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The US Military Is Getting Left Behind By Chinese Power

October 28, 2020
Via Chinese state media.

The 200 pages of the latest China Military Power Report, an annual document published by the Pentagon, makes it indisputably clear the US faces a strategic competitor in Asia the likes of which it has never confronted before. This is emphasized in the very beginning of the report (download it here) where the authors use their preface to highlight three areas the US military has fallen behind when compared to the PLA and its branches. The Chinese military now enjoys advantages when it comes to naval expansion, land-based missiles, and air defenses.

Since the report was outed last month US media were keen to emphasize the naval disparity that can no longer be ignored–the PLAN enjoys a larger “battle force” with more surface combatants.

The report elaborated on two other areas where the PLA and its branches have surpassed the US military. According to the Pentagon, besides the short-range ATACMS ballistic missiles in service with the US Army, there are neither analogs nor countermeasures against Chinese road mobile ballistic missiles and cruise missiles. The implications are worse than the report’s text implies, with four conventional road mobile missile types posing a grave anti-access threat to the US Navy in the Indo-Pacific theater. These are the DF-26 intermediate-range ballistic missile whose purpose is targeting US Navy carrier strike groups as far as 4,000 kilometers away. The DF-21 MRBM has a similar role albeit with half the range.

The PLA Rocket Force also boasts the world’s first operational hypersonic missile system with the DF-17 that was unveiled in Beijing last year. Its effective range is still speculative but its operational use is another powerful deterrent against the US Navy in the first island chain. Another cause for concern is the subsonic DF-10/10A land attack cruise missile that’s mounted on an 8×8 transport. The extreme range of the DF-10/10A guarantees China’s adjacent seas are protected from carrier-based strike aircraft and other warships. In what looks like an omission, the Pentagon’s report doesn’t acknowledge the newer air-launched missiles available to the PLAAF’s combat aircraft.

The third area where the PLA overmatches the US military is a bit of a surprise. In a blow to the notion the US Air Force and Navy have sufficient resources for a deliberate campaign against the Chinese mainland, the report credits the PLA’s “robust and redundant integrated air defense system architecture.” Besides the obvious references to Beijing’s acquisition of the Russian-made S-400 and S-300 further details of this ground-based air defense network aren’t shared. The sobering truth is the PLA and its branches have a more varied arsenal of air defense weapon systems compared to the US military, including new long-range SAMs and high frequency radars.

While the report’s preface only lists three areas where the US military lags when compared to the PLA there are other indicators of worrying gaps between the rivals. The Pentagon believes China’s overall military spending is higher than official disclosures of its defense budget and this could prove hard for Beijing to sustain when its annual economic growth slows to just 3% by the year 2030; at least this is the report’s forecast. The claim is problematic when the PLA’s other emerging advantages are recognized. For example, China’s push for widespread adoption of artificial intelligence (AI) alongside its efforts at “civil/military fusion” means the PLA’s commanders may soon have AI-powered tools at their disposal for real-time intelligence gathering.

The advent of AI for battlefield applications is connected to another technological leap for the PLA. The unmanned systems, including aircraft, it now deploys among its branches are at least on par with the US military’s own robotic fleet and could be superior given the successful development of functional drone swarms, high altitude combat and surveillance drones, and jet-powered UCAVs in the last handful of years. By comparison, the US military enjoys a clear advantage when in comes to surveillance drones but hasn’t adopted the same broad capabilities in unmanned systems that the PLA and its branches have.

The report’s authors don’t acknowledge how the PLA’s current generation of land systems, as well as tube and rocket artillery, surpass their NATO equivalents in firepower and volume. China’s military-industrial sector is just as formidable with its immense production capacity and the short timetables for developing current-generation equipment. Even if a ground war between China and the USA may never be fought Asian countries at odds with Beijing’s policies have to take stock of the range and striking power the PLA can bring to bear outside the country’s borders. The army’s latest rocket artillery system alone is unmatched in the region. With China’s economy poised for steady growth in the 2020s, its nominal GDP of $14 trillion reaching $28 trillion by 2030 by some estimates, the remaining gaps in its hard power–an untested logistical network and a fledgling air force–may disappear to the dismay of its rivals.

The Pentagon’s Military and Security Developments Involving the PRC is available for download here.

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