Measuring Military Modernization
Image Credit: U.S. Navy

Measuring Military Modernization


The U.S-China Security and Economic Review Commission (USCC) recently published a staff research paper entitled “Indigenous Weapons Development in China’s Military Modernization” that generated a great deal of media attention. One story noted that the report showed how the United States had “missed the emergence of significant military developments” and was “blinded by Beijing.” Another report concluded from the paper that “the United States has underestimated the growth of China's military.”

What did the paper actually say?  It examined the development of four weapons systems: the Yuan-class (Type 041) diesel-powered submarine, the SC-19 anti-satellite missile, the DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile, and the J-20 aircraft. Reviewing U.S. analysis of these development of these systems, the paper concluded that “there are no universal trends in publicly reported U.S. government analysis on the development of indigenous Chinese weapon systems.” According to the paper, only the emergence of the Yuan-class submarine was unexpected.  As for the other systems, the paper’s main contention is that analysts miscalculated the speed or rate of the development of these systems, but not their emergence.

The actual claims of the USCC paper are much more modest and mixed than media coverage would indicate. Most importantly, as the USCC notes but doesn’t emphasize, the degree to which the appearance of the Yuan-class submarine in 2004 was a surprise remains contested. The USCC paper suggests that the U.S. missed this program because it wasn’t mentioned in the Pentagon’s 2003 annual report on Chinese military power. However, the 2002 version of this same Pentagon report clearly stated that “A new advanced version of the SONG-class conventional submarine is expected to incorporate advanced air-independent propulsion.” The Pentagon may not have provided the name of the class as we now know it, but it didn’t miss the development of a new submarine with the characteristics of the Yuan boats (which shares some design similarities with the Song).  Thus, the strongest example supporting the USCC paper’s criticism of analysis of the Chinese military in the United States is wanting.

As for assessments of the pace of weapons development, many U.S. government analysts and military officers have stated that development of the DF-21D was faster than expected.  Nevertheless, the system isn’t yet operational.  Adm. Willard stated in December 2010 that the development of the DF-21D had reached something equivalent to what the U.S. military defines as “initial operational capability.” The following month, however, another senior naval official noted that although the progress that had been achieved, the PLA wasn’t yet capable of “effectively employing the system” because it had not yet conducted a test over open water or been integrated into the force.

Other claims about such miscalculations are accurate, but perhaps not as consequential as the USCC paper and subsequent media coverage indicate. To start, the USCC paper acknowledges that the U.S. government accurately assessed the development of China’s anti-satellite missile. Instead, the paper’s claim is that analysts outside of government missed the mark. Still, the U.S. government didn’t overlook the emergence of this system or its development.

As for the J-20, the paper notes that progress has been slightly faster than originally estimated. In 2009, Defense Secretary Robert Gates remarked that China wouldn’t have a fifth-generation fighter until 2020. The following year, the U.S. revised its estimate for operational deployment to 2018.  The first prototype was launched a year earlier than the U.S. government expected in 2011, not 2012.  Nevertheless, the U.S. government has been tracking the development of the aircraft since 1997. Over the course of two decades of development, such miscalculations are not as great or dangerous as it might seem. 

To be sure, China’s unwillingness to share information about its weapons programs is a major factor affecting assessments of their development. Such unwillingness is par for the course in any competitive relationship. 

Yet, other reasons for the miscalculations cited by the paper are probably exaggerated.  The paper claims that analysts have underestimated “the extent of changes in the Chinese defense industry in the 1990s and early 2000s.” But back in 2005, analysts at RAND published a report using open sources that noted the progress that China had achieved in reforming its defense-industrial base precisely during this period.  Similarly, noted PLA expert Tai Ming Cheung documented these reforms in a 2009 book, Fortifying China. (Read this summary of Cheung’s findings.)  Neither publication, however, was cited by the USCC paper.    

In addition, the paper claims that China’s threat perceptions have been systematically underestimated. In particular, the paper notes that analysts “may have failed to fully appreciate the extent to which the Chinese leadership views the United States as a fundamental threat to China’s security.” Yet the 2005 RAND report made exactly this point, noting in a subheading that “the PLA Leadership Perceives United States as Greatest Threat.” Drawing on open sources, Larry Wortzel (a USCC commissioner) came to a similar conclusion in a 2007 study: “China’s leaders and military thinkers see the United States as a major potential threat to the PLA and China’s interests.”

Finally, the severity of analytical failures can only be determined by understanding the degree of success. Apart from the anti-satellite missile, the paper doesn’t examine any indigenously systems whose development was accurately assessed. On this score, the U.S. government appears to have some important successes, especially regarding strategic weapons. 

Take, for example, the DF-31 series of intercontinental ballistic missiles. The Pentagon noted in 2000 that “China…is designing a new generation of solid-fuel, road-mobile ICBMs,” and in 2002 that “deployment of the DF-31 should begin before mid-decade.” The Pentagon reported in 2006 that the missile had reached “initial threat availability” and in 2008 that it had been deployed to operational units.

Similarly, the Pentagon appears to have predicted quite accurately the development of China’s short and medium-range ballistic missiles. In a 1997 report on China’s military capabilities, the Pentagon estimated that China would have “the industrial capacity” to “as many as a thousand” such missiles. In its 2008 report to Congress, the Pentagon stated that the PLA had deployed “between 990 and 1,070” short-range ballistic missiles. In short, they nailed it.

The USCC staff research paper usefully draws attention to the challenges that analysts face when seeking track weapons development in China, a country that doesn’t seek to share such information. Further exploitation of Chinese-language open sources will certainly help improve future analysis. Nevertheless, the conclusions drawn in the media can’t be sustained by the paper, which itself deserves close scrutiny.

M. Taylor Fravel is an Associate Professor of Political Science and member of the Security Studies Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He can be followed @fravel.

April 20, 2012 at 02:50

I cannot read the intentions of China but I see acts of aggression over the West Philippine sea.

April 19, 2012 at 04:51

How is Pax China working out for Tibet? When China moves on the spratlys, mongolia, northern indochina, and southern siberia we will see. When pakistan and some of the -stans are client states, we will see. When moscow is a smoking crater, We will see.

I am not worred about american-sino conflict. Looking at Chineese military developments they are all about “denial of access” and we can’t project that much power with a 300 ship navy and only signifianct bases in japan. We will only fight to protect Japan, Austrailia and maybe the Phillapenese or Taiwain.

I worry about the Indo-China-Mideast conflict, that would be the real carnage.

April 19, 2012 at 04:43

@seac: Yeah? And we should believe you because…?

April 19, 2012 at 03:10


what you wrote was exactly the same opinion that the Japanese had when they invaded manchuria in 1931, and then China proper in 1937. I can only hope that yours is not the opinion of most citizens, even a large minority, of the PRC. if that is the case….then perhaps war between the United States and China is inevitable after all, proving once again that the citizens of the PRC cannot escape from their own history, nor appreciate its irony.

April 18, 2012 at 15:38

The development of weapon system by china is to protect itself. They have suffered Japanese Imperialism. They just dont want to face it again.
Also the development of these systems will ensure MAD and MADE thus,and hence no WWW-3

April 18, 2012 at 14:49

Jim Lowen,

Guam was first discovered by the portugese in the 1500s and the island colonized by the Spanish in the late 1500s til they surrendered the island to the US in 1898 from the Spanish-American War.

The island inhabitants are not Philippino but known as the Chamorro people. The Chamorro islanders were granted self-determination by President Truman in 1950, and the island of Guam became an incorporated territory of the United States of America and the Chamorro are full citizens of the USA!

Because the Chamorro people have self-determination they voted on the political status referendum in 1982 to see what they wanted. The result was that the majority wanted to stay a commonwealth of the United States, while 27% voted for statehood!

Your total ignorance of the island of Guam history reaks of an education from mainland China!

April 18, 2012 at 11:25

No needs for insults here. If you can’t debate with logics, then keep quiet. With a typical Chinese middle kingdom mentality like you, no wonder why China doesn’t have any respects from her neighbors, no matter how big she is. China is a threat for peace and prosperity of the region. It is shamelessly bent on the path of bullying and robbing lands of others.

April 18, 2012 at 02:12

English Please.

Oh, by the way. If you are just learning that now then man I am sorry for you. We know our history pretty damm well actually and that info has been known since before the Vietnam War.

Its why the Australians voted to be in command of thier own forces for the period of the war. That decesion was made before the Aussies went into Vietnam.

April 18, 2012 at 01:19

@insiderApril 17, 2012 at 7:33 am
“@major, empty box usually sounds loudest.” Who is sounding loudest now? china.
“If you miss the smell of your colonial master so much, go for it.” This is not appropriate. Since you disrespected others, I assume you deserve no respect either.

“Extreme thoughts about China’s rise just shows inferiority complex on some Asian countries.”
Inferio complex? china has already mastered this art form.

“But that would not help to against the powerful forces in the region coming up for the day when Asia will belong to Asians, and China will be the main leader of the region for peace and prosperity.” Asia belongs to Asians? We’ve heard that before! The Japanese used this slogan in WW2. Now, it’s china’s turn? We all know the results then.

April 17, 2012 at 18:51

The World would rather die with PAX Americana than to live with PAX CHINA(MAY GOD FORBID. Long Live America.

April 17, 2012 at 07:33

@major, empty box usually sounds loudest. If you miss the smell of your colonial master so much, go for it.

Extreme thoughts about China’s rise just shows inferiority complex on some Asian countries. But that would not help to against the powerful forces in the region coming up for the day when Asia will belong to Asians, and China will be the main leader of the region for peace and prosperity.

ako Ni pre
April 17, 2012 at 01:53

No reason for Philippines to be afraid. China should not miscalculate the Philippines. Philippines might bring bad luck to CHINA’s rise. Dragon will not survive world war 3.

World war 3 will start in the Philippines through CHINA!

Jim Lowen
April 16, 2012 at 20:53

Just saw a documentary on our Australian tv channel SBS….Why Australia follow America to war in Vietnam.
Only to realize belatedly that they were used as cannon folder by the American .
The Philippine will be mo exception.
Have you forgotten that Guam used to belong to the Philippine but was taken away by the USA after an unevenly matched and brief convict?
Think again.

nil dagoy
April 16, 2012 at 02:37

Goodbye Philippines!

April 15, 2012 at 22:56

Have u forgotten Vietnam,Iraq,Afghanistan,genocide of native Indians in America and the reservations and the great Agent Orange.Western democracy at home and ruthless imperialism abroad all under the guise of exporting democracy.The dictatorship of Saudi Arabia is the best example of American hypocrisy.No punishment after 9/11 whereas Saddam Hussein is destroyed under guise of weapon of mass destruction development.

Death and destruction with Pax americana.

Major Lowen Gil Marquez, Phil Army
April 15, 2012 at 07:10

The best way in dealing with communist Chinese either in Political, Economic, Social, Geographical and Military is to deal them with the Art of War, do not ever trust the smiling Chinese communist because it is death and disaster will occur upon you with out firing a single bullet..

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