Eight ways China's military is catching up to the United States.
- By John Reed
John Reed is a national security reporter for Foreign Policy. He comes to FP after editing Military.com’s publication Defense Tech and working as the associate editor of DoDBuzz. Between 2007 and 2010, he covered major trends in military aviation and the defense industry around the world for Defense News and Inside the Air Force. Before moving to Washington in August 2007, Reed worked in corporate sales and business development for a Swedish IT firm, The Meltwater Group in Mountain View CA, and Philadelphia, PA. Prior to that, he worked as a reporter at the Tracy Press and the Scotts Valley Press-Banner newspapers in California. His first story as a professional reporter involved chasing escaped emus around California’s central valley with Mexican cowboys armed with lassos and local police armed with shotguns. Luckily for the giant birds, the cowboys caught them first and the emus were ok. A New England native, Reed graduated from the University of New Hampshire with a dual degree in international affairs and history.
Although the Pentagon has routinely dismissed some of China’s very publicly touted military advances as being decades behind the United States, they are still significant. Just because someone gets a new piece of tech later than you doesn’t mean that you will always be better at using it than they are. So, we thought we’d bring you a list of the eight most noteworthy military enhancements that China is making by buying, stealing, and innovating:
First up are China’s J-20 and J-31 stealthy-looking fighters. We call them “stealthy looking” because until more information is made public, we won’t know how well the jets mask their heat signatures, noise, and electronic emissions — all critical elements of modern stealth that go beyond radar-evading shapes and radar-absorbent coatings. Nevertheless, China has developed two jets that appear stealthy.
Chengdu Aircraft Industry Group’s large J-20 made its first flight in early 2011 and is thought to be either a high-speed interceptor, designed to fly out and shoot down incoming enemy bombers (similar to the famous MiG-25 Foxbat), or a stealthy bomber along the lines of the U.S. F-111 Aardvark or the more recent F-15E Strike Eagle, meant to penetrate enemy defenses and bomb bases and ships. One has to notice the similarities between the cockpit and nose section of the J-20 and the U.S. Air Force’s F-22 Raptor.
Less than two years after the J-20 appeared, Shenyang Aviation Corporation unveiled China’s second stealthy fighter, the J-31. This jet is smaller than the J-20, and its fuselage bears a striking resemblance to the U.S.’s F-22 and F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. (It has been widely reported that the computers of numerous defense contractors working on the F-35 program were hacked and information on the jet was stolen.) Some speculate that the J-31 will be used as a complement to the J-20 — similar to the role that F-16 Vipers play for F-15 Eagles or F-35s play for the F-22s. Others point to the twin wheels on the J-31’s nose landing gear as sign that it is being developed as a carrier-based fighter. (Land-based fighters usually have just one wheel on their nose gear while naval fighters have two because of the increased strain of landing on ships.)
Chinese Internet/China Defense Blog
Speaking of aircraft carriers…after decades of buying old British and Russian Cold War-era aircraft carriers and turning them into museums and theme hotels, China converted the hull of the incomplete 1980s vintage Soviet aircraft carrier Varyag into its first operational carrier: the Liaoning. Chinese investors purchased the ex-Varyag from Ukraine in 1998, claiming they would turn it into a casino. That obviously didn’t happen, and China spent much of the last decade completely modernizing the old hulk, installing new engines, electronic warfare gear, radars, defensive weapons, and modernized interior spaces (right down to the galleys). She took to sea for the first time in August 2011 and was commissioned into Chinese naval service in September 2012. The first carrier landings and takeoffs by Chinese fighters occurred in late November.
Interestingly, China’s first carrier fighter, the J-15, is a knockoff of another Soviet/Russian design, the Sukhoi Su-33. China may have purchased a partially completed Su-33 from Ukraine in 2001, after Russia refused to sell it the aircraft because China was reverse-engineering the very similar Sukhoi Su-27s that Russia was selling to China. (Got that?) While many are quick to point out that China is conducting its first carrier ops more than a century after Eugene Ely landed on the deck of the USS Pennsylvania, it’s worth noting that China plans to have at least three carriers by the middle of this decade. Still, the learning curve is extremely steep for carrier ops. As we’ve said before, it took the U.S. Navy decades to master the art of landing jets on ships.
Next up is China’s very own spaceplane, the Shenlong or “Divine Dragon,” which first flew in January 2011 (roughly the same time the J-20 took its maiden flight). While there’s been plenty of speculation about the mission of the U.S. Air Force’s super secret X-37B robot space shuttle, the United States isn’t alone in having a reusable spaceplane. What interests some China watchers most about the Divine Dragon is the fact that China flew such a craft less than a year after the United States did. (Granted, the United States could have done so much earlier, given its decades of experience with the Space Shuttle, which could easily have been flown as a large, unmanned spaceplane.) Speculation surrounds both the U.S. and Chinese spaceplane programs, with observers suggesting the vehicles could be used for everything from spying on and destroying enemy satellities to simply repairing their own nation’s satellites.
Of course, China doesn’t need fancy robot spaceplanes to destroy enemy satellites. In 2007, China became only the second nation (after the United States) to shoot down a satellite when it destroyed one of its own weather satellites using a modified version of the DF-21 ballistic missile. Needless to say, the United States and several other nations condemned the test, saying the debris created by the shot posed a serious risk to other nations’ satellites, spacecraft, and space stations. The incident also alarmed U.S. defense officials, who saw this development as evidence that Chinese military planners are preparing to knock out a major U.S. advantage in the event of war: its network of spy, communications, and navigation satellites. This worried some in the U.S. military so much that the Pentagon has begun working on terrestrial and airborne backups to its space systems, and the Air Force has even begun practicing operations without relying on satellites under the theme “a day without space.”
Next up is China’s growing fleet of UAVs, which for now strongly resemble U.S. drones. Simply look at Shenyang’s Pterodactyl, a recently introduced armed drone that appears to be a blatant copy of General Atomics’s MQ-9 Reaper — the U.S. Air Force’s premier armed drone. According to Chinese press accounts, Beijing is testing up to 10 different UAVs, including high-altitude drones that may have a strategic reconnaissance mission similar to the United States’s RQ-4 Global Hawk. Then there’s China’s fleet of small, stealthy-shaped models and miniature UAVs, which appear to be the precursors to full-size jet-powered stealth drones. (Remember, models of the design that eventually became the J-31 emerged years before we saw the production aircraft.)
Remember the DF-21 China used to shoot down its satellite? Well, the ballistic missile has other uses as well. The missiles are designed to zoom into space and then rain down on U.S. bases or moving ships, such as aircraft carriers, as far as 900 miles from their launch sites — hence the nickname “carrier killer” and the reason that the United States is sending many of its ballistic missile defense ships to the Pacific. China has been building a fleet of the missiles that is thought to have become operational in 2009 or 2010. And it is fielding the DF-21D in conjunction with a host of advanced radars, surveillance drones, spy satellites, and so-called triple-digit surface-to-air missiles designed by Russia that are capable of shooting down most U.S. aircraft. All of these systems are part of China’s “area denial” strategy, aimed at keeping enemy ships and aircraft far from its shores.
Aegis Destroyers, SSBNs and amphibious assault vehicles
The Chinese navy has been investing in everything from a new fleet of hovercraft that will land troops ashore during amphibious assaults to the new Type 052D class guided-missile destroyers, equipped with Aegis-style phased-array radars designed to track missiles and aircraft. (This is in addition to the older Type 052C class equipped with similar systems.) The Chinese navy is also fielding a new generation of nuclear missile-carrying submarines, the Type 094, designed to fire the JL-21 nuclear-tipped ballistic missile. Beijing’s navy is also beefing up its amphibious assault capabilities with the ZDB05 fighting vehicle. The ZDB05 — think of it as a swimming armored personnel carrier with guns — is capable of hitting 16 knots in the water and then using its 30mm cannon, 7.62mm machine gun, and antitank missiles to protect the five to seven infantrymen it can deliver to the beach. Could be useful if China wanted to stake a claim on some islands in the South China Sea.
No conversation about China’s rapidly expanding military would be complete without mentioning the Chinese military’s focus on using an enemy’s own computer networks against it. Click here to read the U.S. China Economic and Security Review Commission’s report on the country’s use of cyber to gain military advantage. While you’re at it, click here to read the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence’s claim that Chinese telecommunications companies Huawei and ZTE, both of which have a large presence in the United States, may be doing the work of China’s military and intelligence agencies. China has numerous military units dedicated to corrupting the data in enemy computer networks or taking those networks out entirely. As the Economic and Security Review Commission report notes: “PLA leaders have embraced the idea that successful warfighting is predicated on the ability to exert control over an adversary’s information and information systems, often preemptively. This goal has effectively created a new strategic and tactical high ground, occupying which has become just as important for controlling the battlespace as its geographic equivalent in the physical domain.”