Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Is there a Chinese window of opportunity for attacking within about 5 to 10 years?

By Robert Haddick Best Defense guest columnist There is an interesting question about whether China’s military leaders may view their "window of opportunity," assuming they even think in those terms. I raise this because, in addition to China’s mounting internal issues, there is the trend in comparative military modernization over the next 15 years. That ...

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By Robert Haddick
Best Defense guest columnist

There is an interesting question about whether China's military leaders may view their "window of opportunity," assuming they even think in those terms.

I raise this because, in addition to China's mounting internal issues, there is the trend in comparative military modernization over the next 15 years. That is, on the U.S. side, very little new technology or capacity is slated to arrive out to 2025. For example, because of its limited combat radius and vulnerable bases, PLA leaders don't have to worry much about the F-35 A/B/C. China's anti-ship missiles checkmate U.S. surface naval forces. The United States is adding Virginia-class attack subs but is subtracting Los Angeles-class subs even faster, resulting in a net reduction in the sub fleet. At the current pace, the new U.S. bomber won't arrive until later next decade. And the United States does not have any missile programs to overcome China's land-based range advantage.

By Robert Haddick
Best Defense guest columnist

There is an interesting question about whether China’s military leaders may view their "window of opportunity," assuming they even think in those terms.

I raise this because, in addition to China’s mounting internal issues, there is the trend in comparative military modernization over the next 15 years. That is, on the U.S. side, very little new technology or capacity is slated to arrive out to 2025. For example, because of its limited combat radius and vulnerable bases, PLA leaders don’t have to worry much about the F-35 A/B/C. China’s anti-ship missiles checkmate U.S. surface naval forces. The United States is adding Virginia-class attack subs but is subtracting Los Angeles-class subs even faster, resulting in a net reduction in the sub fleet. At the current pace, the new U.S. bomber won’t arrive until later next decade. And the United States does not have any missile programs to overcome China’s land-based range advantage.

However, past 2025, the new U.S. bomber will arrive. High-power directed energy defenses may also arrive at that time, making surface forces relevant again. And investments in autonomous and low-cost long-range unmanned systems may be a competitive U.S. advantage later next decade.

On the other hand, China is leaping forward. While the United States is fallow over the next 10 years, China’s C4ISR networks will fill out, its Flanker inventories will continue to grow, J-20 long-range stealthy strike-fighter regiments will arrive, and China’s submarine fleet will grow, improve in quality, and outnumber the U.S. Pacific submarine fleet by more than two-to-one. Most important, China’s land-attack and anti-ship missile forces will continue to expand, areas where the United States has much less happening.

Adding it up, the Chinese "window" may open the widest between 2020 and 2025, after which it may begin to close. Whether China’s leaders see it the same way remains to be seen.

Robert Haddick, a former Marine officer, is the author of a book on Chinese military technology that is scheduled to be published in September by the U.S. Naval Institute Press.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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