After a year-long hiatus, the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD)’s annual report on Chinese military developments is back and better than ever. Its 43-page 2012 predecessor was widely criticized for arriving far later than Congress requested and containing little substance or new data. But this year’s expeditiously-issued 92-page document continues a tradition of detailed, sophisticated, publicly-available U.S. government analysis previously seen in the 2011 DoD report, the 2010 National Air and Space Intelligence Center (NASIC) report on China’s air force, and the 2009 and 2007 Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) reports on China’s navy.
Like these other landmark reports, this year’s DoD iteration clearly and understandably comes from a U.S. military perspective, yet strives to provide a comprehensive picture of Chinese military developments and the strategic concerns that motivate them. This represents an admirable effort to offer a balanced assessment, as can be seen in remarks at the time of its release by David F. Helvey, deputy assistant secretary of defense for East Asia. Useful data are presented on everything from Chinese sea- and -land based energy access to apparent ambiguities in Beijing’s “no first use” nuclear doctrine to members of the Central Military Commission and their key professional relationships.
All this context matters deeply, and should be commended. But arguably the report’s greatest contribution lies in more specific areas: providing authoritative assessments of key People’s Liberation Army (PLA) developments that are difficult, if not impossible, to achieve or confirm via other publicly-available sources, such as Beijing’s own recently-released 2013 Defense White Paper—which, like many Chinese public strategic documents, offers few specifics. Chinese government representatives are already out in force criticizing this year’s DoD report and claiming that its content is distorted or inaccurate, but as usual do not offer credible evidence to clarify or counter even the report’s most important assertions. Yet it is precisely in such areas—which include hard-to-attribute cyber activities and other types of espionage—that observers of China’s military development need the greatest governmental assistance. After all, as a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed argues cogently: “In the long run Beijing usually does what it says it is going to do, although the execution may be concealed with deception.”
With respect to obfuscation, the report documents that China has conducted multiple naval operations in the undisputed U.S. Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) of a nature that it would oppose a foreign military such as that of the U.S. conducting in its own claimed EEZ—which it is projected to fill with increasing numbers of maritime law enforcement vessels. While the report states that China is conducting such activities in the EEZs of multiple states, a reference that almost certainly includes Japan, it is worth noting the report’s exact wording with respect to the United States: “the United States has observed over the past year several instances of Chinese naval activities in the EEZ around Guam and Hawaii. One of those instances was during the execution of the annual Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercise in July/August 2012. While the United States considers the PLA Navy activities in its EEZ to be lawful, the activity undercuts China’s decades-old position that similar foreign military activities in China’s EEZ are unlawful.” It will be particularly interesting to see how Beijing responds to such revelations, which further underscore the emerging contradictions between China’s promotion of restrictive approaches vis-à-vis foreign military and governmental activities in the Near Seas (Yellow, East, and South China Seas) even as it pursues increasing access to such other strategic seas as the Western Pacific and the Arctic. Given this complexity, perhaps Beijing’s approach for now will be to denounce the report generally while avoiding this specific issue.
Perhaps the report’s single greatest contribution to what is known publicly about the PLA concerns China’s nuclear submarine programs. It states that China’s three already-operational Type 094 Jin-class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) may be joined by “as many as two more in various stages of construction.” The Type 094 “will give the PLA Navy its first credible sea-based nuclear deterrent” once its 7,400+ km-range JL-2 submarine-launched ballistic missile (SSBN) is deployed effectively. “After a round of successful testing in 2012, the JL-2 appears ready to reach initial operational capability in 2013,” DoD explains. “JIN-class SSBNs based at Hainan Island in the South China Sea would then be able to conduct nuclear deterrence patrols.” After as many as 5 Type 094 SSBNs are operational, China is slated to “[proceed] to its next generation SSBN (Type 096) over the next decade.” This improved variant may finally offer acoustic qualities suitable for long-range patrols.
Additionally, “China is building four improved variants” of the Type 093 Shang-class nuclear-powered attack submarine (SSN) to add to the two already deployed. Within “the next decade, China will likely construct the Type 095 guided-missile attack submarine (SSGN), which may enable a submarine-based land-attack capability,” the report adds. Not only will the Type 095 employ “better quieting technologies,” it will also “fulfill traditional anti-ship roles with the incorporation of torpedoes and anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCMs).” With respect to conventional attack submarines, DoD states that the Yuan-class (Type 039A), which may grow to twenty hulls in total, has air-independent power, hence its designation as an “SSP.” These developments will afford the People's Liberation Army (PLAN) new force deployment options and significantly enhance its undersea warfare and strike capabilities.
Another area of significance is the report’s coverage of China’s anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM) program, which is part of a major Chinese emphasis on missile development, particularly of conventional ballistic and cruise missiles. While many details can and have been assembled from previous U.S. government announcements, this is the most definitive, comprehensive statement concerning the program’s current status and capability yet available. “China continues to field” the DF-21D ASBM with its 1,500+ km-range and maneuverable warhead, the report asserts, which “it began deploying in 2010.” The DF-21D “gives the PLA the capability to attack large ships, including aircraft carriers, in the western Pacific Ocean.” Also, “The PLA Navy is also improving its over-the-horizon (OTH) targeting capability with sky wave and surface wave OTH radars, which can be used in conjunction with reconnaissance satellites to locate targets at great distances from China (thereby supporting long-range precision strikes, including employment of ASBMs).” In a hint that Beijing may build longer-range ASBMs, DoDstates: “Beijing is investing in military programs and weapons designed to improve extended-range power projection… Key systems that have been either deployed or in development include ballistic missiles (including anti-ship variants)….”
On the nuclear side, Beijing is trying to achieve/consolidate secure second-strike capability. China has engaged in major efforts over the past decade to construct advanced, deeply-buried facilities to enable “all aspects of its military forces, including C2 [command and control], logistics, missile, and naval forces” to survive a nuclear first strike.
This is part of a larger array of “current and projected force structure improvements” that “will provide the PLA with systems that can engage adversary surface ships up to 1,000 nm from China’s coast.” The PLAN “will also develop a new capability for ship-based land-attack using cruise missiles.” The report judges China’s defense industry to enjoy significant resources.The report credits China with having deployed one of the world’s largest advanced long-range surface-to-air missile (SAM) forces. In a sea change from a decade ago, DoD assesses that PLA missile and other developments have already “largely negated” many of Taiwan’s traditional defensive advantages of technological superiority and geography even as Taipei’s military spending is a tenth that of the mainland’s official defense budget.
Areas of particular Chinese defense industrial capability include missiles, space, and shipbuilding. The report characterizes China as being “among the top ship-producing nations in the world” and China’s ballistic and cruise missile industries to be “comparable to other international top-tier producers” and well-positioned for further development. China’s missile and space industry has benefitted from “upgrades to primary final assembly and rocket motor production facilities.” A burgeoning space launch industry enabled 18 space launches in 2012 that lofted, among many other systems, 11 new remote sensing satellites. Meanwhile, Chinese shipyards have improved in capacity and sophistication, e.g., through improvement management and software, allowing them to develop increasing varieties of platforms and systems and reducing reliance on foreign assistance. Other Chinese research and development trends stand out. The report documents a significant focus on developing unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), both for PLA use and to market to foreign countries; as well as on development/acquisition of unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs).
China’s navy also “has the largest force of major combatants, submarines, and amphibious warfare ships in Asia.” Looking forward, DoD estimates that “China will probably build several aircraft carriers over the next 15 years.” It projects that Beijing “will likely establish several access points… in the next 10 years,” possibly in the Malacca, Lombok, and Sunda Straits, in “the form of agreements for refueling, replenishment, crew rest, and low-level maintenance” to address logistical limitations that currently restrict the level of PLAN distant operations. The report is careful to emphasize, however, that “the services provided will likely fall short of U.S.-style agreements permitting the full spectrum of support from repair to re-armament.”
Despite these areas of progress, the PLA faces areas of enduring weakness, and even new emerging challenges. Present limitations, albeit which the PLA is struggling to surmount, include lack of “a robust, deep water anti- submarine warfare capability….”A related uncertainty is “whether China has the capability to collect accurate targeting information and pass it to launch platforms in time for successful strikes in sea areas beyond the first island chain.” Other developments will themselves force difficult questions upon the PLA. Generally speaking, “to fully implement ‘informatized’ command and control, the PLA will need to overcome a shortage of trained personnel and its culture of centralized, micro-managed command.” More specifically, “Further increases in the number of mobile ICBMs and the beginning of SSBN deterrence patrols will force the PLA to implement more sophisticated command and control systems and processes that safeguard the integrity of nuclear release authority for a larger, more dispersed force.”
Finally, as part of a clear effort to address Chinese military development comprehensively, the report is not all doom and gloom in its coverage. It enumerates both PLA bilateral and multilateral military exercises and Sino-American military contacts and exchanges. One imagines that the report’s authors have been tempered by the reality that Beijing often limits or cancels such exchanges to express political differences, but remain duty bound to pursue a U.S. government policy that preserves the possibility of such exchanges building trust and habits of cooperation and in doing so avoids a still-worse alternative. Whatever uncertainties and concerns may underlie it, this is not a document that is all zero-sum in its approach.
While the U.S. intelligence community has access to a wide range of data on specific developments, other observers who lack access to such information because of nationality or societal station must depend in part on open government publications to raise and clarify specific issues. Given the dynamism and importance of the matters at stake, it is essential that a full range of individuals and foreign governments alike have access to substantive reports. U.S. taxpayers must be informed as to why they are being asked to fund the development and maintenance of military capabilities, and to exercise the civilian oversight on which a democracy depends. Allied and friendly governments and their citizens must keep abreast of relevant developments and maintain military relations with Washington on the basis of mutual understanding and interest. And China itself needs to know how its military progress is being perceived, even as it remains free to publish whatever reports of its own it might wish. Given these factors, DoD is to be commended for having released such a substantive and timely report on China’s military development. Its contents should be discussed and debated constructively with regard to specific substance, in lieu of political sloganeering or sweeping but unsubstantiated charges that fail to further understanding.