows for both prosperity and essentials.

Of course there is one notable irony in saying that. Presumably to some extent China's prosperity and stability relies on its ability to protect its trade, to keep trade flowing. And as we'll discuss later on, that's one potential role for the Navy in the future.

Of course at the same time, some of China's largest foreign trading partners are in descending order: the United States, the Republic of Korea, and Japan. Which might mean, depending on the future diplomatic and political situation, to paraphrase a little from an Australian TV show, there is a chance China will find itself in the position of investing billions of dollars in protecting its trade with the United States, Korea and Japan from the United States, Korea and Japan. Now that was just a very brief overview of some of the strategic factors that probably have to be weighed in Beijing. But the interesting point would be the correlation between a lot of those factors, which often seem to be regionally or maritime focused, and the way we've seen the People's Liberation Army evolve in the past few decades.

For much of its early history the PLA was very much a ground combat force, first and only. The Chinese Civil War and fighting against the Japanese were ground conflicts. The Korean War was for the Chinese overwhelmingly a ground one, as was the intermittent fighting with Vietnam in the 70s and 80s. But while China might have a number of areas where a strong ground component is still needed, many of its strategic objectives and concerns are going to be maritime and/or further afield. No PLA infantry, no matter how fit, are going to manage to swim the Taiwan Strait.

And historically tanks fare quite poorly in naval battles. And so the focus of development in the Chinese military has steadily been away from the ground combat element and more towards a force capable of projecting power in the region. This isn't exactly a secret, in 2015 China's Defence White Paper said, "The traditional mentality that land outweighs the sea must be abandoned." That paper, presumably released to the cries of anguish of every senior Ground Force officer who understood what it would probably mean for future budgetary contests, did appear to set the stage for future documents which would continue to emphasise both regional and domestic objectives. Usually when we do these nation studies, we try and home in on what a country says in its official Defence White Paper. Some countries like Iran do not obligingly publish something of that kind, but China does.

For example in 2019 we got China's National Defence in the New Era. And in that document you'll find set out some core missions for the People's Liberation Army. These being, "Safeguarding national territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests, maintaining combat readiness, carrying out military training in real combat conditions, safeguarding interests in major security fields." Which is sort of a catch-all category that includes nuclear capability, space, cyberspace, information security and "social stability". As well as countering terrorists, maintaining stability, and protecting China's overseas interests. In some ways there is a lot of commonality between the objectives in this document and those of some of the other countries we've looked at.

The first dot point you can see on the right there is literally "to deter and resist aggression", which is just kind of military 101. But in other areas you can see some of the uniquely Chinese characteristics coming through. Dot point 2 begins with "to safeguard national political security."

And you'll also see their references to things like separatism or independence. Now I imagine there might be some eyebrows raised if the British or German army put out a Defence White Paper saying one of the military's top objectives would be maintaining "political security". But in China that language aligns pretty well with the relationship between the party and the military that we've discussed previously.

OK, so from a force design perspective then, if you take these objectives as given what sort of force logically do you end up needing to build? You probably need a significant and powerful internal security force, which in this case is the People's Armed Police. You need a Ground Force that can cover the relevant borders and points of tension. But then you need a force which is capable of something more, something which is capable of projecting power to protect those maritime rights and interests. To project power and presence across the Taiwan Strait. To potentially deter the United States and/or its allies. And to contest and operate in those other domains: space, the EM spectrum and cyberspace.

However you also need to do so in an environment where you can't just outspend the US and its allies dollar for dollar. You need a force which is ideally capable of doing those jobs with an asymmetric level of investment. We talked about one manifestation of that idea before which was the heavy investment in the rocket forces and an anti-access area-denial strategy. Where rather than try to match the US Navy carrier for carrier, instead you stock up on ballistic, hypersonic and cruise missiles that can hold those carriers, air bases and other critical facilities potentially at risk. And in so doing potentially hold off or neutralise a much more expensive force with your comparatively less expensive one. Another approach might be to find other areas where China can leverage some other factor to asymmetric advantage.

In Beijing's case, three elements you'll see brought up a lot are the roles of information, intelligence and civil/military fusion. In other words if a force can better gather, disseminate and use information then it may outperform an opponent which has more firepower or overall resource investment. And secondly, while there still may be areas in which China lags behind powers like the United States militarily, one thing the largest manufacturing nation on Earth is very good at is building lots and lots of stuff, realising economies of scale, and leveraging that to build up combat power. So if you are trying to figure out where to direct your limited available military funding, if one possible answer is just "build more stuff", that's often an answer you'll see the PLA pick. So with some background on strategy and requirements in place, let's start having a look at the various components of the PLA. As normal I'm going to go through branch by branch.

With the difference here being that while many countries will have at least three branches, an army, a navy, and an air force, sometimes adding an optional extra like a Marine corps, a space force, or a rocket force, China has somewhat flipped the traditional org design script here by having 5 branches. And in starting our look at the various Chinese services and their capabilities, I'm going to go a bit rogue here. Normally with these walk-throughs I'd give top billing either to the army because it tends to be the largest service, or sometimes to the air force because everyone loves a fighter jet. But just about every major military has an army or an air force, so instead I want to open with what China does differently. That's the existence of the very excitingly named Strategic Support Force.

As far back as 2013 the PLA was already seeking ways to transform from a primarily land-based force to one capable of competing across what it might call the strategic frontiers (or domains) of space, cyberspace and maritime power. Chinese publications and speeches have long talked about the need to increase the ability of the PLA to better fight informatised system vs. system conflicts and bring the PLA under a single broad information umbrella. Now some of the perceived difficulties around doing something like that in a lot of forces around the world, is that usually the assets that provide that sort of information or operate in those specific domains are spread across multiple organisations.

In the US for example, if you are interested in something happening in space, Space Force might be someone to talk to, but they are not going to run point on for example, cyber-warfare. And other potentially relevant capabilities might be distributed or duplicated across parts of the armed forces and various federal agencies. The apparent Chinese perspective on this is that distributing those sort of capabilities is ultimately inefficient.

One fear might be stove-piping, where every group or organisation has access to the information that they gather or the capabilities that they have, but they don't have access to the bigger picture and inputs from other sources. I might have access to incredible reconnaissance satellites for example, capable of surveying vast areas of territory. But if I don't have access to some vital information that came out of some compromised emails that another group gathered weeks ago, I may not know where to point them. You also might potentially run into the good old fiefdom problem, where every group is always looking to demonstrate its value as opposed to developing a joint plan to deploy the best tool for the job.

Now make no mistake, there is often a reason that assets and capabilities are divided up in that sort of way. And there are various mechanisms you can use to try and ensure communication and cooperation. But the approach the Chinese seem to have settled on is not to try and get these capabilities across each of the branches to talk to one another, but instead to give them all the same boss.

Created in 2015, the People's Liberation Army Strategic Support Force is its own independent branch. And it was essentially created by taking personnel in specialised areas such as space, cyber-warfare, information warfare, electronic warfare, etc. ripping those out of the various other branches and making them their own thing. Essentially a significant component of the military's nerds were given the opportunity to create their own branch.

And at roughly 165,000 strong in 2022, the result isn't that dissimilar in scale from, for example, the entire British or entire German military. This force is thus meant to consolidate resources, enable more holistic and joint assessments and operations, but also potentially to act as an offensive arm all of its own. I've seen the SSF described as having in essence two primary roles. The strategic information support role, where it's primarily concerned with all parts of the PLA being able to operate with the best possible information picture. And on the other side, strategic information operations, where the force is much more likely to try and impose direct effects on an opponent. To quote an article by Cosmo Cao in The Strategist, "If the Central Military Commission is the brain and the major military branches are the arms and legs, then the Strategic Support Force is both a striking arm and the nervous system that connects it all."

In terms of waging offensive or disruptive operations, the SSF is capable of combining a lot of tools. It's reported to have taken over for example Base 311, which is the home of the PLA's "triple warfare", innovation and training centre. Which covers public opinion warfare, psychological warfare, and legal warfare. And among all the terrifying weapons and strategies that humanity has developed throughout the ages, I think we can all agree that the phenomenon of lawfare deserves a special and particularly terrifying place.

From an organisational design perspective the whole approach is very, very interesting. If, it has to be said, afflicted by one potentially major question. If the original problem was that these capabilities weren't talking to each other when they were part of different branches, how are you going to guarantee that your new branch now talks to all the old branches in an effective way? Because if they don't, you are in a whole bunch of trouble because you just stripped out a bunch of really relevant capability. In terms of structure and assets, the SSF is divided into two primary components. The first of these is the Space Systems Department (sometimes referred to as the Aerospace Force) and they, as you might expect, have control over military space operations.

China's space launch capacity was the second highest in the world in 2023, and it now maintains the second largest number of military satellites, second only to the United States. And the capabilities those satellites are believed to have has also rapidly grown. As well as the ability to put things into space, China also has the ability to put things into things that are already in space. The PRC is one of the few countries in the world to have demonstrated the ability to shoot down a satellite in orbit, having destroyed the weather satellite FY-1C with a kinetic kill vehicle back in 2007. In what I believe at the time was the first successful satellite intercept test since 1985. The other main element of the SSF is the Network Systems Department.

And what it does is combine responsibility for information warfare, cyber-warfare, technical reconnaissance, electronic warfare and psychological warfare. One of the key elements there, and one of the most unique, is the integration of cyber and electronic warfare elements under one organisation. Which is, to quote the US 2023 report on military and security developments in the PRC, "A crucial step toward realising the operational concept of integrated network and electronic warfare that the PLA has envisaged since the early 2000s." And while the Chinese military is still maturing its technology and capabilities in a number of areas, its cyber and electronic warfare capabilities are generally assessed to be highly competitive.

And by combining them you might have the tool-kit to make sure that your opponent fights a war while facing the mother of all technical difficulties. With cyber, EW and information operations potentially being combined to for example paralyse the enemy's operational system of systems. If it works as intended, this Strategic Support Force structure will mean that you have one organisation that can provide information derived from space, cyber, terrestrial and other assets to all the different PLA services and the 5 Joint Theatre Commands.

And in filling that information role, it's often going to be supported by civilian organisations as well. With a US document identifying a range of ministries and even academic institutions as part of the wider ecosystem that enables the SSF to, for example, launch cyberspace operations. And which might, in the event of war or a major crisis, actually be organised into special units to support things like network defence operations. Which you have to admit would be an interesting adjustment to the regular academic calendar. The combined structure might also provide the means to more readily designed operations that target the integrity of an opposing political or operational system.

And it clearly reflects a continued evolution in Chinese military thought and doctrine. The real question going forward I suspect as I said, will be having concentrated these capabilities in one force and as a result building better connections between them, will the PLA be able to ensure that the Support Force is properly networked with, sharing with, communicating and planning with the other branches. Because while I'm sure the cyber and spectrum warriors can do plenty of damage, sometimes solving military problems is going to require putting warheads on nominated foreheads. And that very much remains the domain of the other more kinetically-focused branches. So to jump now from the newest service to the oldest one, let's do a quick scan of the PLA's ground forces and how they've evolved in recent years.

As we noted before, for many years the PLA Ground Forces essentially were the PLA. But shifting politics and changing Chinese strategy took repeated aim at the Ground Force's personnel count in the 21st century. In 2015 it was said the traditional mentality that "land outweighs sea" needed to be abandoned.

A year later Xi would say the military would have to become smaller but more capable. Something an outline published by the Chinese Central Military Commission in 2016 would echo. Now in just about any field when the boss says the organisation has to get leaner and more efficient or words to that effect, usually a safe translation might be that they are about to fire a few people. It isn't always true in China however, there sometimes it means they're going to fire a lot of people. In the mid-80s the PLA was cut from 4 million to 3 million.

Then in 1997 there was another reduction of a casual half million people, followed by another 200,000 in 2003. Finally in the same broad era as that white paper, there was another reduction of 300,000. Bringing the PLA as a whole to a strength of about 2 million, half of what it had been before the 1985 cuts. And the ground component, which had once been more than 2/3 of the total strength, to less than half of the overall force. As of 2022 the PLA Ground Force had a total estimated active strength of 965,000. Interestingly, that actually made the PLA Ground Forces smaller than the Indian Army.

Although the Chinese force on paper had a significantly larger stock of heavy equipment. I understand it's sometimes hard to keep perspective when it seems like every second week there might be an article asking if 30 Abrams tanks are going to change the war in Ukraine. But the Chinese, Indian or Korean figures are probably closer to what you'd expect from a large ground combat force preparing to potentially fight a war at scale. For the PLA that included 5,400 main battle tanks, 750 light tanks, more than 7,000 infantry fighting vehicles, north of 4,000 APCs, nearly 3,000 self-propelled artillery guns, more than 1,600 multiple rocket launchers, and 300+ attack helicopters.

In simple quantitative terms, on paper that's probably enough equipment to deal with a major regional escalation scenario, or maybe to take about half of Avdiivka if you are patient about it. But as always, while quantity matters, there's always going to be the question of what sort of quality sits behind the numbers on the page. And here, particularly when you are talking about the Ground Forces, prioritisation decisions have to be made, and the transformation is incomplete.

That's not a controversial external opinion, it's something China's official documents reflect. The 2019 White Paper for example acknowledged that, "The People's Liberation Army has yet to complete the task of mechanisation." So instead of seeing the entire force refreshed all at once, what we see is a series of new designs in specific areas continue to roll out. Particular areas of interest, which we've talked about before, include ground-based long-range fires, things like MLRS systems for example with the range to fire from mainland China across the Taiwan Strait.

So you absolutely do see new systems arriving, and arriving in quantity. The Type 15 light tank is believed to have entered service around 2015, but by the time Military Balance 2023 released they were estimating that China already had 500 of them. Which is a lot for new vehicle that is only meant to augment, not replace, the existing MBT force. PCL-181 which is a self-propelled 155mm artillery piece, because, yes, it does appear the Chinese military has concluded that if you want to maximise artillery performance Soviet 152 is out, 155 is in, and systems like this one are growing in importance.

I believe it made its first public appearance in around 2019. And something like 4 years later the estimates were already 600+ in service. For comparison, that implies a production rate somewhat higher than what France is currently managing for the CAESAR self-propelled gun which are reportedly currently being turned out at a rate of about 6 per month. So yes, the Ground Forces are receiving new equipment at production rates that are sometimes much higher than what most other nations would be able to manage.

The problem however is that there is a lot of equipment to replace. And so parts of the inventory still are, shall we say, very retro. When Russia first started rolling out T-62 tanks to fight in Ukraine, some in the media derided it as a sign of potential desperation. Then when the even older T-55s started to surface, one of the most popular initial theories was that they were going to be used only as self-propelled guns, because not even the Russian military was desperate enough for heavy equipment to send troops into battle in that thing. But in China the Type 59 tank, a derivative of the Type 54/55 that first entered service in 1959 in its initial version, is reportedly not just in emergency reserve, but in active service. Which is to be fair only one example, but one which might demonstrate that there are still very much parts of the Chinese military equipment park that might still be in slight need of modernisation.

If we look at what has been modernised and the design features on that equipment there might be some interesting observations we can make. For example if you look at many of the latest generation infantry fighting vehicles, many of them make the design sacrifices necessary in order to be amphibious. The Type 08 you see on screen there, ironically in desert camo and probably more than a few kilometres away from any water feature larger than a puddle, entered service in the mid-2000s, has been built by the thousands, and is fully amphibious with water jet propulsion. The ZBD-04, amphibious, the Type 05, obviously amphibious given its role. And while the PLA has not yet found a way to make its main battle tanks fully amphibious in ocean conditions, it does retain hundreds of amphibious light tanks.

In short, if you are industry and you are pitching a new model system to the Chinese military, you might be able to afford to go a bit lax on the armoured protection, but absolutely make sure the prototype does not skip swim lessons. As for what that design prioritisation signals about Chinese intentions and priorities, I'm happy leaving that one to the audience. Going forward, it seems likely that the PLA's Ground Forces and Marines will continue to modernise their equipment at a steady clip. A lot of the relevant production lines appear to still be active, and the older metal is going to need replacing anyway. So I'd suspect that budgeting decisions are going to be less about whether or not modernisation happens at all, and are instead focused on how quickly that modernisation happens at the expense of the other services. The bigger question then I think is not the equipment but rather the quality and capability of the force that uses it.

The Army at this point has gone more than half a century without significant combat experience, and so it hasn't really had a chance to demonstrate either to itself or the rest of the world what its actual capabilities are. This issue isn't really limited to the Ground Force however, it's more a matter for the PLA as a whole, so we'll revisit it in more detail later. But for now we'll move on to another service which has often seemed to be somewhat higher up on the modernisation priority list, the not at all confusingly named People's Liberation Army Air Force.

Like the Ground Forces, the PLAAF entered the 21st century with a very much legacy force. For example, for many years the fighter force was numerically reliant on the J-7, a Chinese derivative of the Soviet MiG-21. When MiG-21 first flew it was a fantastic aircraft for the time. Unfortunately those times were the 1950s. And as a general rule if your frontline equipment entered service before colour photography, it's probably time to replace it.

Unless of course it's one of those rare exceptions like the M2 Browning, which will probably find itself stashed in an arms locker somewhere the first time humanity sends a colony ship to another star system. J-7 has been upgraded repeatedly, but in relative terms it's not the fighter it once was. The technological and performance requirements have changed dramatically, and so while an upgraded Cold War-era bomb truck like B-52 or Tu-95 might still be an entirely serviceable bomb truck or missile platform, most countries acknowledge that the days of MiG-21 being a workable front-line fighter aircraft are probably long gone.

It's reported the J-7 production line made its final delivery in the early 2010s, that the PLAAF has been steadily retiring the type. And that in its place we've seen the steady introduction of much more modern designs. And while most of the PLAAF's aircraft park used to be made up of adapted Soviet or Russian designs, now it's a mixture of domestically designed and manufactured systems like the 5th generation J-20 and aircraft that might still derive from foreign designs like the Soviet and Russian Flanker series, but which in many cases have actually superseded the Russian variants. As far as a like-for-like comparison here goes, a good example might be the Sukhoi 30MKKs and MK2s that China purchased from Russia in 1999. And then the Chinese version of the Sukhoi 30, the J-16, which entered service in 2015.

According to RUSI, compared to the original Sukhoi 30s the J-16s were much more compatible with Chinese weapons, featured an AESA radar, reduced weight due to the use of composite materials, a fully digital cockpit, a targeting pod roughly equivalent to the US Sniper, and spawned a derivative electronic warfare and suppression of enemy air defences version. Something which Russia notably has been sorely lacking in its campaign against Ukrainian air defences. The reason I bring this up is to highlight that from an industrial and design perspective there might have been an inflection here. In decades past, some might have described the Chinese version of Soviet or Russian weapons as mere imitation or a potential downgrade.

Now however, while there's still very much a role for imported components and subsystems, at the platform level the Chinese versions of Russian or Soviet designs sometimes offer their pilots more than the currently in-service Russian equivalents. In terms of relatively unique capabilities on the global stage, the PLAAF does stand out as being the only force to have fielded an operationally significant number of 5th generation fighters not named F-35 or F-22. And other than perhaps F-35 and Sukhoi 57, I can't think of another aircraft that causes more polarised opinions online. I think a sober evaluation means accepting that China has spent a lot of time and effort getting this thing fielded.

It first flew in 2011, but didn't officially enter service until 2018. And the quest to fly this thing with a powerful, reliable, domestically-built Chinese engine, rather than imported ones, has been long and painful. It also, going on the public data, just isn't as stealthy as F-35 or F-22.

But it's still probably really capable in the roles that China would likely use it in. This is the largest stealthy fighter in existence, it's got a lot of internal fuel tankage, very long-range missiles. And while it may not be as stealthy as F-35, you have to imagine that in any major wartime scenario this thing would presumably be in the sky alongside hundreds of non-stealthy aircraft in an electronic warfare environment so saturated that the forces involved are probably one step short of sending runners and smoke signals. And in that sort of major conflict environment, operating relatively close to the Chinese coast, J-20 is probably a very valuable platform. Another interesting point before we get into the headline figures is to remember that China is one of the very few countries on the planet that still operates strategic bombers. The base model H-6 is an ancient design derived from a Tupolev 16 which entered service in the 1950s.

But if B-52 has taught us anything, it's that bomb trucking never really goes out of style. In its current form, the main thing H-6 offers is the ability to take very long-range weapons, like cruise missiles, and make them go even further. Which is significant when you're talking about somewhere as vast as the Asia-Pacific. As a tool it's not a solution to every, or even that many problems. But at the same time, it's not a tool that many air forces have. So to zoom out then, in 2022 the PLAAF was near the top of the charts when it came to active combat aircraft.

Nearly 1,500 fighters of various types, roughly 140 of the old JH-7s in the attack role, and on paper this is a force with a lot of teeth. Being in the same ballpark as the United States Air Force when it comes to for example, fighter numbers. But if there are two rough edges, they would be firstly the number of very old platforms that are still in service, and secondly the massive shortfall in tankers.

In 2022 the US was operating hundreds of the things, the Chinese 13. And what that suggests is that while the current PLAAF has a lot of aircraft that can fight, realistically, they are only able to do so en masse relatively close to their home bases. Because in terms of fuel consumption most fighter jets are going to make a Ram 1500 look like a Prius. And so especially if you're tapping afterburners, it's often not going to be long before you have a choice between a tanker and the ground one way or the other. The H-6 strategic bombers do hypothetically give the force the ability to reach further.

But mid-Cold War bombers with the radar cross-section of a small apartment building aren't exactly known for their survivability in contested airspace. One potential solution to that problem would be to field a stealth bomber, which China appears to be aiming to do with the H-20. We'll talk about this more in the future when we discuss next generation bomber designs, but for now suffice it to say that the US expects this thing to be a flying wing somewhat reminiscent of the B2, with a range of at least 8,500 kilometres and a payload capacity of at least 10 tons. Now of course, again, the capability of an air force is about a lot more than just the aircraft it operates. Doctrine, training and tactics for example all matter as well.

But gauging those factors accurately during peacetime can be incredibly difficult. And I doubt any of us just want Beijing and Washington to sit down and agree to just have a small-scale air war so that we can collect some hard data on their air combat performance. And so we're left acknowledging that it's an important question for which we have very few data inputs. We know that China has established aggressor squadrons to simulate the opposition during training exercises.

We know the PLAAF holds what have been described as Red Flag-style exercises at Dingxin. And we're relatively confident that the number of flight hours flown by PLAAF pilots has increased over the years. But if you are looking for a hard estimate of pilot capability, one estimate that I can present without comment or judgment is that in a RAND assessment in 2017 they, "set overall Chinese capability at 70% of US capability to account for differences in training and experience." But while that analysis highlighted a potential training and experience gap, it also brought attention to the overall trend in the balance. The analysis modelled an escalation in the Taiwan Strait and asked the question: how many fighters would the US need to be able to put over Taiwan in order to win a 7-day air campaign against the modelled Chinese force? I'll link the paper so you can review it, and most importantly review the assumptions.

But those assumptions to one side, the overall trend was pretty clear. In 1996, when most PLAAF aircraft would be 2nd generation like the J-7, the primary concern seems to have been how many American aircraft do you need to carry a sufficient number of missiles to shoot them all down? The answer RAND came up with was about one wing, or 72 aircraft. Meaning that in 1996, according to this analysis, one to two aircraft carriers would have been enough to functionally defeat the Chinese Air Force over Taiwan.

By 2010, even in scenarios where the US was able to attack back against the Chinese mainland in the scenario, that number had more than tripled to 3.4 wings. And by 2017 more than 5, or 367 aircraft in total. The reality is while there might still be some rough edges, the pace of change has been remarkable. And with the production of J-20 and other modern aircraft still ongoing, the PLAAF of 2030 is likely to look very different and be much more capable than it is today.

Another branch which has been a recipient of a huge amount of modernisation and expansion funding is the People's Liberation Army Navy. And in terms of both force size and platform capability I'd argue the result has been the military equivalent of a glow-up of epic proportions. Because while the changes in the Ground Force might be described as incremental, the army getting better at doing basic army things, the People's Liberation Army Navy has been steadily transforming from an overwhelmingly coastal force to a more genuinely blue-water navy, capable of projecting power far away from China's shores. That modernisation decision does appear aligned with China's stated and assessed objectives. If you want to enforce territorial claims in the South and East China Seas or other relevant areas, you probably want a navy and a coast guard that can actually go there and do so. If for some reason you might want to launch amphibious operations or some sort of naval blockade or operation against a location relatively close to mainland China, then, yeah, along with a lot of amphibious and sea-lift capability you are going to want a surface combat fleet with enough anti-air, anti-surface and anti-submarine capability to deter or defeat any force that might have a problem with you doing so.

And from there the list goes on. If you want to be able to project power into the Indian Ocean or the Red Sea, for example to build influence or defend all that maritime trade that keeps your economy ticking, then as fascinating as it would be watching a force try and target a pirate skiff with an anti-ship ballistic missile fired from mainland China, you probably can't do those sort of security and escort missions using a ground-based missile force. For that you need a navy. Just how large the Chinese Navy is now depends to a great extent on how you count and classify its ships. But using the Military Balance methodology back in 2022 the PLAN had 59 submarines, of which 12 were nuclear powered with an even split between SSBNs and SSNs. A fleet of 86 principal surface combatants including two carriers, 196 patrol and coastal combatants (not including Coast Guard vessels) and 9 principal amphibious vessels. For a very rough comparison in the same year using roughly the same definitions, the US had 67 nuclear submarines, 124 principal surface combatants, 86 patrol and coastal combatants and about three times as many principal amphibious warfare ships.

Personally I feel some of the Chinese estimates are a bit low, but that's a story for another time. Personally I think the greater warning, especially when you are talking about navies as opposed to something like an army, is that when you are comparing numbers within those broad classes country to country, you are not always dealing with like and like. You could bolt 3 Type 39 submarines together, and you'd be in roughly the same weight class as a single Sea Wolf or Virginia. The capabilities they provide are massively different, but for the purpose of the count each is still just one submarine. The PSC category also includes a huge range of vessels from supercarriers and the Chinese Type 55 (with the latter managing to pack more than 100 VLS cells per platform), all the way down to America's Freedom and Independence Littoral Combat Ships.

Which on the front lines of a high-intensity conflict scenario against a peer opponent, it could be argued, is a principal surface combatant in the same sense that your uncle who took one Taekwondo class when he was 12 is a martial artist. You could argue it's technically true, but if any actual martial artists turn up he's going to have exactly zero of the skills necessary to avoid being completely demolished. China also has some very light combatants of its own, but my primary warning here is just be careful comparing numbers on a spreadsheet. One day I might do a more detailed study comparing US and Chinese military ship building. But for now it's probably enough to say that recent efforts to build up the PLAN have not just been about quantity, it's not just taking the navy of 2000 and building 50% more of it.

Instead there's been a shift towards often larger, more capable platforms and the introduction of relatively new capabilities. In the 20th century for example, the amphibious capabilities of the PLAN were relatively limited. Now the force has multiple Type 75 amphibious assault ships. These things are creeping towards the US's America-class in terms of displacement, are more than 230 metres long, and despite the contract for construction only going out in 2018 there are already 3 in service, 8 total planned.

And as of 2020 there was already work being directed towards a successor class, the Type 76. And if the scuttlebutt around the requirements for that design pan out, then you'll be looking at an even larger vessel again, and one particularly optimised for operating unmanned systems. Another serious area of investment that doesn't show through clearly when you just focus on ship count, is the real focus on upgrading the munitions, and particularly the range of the munitions, operated by the PLAN.

China's anti-ship cruise missiles often don't get the same attention as for example the anti-ship ballistic missiles or the hypersonics. Probably because the latter are more novel and polarising technologies. But it's not hard to find some reports authored in Western countries that describe parts of China's cruise missile arsenal, for example the YJ-18, which entered service in 2015 as, to quote one CRS report, "Advanced and highly capable."

Those improved missile systems can mean even new generation designs with the same displacement as old ones can have considerably greater reach and lethality than the previous generation of ships they are replacing. It also means that close to the Chinese coast, a lot of smaller Chinese vessels can still hypothetically be highly lethal. The Type 22 missile boat for example only weighs about 220 tons, has a crew of 12, and has reportedly been pretty cheaply purchased in serious numbers, but it can still pack eight YJ-83 anti-ship missiles.

One of the key elements that I want to bring through here is that the People's Liberation Army Navy is still very much in a build-up phase, it is still evolving. And that makes it very different from forces like the US Navy, the Royal Navy, or even the Russian Navy. Those are all forces where most of the existing military ship building capacity and contracts are dedicated to either maintaining the existing fleet or preparing replacements for retiring ships. In China by contrast, the construction rate well exceeds what would be necessary just to maintain the size of the force. Instead it's sufficient to both grow both total hull count and total displacement, and to more rapidly phase out older, less capable designs to replace them with something better. As one US report put it, "The PLAN is rapidly retiring older single-mission warships in favour of larger multi-mission ships equipped with advanced anti-ship, anti-air, and anti-submarine weapons and sensors and C2 facilities."

Elsewhere that same report would note a US estimate that the PLAN's overall battle force is expected to grow from 395 ships in 2025 to 435 ships by 2030. With further growth by 2040. And much of that growth is expected to be in major surface combatants. With the ratio between larger and smaller warships shifting in favour of the big boys steadily over time. One of the key advantages China has here is that its ship-building sector in general is just so much larger than that of Europe or the United States. Only Japan and South Korea really compete.

And Beijing appears determined to leverage that advantage to basically print major warships en masse. The flip side of being in transition however, is that not all the force is yet modernised and technological gaps with other powers still remain. Some Western reporting for example holds that Russia might still have an advantage in certain areas of submarine design over Beijing. And in August 2023, a US Naval War College report on China's submarine capabilities suggested that China's Type 95 SSGNs might approach Russia's improved Akula I class SSNs in terms of critical elements like propulsion, quietening, sensors and weapons. The first improved Akula I hulls by the way, were laid down in the Soviet Union.

Another War College report from the same year would say that China's submarine industrial base "continues to suffer from surprising weaknesses in propulsion and submarine quieting." And it's worth noting that even achieving parity with the latest Russian designs would still probably leave the PLAN significantly behind America's latest generation submarines. But for me, focusing too much on that deficit misses the big picture.

And yes, I tend to be biased towards looking at things from a defence economics or defence industrial perspective, but at that zoomed-out level I'd observe this: in 1996 the Los Angeles-class submarines were the most common class in the US submarine force. The Chinese submarine fleet at the time by contrast, to quote a RAND report, "Consisted of poor quality 1960s vintage Soviet-designed Romeo class and 1970s vintage Ming-class submarines." Jump forward two decades from that point and the most common US nuclear attack submarine was still an improved version of the Los Angeles, while a strong majority of China's attack submarines were now much more modern designs. The edge was still very much and significantly in America's favour, but the gap between the capability of those two forces had narrowed considerably. To bring home just what this combination of scaling and transition to larger platforms looks like at an individual class level, let me just zoom in and give two quick examples. The Chinese Type 55 is usually called a destroyer, but given its role, armament and 10,000 ton displacement, in NATO terms this is probably closer to a guided missile cruiser, something like the American Ticos.

The design appears to include external stealth features, advanced sensors, and approximately all the missile systems, with 112 VLS cells. This is a feature of a number of modern Chinese designs, a very heavy missile armament. Which is an interesting comparison to ships like the British Type 45, who currently have things like gyms installed where a missile space could be.

This can happen for various reasons, but it's a manifestation of something we've seen with multiple classes around the world, where a platform is designed for a certain weapon system, but not with the weapon system. So with a Type 55 you have a relatively modern external design, a serious armament, and then came the task of actually building the things that went to two different Chinese shipyards. And the results I think speak to the ability of China's ship-building sector to build multiple hulls in parallel.

In 2020 one Type 55 was commissioned. In 2021 three more, and in 2022 four more. The smaller Type 52D, this time actually a destroyer, shared many of the same features. Stealthy external features, advanced sensors, and 64 VLS cells.

Splitting the record up into 2 year brackets, between 2014 and '15, three of these ships were commissioned. '16 to '17 three more, '18 to '19 six more, '20 to '21 ten more. At present there is no country on Earth that turns out destroyers at the rate that China does. And so I think logic dictates that when you're trying to model the future trajectory of the Chinese force you have to presume that some of that same approach might be applied to other ship classes and capabilities. At the moment the Chinese ship building sector is getting used to the idea of building very large aircraft carriers.

The People's Liberation Army Navy is getting used to the idea of operating them. But if the resources continue to be there, there's no reason to think that the ship building sector and navy won't build their expertise over time. And what is currently a somewhat experimental capability might over time evolve into something much more strategically significant. The giant asterisk on that argument however, is you can't just take a trend and draw a straight line to infinity. Saying a fleet is growing and therefore it's going to continue growing forever is kind of like saying your toddler grew 2 to 3 inches last year and as a result by the time they are middle aged they are going to be 10 foot tall. In many ways China is still in one of the financially and industrially easier parts of a naval build-up, where you have heaps of Industry, are working from a very low naval capability baseline, and you've got this huge pool of money and industrial capacity available to just build up and modernise the force.

Eventually as I said earlier however, the force is going to mature, you are going to have to spend more time replacing vessels that were already in service, maintaining vessels that are already in service, and paying the sailors that operate them. At that point, if new funds are not forthcoming, budget decisions become a lot more difficult and you get to cosplay as the Royal Navy. So the question of just how big the PLAN is going to get is probably both a) up for debate, and b) highly dependent on circumstance. It's hard enough to predict where the Chinese economy and budget will be in 2 years, let alone in 2040.

But for what it's worth, here's some American projections. They project that the PLAN will continue to commission more and more larger vessels for decades to come, with the force reaching 3 carriers by 2025, and then 6 by 2040. The 52 cruisers and destroyers projected for 2025 will become 80 by 2040.

And the number of nuclear attack submarines, 10 by 2025 and 16 by 2040. But in other categories growth is expected to plateau. 120 frigates and corvettes in 2025 will only become 140 by 2040. And the number of conventional attack submarines is projected to remain basically stable.

But again, this is one publicly released external projection, not an ironclad description of what China's naval building plan will be. The conclusion here is probably that the PLAN looks monumentally different than it did 20 years ago, and given the rate it is churning out ships, its expansion and transformation is going to continue. With that expansion will come an increased ability to project power around the world through things like the use of carriers, as well as the ability to apply more and more maritime muscle closer to home. How that force is likely to stack up against other competitors in the region is very much dependent on the year and assumptions of your scenario. Are you comparing the People's Liberation Army Navy just to those elements of the US Navy that are likely to be active in the Pacific? Or are you comparing them to the entire US Navy plus the forces of Japan, Korea and other American allies in the region? It's an important note, but one we'll come back to in a minute. Because first I want to close out the discussion of the various branches with a look at the PLA's rocket force.

And today, as important as they are, the Rocket Forces get to take a bit of a back seat. Because they have featured in and been discussed in our videos on hypersonic weapons, anti-satellite weapons, nuclear weapons, corruption in China, the future of the aircraft carrier, and even to an extent the episodes where we've talked about the Black Sea and the Red Sea and the role that missile systems can play in anti-access area-denial efforts. So I'll leave those episodes linked in the description and focus instead on one area of Rocket Force capability that we haven't focused on before, it's potential use as a conventional ground strike weapon as part of a wider war plan. Chinese military writings often refer to th

2024-02-14 22:18

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