A Brief Look at China’s
Current Military Capabilities

In the past few years, The People’s Republic of China’s growing military capability has attracted a great deal of interest, but major details regarding China’s near-future military strength have been hard to combine. At this very moment, China is spending massive amounts of financial resources in order to improve its overall military capability. This spike of budgetary expenses by China is setup in the background of the country’s need to upgrade its low-tech armed forces. At this time, reports have placed the number of deployable nuclear weapons China possesses at four hundred. Of these, around twenty are deployed in the Intercontinental ballistic missile configuration. Nearly two hundred and twenty are reported to be deployed in various delivery platforms such as aircraft, submarines and short-to-medium range missile systems. All of these weapons are of tactical capability. The remainder weapons are held in tactical reserves for short range missiles, low yield attacks and demolition purposes. The Central Military Commission, headed by the Chinese President, is the sole administrator of the country’s nuclear arsenal. China’s current Intercontinental ballistic missile force of twenty units is mainly used as a deterrence force. The main component of the system is the Dong-Feng 5 liquid-fuelled missile, with an estimated range of 13,000 km and can carry a single use, multi-megaton warhead. The Dong-Feng 5 was first deployed in the summer of 1981 and has remained the backbone of China’s ICBM force for the past two decades. Twenty frontline Feng 5’s are believed to be stationed in full alert somewhere in Central China. The Feng 5 was a drastic change from the early versions of China’s ballistic missiles. Those early missiles were mainly stored in caves and were rolled-out for launch. The Feng 5 can be launched from vertical silos after just a few hours of the order being received by their launch crews. The Feng 5 operational range gave China the ability to launch a small nuclear attack against most of Europe, Asia and some parts of the United States, mainly the southeast part of the country. Today, two additional missile platforms are deployed or being tested for possible deployment by China. They are the medium range DF 31’s, which entered first-line operation in 2005, and its long range variant, the DF 31A, formerly called the DF-41; which is expected to be fielded by late 2010. Both missiles are going to be propelled by solid fuel cells and based on mobile launchers. China is expected to attempt producing a multiple re-entry vehicle (MVRs) for their new missile systems. An attempt to produce the more technical challenge multiple independently-targetable re-entry vehicles (MIRVs) is underway.

China also deploys intermediate range ballistic missiles and medium range ballistic missile systems. These weapon platforms are capable of threatening the security of many countries in Asia, including India, but its effects on the overall strategic security of Russia are minimal. China’s intermediate missile systems are also capable of hitting targets on Japan’s coastal cities and United States base stations in South Korea and Japan. The oldest missile platform deployed by China is the near stationary DF 3A missile system. This missile platform is being phased-out in favor of the more modern DF 4 and DF 21 systems. The DF 4, with a maximum operating range of 4,750 km, is still the backbone of China’s regional deterrence force. The DF 4 is a liquid fueled system that operates mainly now out of fixed launch sites. With the deployment of the DF 21 in 1986, China’s regional ballistic missile capabilities increased twofold. The operational DF 21 has an estimated range of 1,800km and is carried in mobile launchers for security reasons. The DF 21 is also the base of China’s sea-launch ballistic missile systems. The older, liquid fueled missiles can carry a single nuclear warhead of an estimate 3.3mt yield. The newest missiles also carry a single warhead with maximum yields in the hundreds kilotons range. China also possesses a limited number of short-range ballistic missile batteries. The DF 11/M 11, with an operational range of 300km, and the DF 15/M 9, with a range of 600km, are the backbone of China’s tactical force. Is believed that most of this missile platforms are configured to carry only a small nuclear or conventional warhead.

China’s bomber force is based on the local production of Russian made aircraft first deployed in the 1950s. With the overdue retirement of the Ilyushin IL-28 bomber from front-line, nuclear delivery role, the Tu-16 Badger assumes the role of a medium range, nuclear strike bomber. Being a product of the 1950s technology, the Tu-16 could only carry two or three nuclear bombs over a range of 1,5,00 to 3,100km. China is believed to have over 130 of these vintage planes in operational conditions. The Chinese Navy also operated the Tu-16 in a reserve role primarily. Although the Chinese Air Force possesses a great number of other possible nuclear carrying aircraft, such as the venerable MiG-21, the Russian supplied Su-27, and the newly designed JH-7s; they are not believed to be used for such a role. The Chinese Air Force also has a large inventory of strike and fighter aircraft at their disposal. It is estimated that by 2004 China has a total aircraft inventory of around 4,200 operational aircraft of many types. This inventory includes all the variants of the J-6 or MiG-19 fighter, J-7 or MiG-21, Su-27, IL-28 and Tu 16 bombers. Of these aircraft, the vast majority entered service with the Chinese air force before 1970. The tactical airlift aspect of the air force is at a diminishing capability. Over the last two decades, Chinese leaders have stressed the development of a localized aerospace industry sector capable of designing and developing advanced avionics needed for military aircraft. Despite the investment of large amounts of budgetary and human resources, the Chinese had not shown the ability to promptly design, develop and mass produce an indigenous combat aircraft. The recently revealed J-7, and the J-8, both of which took so long in their developmental stages that by the time they were ready to enter front-line services they were already obsolete by Western standards, showed China the need for more investment in financial and human resources as well as the training of experienced technicians to work in all aspects of the technical design of a combat aircraft. The same holds true of the most vaunted of China’s aircraft developments, the J-10.

China is not alone in this area, other countries had tried in the past to design and mass-produce indigenous aircraft systems, most notable Israel, South Africa, India, Taiwan and south Korea; all abandoned their programs in favor of purchasing existing and proved aircraft types from the five largest weapons producers: the United States, Russia, Great Britain, France and Germany. The main reason is the fact that the economic resources needed, not only to design a generation-leaping aircraft, but to be mass produced for local consume, are so massive that developing countries with a small industrial base simply can not afford to spend the necessary resources for a long period of time. This also holds true of large economies with a small gross national product output such as Russia, which is lagging far behind the Western countries in military technology designs. As a direct result of their failure to establish a permanent industrial base capable of producing front-line aircraft, China has renewed its imports of combat airplanes from Russia.

China also had the distinction of having one of the largest conventional military force in the world. The shear mass of numbers is enough to make a potential enemy think twice about provoking China. The truth is that, although the numbers of weapons are impressive, most of China’s military hardware is obsolete, both physically and technologically. Most of the weapon platforms utilized by China today, entered service in the 1950s, 60s and 70s and still serve the country in front-line units. Although the systems varied in age of development and deployment, the technologies used to create them are sorely based on Soviet blueprints of the 1950s. As a result, while older systems are being phased-out, the overall size of China’s conventional weapon force would be reducing. As of late 2001, estimates reported the size of China’s military force as 2.5 men under arms, of which, roughly 1.8 serve the People’s Liberation Army (China’s ground forces). They are divided into 27 military districts through the country. Within these districts lie 20 army groups, each containing around 60,000 men. They are subdivided into 44 infantry, 5 artillery, and 10 armored divisions. There are also brigade-sized groups in these army units. There are also three airborne divisions under the direct command of the Chinese Air Force. The reserve units are mostly compromised of infantry, artillery and anti-aircraft divisions. These forces are estimated to be composed of 1.1 million personnel. There are also the People of China Para-military units. The Armed Police, Border Defense Force and the Forces of the Ministry of Defense compromise a large sector in China’s strategic reserves. They counted a total of forty four divisions. These reserve formations are expected to increase in size as China moves forward with its major modernization and re-organization plans that emphasize the movement of active troop formations to the strategic reserve roles. The Army’s equipment is also being phased-out as new models were introduced to the force. China’s main battle tank platform, the Soviet designed T-54/55, also a product of the 1950s technologies, is no longer the main tank platform. During the late 1970s and early 1980s, China designed, with Soviet cooperation, and produced various tanks systems, but although their designs were more recently than that of the T-54, its overall capabilities are about the same. All of this changed in the summer of 1988, when China unveiled its newest battle tank, the Type 80. The 80 represents China’s first attempt at breaking with Soviet design concepts for a battle tank. The 80 had a formidable set of systems, some of them are: fire and control computerized? system, a laser range finder, a gun control system and night fighting capability. This tank breakthrough was followed by the Type 85, introduced in the mid 1990s as follow-up development of the 80. China’s latest main battle tank system, the massive T-90II, first revealed in 1991, is still not completely operational with the PLA. This new tank resembles in more than one way, the mainstay of Russian tank formations, and the T-72 heavy tank. China also possesses a force of around 2,100 light tanks, which as it is with much of their weapon systems, are based on Soviets designs from the 1950s. It is estimated that China’s tank strength is between 9,000 to 11,000 units. This number is deceiving; the majority of tanks in China’s front-line services are systems with over forty years of service life. Most of them could not function properly and a great number of them could not function at all. The most interesting part of the situation is that China, which, like the former Soviet Union, tends to value numbers more than any other matters, thus service maintenance of existing systems is poor. The same maintenance problem applies to the new weapons platform entering service today. Thus a major gap exists today in main battle tank design between China and the Western countries, the Chinese are in the processes of designing a new tank system that could compare with that of the Europeans; also they would like to emphasize quality over quantity. With these developments and the expected reduction in its tank force, China expects to be able to support its main battle tank systems with more efficiency in the future.

For most of its history, the People’s Army Liberation Navy submarine fleet has consisted of a small number of coastal vessels. The mainstay of their coastal fleet was the domestic produced version of Russia’s Romeo class submarine. It’s estimated that between 20 to 30 Romeos are still operational with the PALN. In the early 1970s, China decided to start a submarine development and production program aimed to build a local submarine in five years. It succeeded; the first indigenous submarine developed by China is the Ming Class. Although they are not better than the Romeos, they do represent China’s first attempt at self-sufficiency in designing weapon platforms. The next Chinese submarine class, the Song, entered service with the PALN in late 1999. In addition to these subs, China has purchased or is in the process of acquiring, more samples of the Russian-made Kilo Class submarines. In the nuclear-powered submarine field, China’s first attempt to produce a local system produced disappointing results for the PALN. The Han Class first entered service in 1974. Major power plant problems plagued the lead ship of this class. So much so, that the next commissioning of a Han Class sub was not made until mid 1980. China is also believed to be developing, with considerable assistance from Russia, a follow-on nuclear attack submarine, very similar to the Russian’s Victor III Class. China’s SSBN force consists of the Xia Class submarine, which is fitted to launch twelve Ju Lang-1 missiles with a single warhead of 200-300kt and an operational range of 1,700km. In part to its technical difficulties, the Xia Class is never deployed beyond regional waters. The newer submarine class, codename Type 094, would have better reactors and a quieter signature than its predecessors. This new class would be able to deploy 16 JL-2 missile, each capable of carrying up to six nuclear warheads. China’s surface fleet has been growing in size since the 1970s. The Chinese posses a number of Soviet-build Sovremenny destroyers as its main surface fleet weapon platform. They are equipped to carry the advanced SS-N-22 Sunburn supersonic, anti-shipping missile system. The Chinese are also building its own class of destroyers, the Luhai Class which displaces 6,000 tons. The lead ship of this class entered service in late 1999. The largest class of destroyers China operates is the Luda Class. China operates about sixteen of these ships. The remaining force is compromised of 37 frigates. As in the case of destroyers, China’s frigate force is mostly used as an air-defense force. China’s amphibious assault fleet is the Achilles heels of the PALN. China possessed around 49 amphibious assault vessels with full displacement of 1,000 tons. Many of these vessels are vintage WW II systems. Most of them, being United States Navy’s LST used in assaults around the South Pacific. China is planning to deploy an aircraft carrier. They are looking at buying a platform, most likely from Russia. The carrier probably needs to be conventional on take-off and landing aircraft since China does not posses vertical, short take-off and landing aircraft capability. Since China would probably would like to supply the air wings of the carrier with its J-10 fighters and Su-27 fighter-bombers, they would probably would need a carrier platform that could displace around 50,000 tons, which would put China in the need to acquire a carrier like the Russian Kuznetsov or the French Charles de Gaulle. China’s need to acquire a carrier capability is probably more for internal promotion that to actually being a first attempt by them to deploy a Blue Water navy.

The small size of China’s amphibious fleet excludes the Chinese of taking control of Taiwan by means of an amphibious assault. In the past, Chinese leaders had threatened to take action against Taiwan if the island, which China considered a renegade province, decided to declare its independence. The reality is that even if China decided to use force, it lacked the necessary military resources needed to complete the operation. An amphibious assault, which is the only mean China could take control of Taiwan’s territory, is out of the equation. First, China can only transport one armored division across the Straits, and even this would be hard to accomplish. Second, any amphibious landing would need complete control over the skies in the Strait, which the Chinese air force probably could not accomplish. Finally, both Taiwan and the United States could see the signs of pending military offensive months before the actual event. What China could do is to attack Taiwan with a barrage of missiles, the DF 15 and the DF 11. These missile systems are not accurate enough to destroy strategic targets such as airfields, radar stations and transport facilities; their only use would be as terror weapons, such as the V-2 or the Scud. If they are not fitted with nuclear warheads, the damage they could cause would be similar to a natural disaster. China also possesses a limited number of these missiles and any missile siege would be limited in duration. A naval blockade of the island is possible, but due to the strong U.S. statement regarding any attack on Taiwan and the notion of a powerful U.S. fleet coming to relive the besieged island, China would be hard pressed to perform any naval operation in the area.

The reality is that China is investing massive amounts of money to modernize its armed forces, but the current force structure is so old, that the rate of retirement will surpass the rate of acquisition in all major weapon platform systems. This fact means that China overall military force would decrease in size. Aircraft, missile systems and ground combat systems would decrease in numbers, the only possible exception could be China’s surface ship fleet. Also, the modernization process is slow due to the massive investment needed to accomplish it. China is also adding a small number of new technology weapon systems to its overall arsenal. New weapon platforms are purchased in small quantities, which can not dramatically alter the balance of power. China current acquisitions of Russian systems are not as impressive as they might look. Those systems are not comparable to the ones fielded by the United States or Japan. The main problem of China’s militarization might be their inability to produce a continuous indigenous weapon industry to produce next-generation military technology. Which could be used on their existing or newest systems? The recent reversal of policy from the Chinese government, from developing its own weapon systems to purchasing systems, mainly from Russia and Israel; has left the government in Peking without control over the military they so desperately desire. For the foreseeable future, China’s potential military action, mainly against Taiwan, is limited, let alone branching out of the regional setting they are now. Overall, the balance of power in East Asia would remain the same for the next decade.

1 John W. Lewis and Hua di, China’s Ballistic Missile Programs: Technologies, Strategies, Goals, International Security, Original: July 1997 – Updated December 2006.
2 Jeffrey Lewis, The Ambiguous Arsenal, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientist, May-June 2003.
3 Bill Gertz, China Advances Missile Program, Washington Times, June 22, 2005.
4 NTI and The Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, China Profile: Nuclear Capabilities, Nuclear Treaty Initiative, Fall 2003.

– Raul Colon

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