China’s Military Makes Rapid Progress

China has dedicated significant attention and funding to modernise its communist era military. This has attracted significant global attention with many viewing China’s military ascent as a threat to the status quo
Muzammil Hussain23rd July 20216 min

On the 100-year anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) on 1 July 2021 the nation’s military development continues to gain significant global media attention. The nation’s aircraft carrier, new air platforms and seafaring vessels have gained the attention of the world’s powers who see China’s ascent as a threat to the global balance of power. China has dedicated significant attention and funding to modernise its communist era military. China today is confident its military can defend the large country and protect its Sea Lines of Communication (SLOC).

‘Quantity has its own quality’ declared Stalin when his inferior but numerous T34 tanks faced the technically sophisticated but meagre Panzer 2 tanks of the Nazis. Although the Soviets won the war due to the superiority of their numbers rather than the technical prowess of their engineers, the casualties they suffered were horrendous. The doctrine of poorly equipped but overwhelmingly numerous forces prevailing despite the colossal casualties suffered has been the de-facto policy of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in several conflicts including the Korean War (1959-1953), in which communist China only a year after its founding fought a battle hardened and superbly equipped US Army to a stalemate despite the paucity of the supplies and weapon allotted to its soldiers. Whilst the US was privileged with a fully equipped air force, China could not muster a single aircraft to join the fray. In several battles the scarcity of equipment was such that soldiers had to wait for their comrade to die to gain access to the “dead man’s rifle”. But despite this they managed to push the US Army and its allies back to the 38th parallel where an armistice was signed. 

The first war between the US and Iraq – Desert Storm, significantly impacted Chinese military doctrine.  The numerically superior Iraqi army was no match for the numerically inferior but technically proficient US army and Air force. The revolution in military affairs (RMA) which had taken place proceeding the development and miniaturisation of integrated circuits confirmed that numerical superiority was easily overcome by the sophistication of modern weapons systems. Chinese military policy had, up to this point, been predicated on the understanding of Mao Zedong and his 4th generational warfare which postulated the notion of the Chinese military operating from a position of economic and technological weakness against a much more capable foe. But desert storm adequately highlighted that sophisticated aerial sensors and precision guided munitions simply left no place for the weak to hide. 

Following Desert Storm, the PLA and CCP commissioned several reports to assess the security implications for China. The PLA conclusions listed several key factors that determined the overwhelming success of the US against Saddam Hussein’s forces : “securing dominance of the electromagnetic spectrum; aerial attacks as a strategic factor; deception, coordinated operations among difference services, and deep attacks in the rapid attainment of campaign objectives; destruction of fortifications and minefields; logistical support to sustain high-technology weapons and network centric warfare were all key ingredients of the spectacular success of US forces. Modernisation of the PLA had become a necessity otherwise China faced a repeat of the years of capitulation it suffered during its century of humiliation during 19th and early 20th centuries. 


Spurred by the necessity to secure the Middle Kingdom and its rapid economic and technological development China has embarked upon an ambitious modernisation program for all branches of its military. Land, sea and air forces have all seen an exponential growth in the budgets allocated to them. From under $5 billion in 1989, China’s defence budget now stands at over $180 billion officially but more realistically $250bn, which although is only a fraction of that spent by the US, when adjusted according to Purchasing Power Parity (PPP) amounts to around two thirds of the US budget.    

Learning from the mistakes of the Soviet Union, China has not sought to match the US,  system to system, rather it has sought to gain an asymmetrical advantage, to counter a US system with a system of its own that costs only a fraction of that deployed by the US. For example, to counter US aircraft carriers and their potential to interfere in any conflict initiated by China to retake Taiwan, China has developed the DF-21 anti ship ballistic missile, which if perfected will serve as an access denial system keeping US carrier groups at least 1,200 km away from the conflict zone and thus removing the US carriers from the battle. Rather than match US carrier capabilities with each carrier costing in the region of $13 billion excluding their complement of aircraft, China has effectively countered the US carrier fleet with a missile costing millions rather than the billions it costs to produce and sustain an aircraft carrier.

Rather than match US carrier capabilities with each carrier costing in the region of $13 billion excluding their complement of aircraft, China has effectively countered the US carrier fleet with a missile costing millions rather than the billions it costs to produce and sustain an aircraft carrier

In a departure from previous policy, China has spent extensively on its navy rather than its land forces, which is a reflection of the changing security situation that China faces. An invasion by Russian forces across its northern border is a remote possibility today, but the closure of sea lanes stifling the flow of raw material imports and manufactured goods  exports is a distinct possibility in the event of a conflict over Taiwan or a flare up of any one of the simmering conflicts that China has over the many Islands in the South China Sea. 

From 255 relatively simple ships in 2015 China now boasts over 360 modern battleships with a plan to increase them to over 400 including three Aircraft carriers. Going back to 2000, the numbers are even more impressive, China has more than tripled in size, but the real change has been in the quality rather than just the quantity of Chinese ships. The Type 052D guided-missile destroyer and the much more capable type 055 stealth guided missile destroyer are at least equivalent but potentially exceed the capabilities of the Arleigh Burke class guided missile carriers that form the mainstay of the US fleet. 

Not to be out done, the Chinese Air Force is the only Airforce that has three simultaneous stealth aircraft programs, the Chengdu J-20 long range stealth interceptor, the FC-31 single engine air superiority fighter and Xian H-20 stealth bomber are three ongoing 5th generation military aircraft programs.  In addition to these programs there are several conventional but nevertheless important aircraft programs including the Y-20 strategic airlift, the J-15 naval fighter and the J-10 4.5 generation air multirole fighter program. 

Chinese land forces have also been extensively modernised, with an emphasis on digitisation, network centric warfare and precision strike. The type 99A main battle tank in a break with the past doctrine is a European standard fully digitised tank, equivalent to a German leopard 2A or a US M1A1 Abrahams tank. In addition China’s new PCL191 multiple launch rocket system emphasises precision strike over massed human wave warfare. 

Although lacking combat experience the PLA is determined to secure china, if not a leading role in world affairs at least a chair at the table that decides the rules of international engagement. China has come a long way since the days its doctrine was having more soldiers than its enemies had bullets. Its air force and Navy, which were for so long neglected, have come a long way and can protect China in its littoral waters and she is making progress in projecting power further out to its first island chain and then to its second Island chain. Its this regional ambition that worries the US who for so long dominated the region as well as the Pacific


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