For the past 15 or 20 years, China been engaged in a concerted effort to modernize and upgrade its military. To be sure, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in 2016 is a much more formidable fighting force than it was in 1996. It has — as the result of a concerted, multi-decade effort, backed up by a rapidly expanding defense budget – crafted a new military force increasingly more capable of projecting power across the modern battlespace, particularly at sea, in outer space, and in cyberspace.
But this does not make the PLA invincible, nor does it mean that the PLA is yet a 21st century force. If a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, then there are still many fragile points in the PLA war machine.
Some of these weaknesses are, in fact, pretty well known. China has struggled for literally decades to develop a jet engine that is as good as those found in the West or in Russia. Its best engine, the WS-10, has been in development since the 1980s, and yet it still disappoints. It is underpowered and reportedly lasts only 30 hours before it needs replacement. Consequently, most modern aircraft in the PLA Air Force (PLAAF) are powered by foreign-supplied engines, mostly from Russia or Ukraine.
China’s problems with jet engines have contributed to other setbacks in other areas of weapons development. China’s J-20 and J-31 fighter jets – both alleged 5th-generation combat aircraft, on par with the US’s F-22 and F-35 – are hobbled by the lack of powerful engines that permit them to “supercruise,” that is, go supersonic without the need for afterburners. This, in turn, compromises the stealthiness of such aircraft, which is one of their prime advantages.
In fact, some Western analysts have poured a lot of cold water on whether the J-20 or J-31 could be considered “5th-generation” fighters in the truest sense. Noted aerospace expert Richard Aboulafia once laid out ten essential features of a 5th-generation combat aircraft; he concluded that the J-20 possessed perhaps two of them.
It is telling, too, that the PLAAF, seems uninterested so far in acquiring the J-31, an indicator perhaps of its capabilities and quality. Meanwhile, the PLA’s new homegrown carrier-based aircraft, the J-15 (essentially a reverse-engineered copy of the Russian Su-33), has to be so loaded with fuel to take off that it is essentially a flying gas tank, incapable of carrying much in the way of weapons or operating off a carrier for long periods of time.
Carrier ‘killer’ or complicator?
There are even doubts surrounding one of the PLA’s more vaunted new weapons systems, the DF-21D antiship ballistic missile (ASBM), the so-called “carrier killer.” To be sure, the DF-21 ASBM is a unique weapon, one that no other military possesses. That may be an indicator that, in this case, the Chinese are making a virtue out of a necessity, since long-range cruise missile technology still seems to elude them.
Even then, the DF-21D may not be the great “game-changer” that some have termed it (Henry Kazianis at the Center for National Interest has called it the “great complicator,” which is probably more accurate). It requires a sophisticated reconnaissance and command infrastructure – particularly over-the-horizon targeting – to back it up, and it would probably have to be fired in a saturation attack. What’s more, the system has never been operationally tested, and it is likely susceptible to countermeasures, such as jamming.
All this is not to say that the PLA today is still a paper tiger, or that we do not need to fear a China that increasingly is using force or the threat of force to achieve its national interests (as evidenced by its increasingly bellicose and destabilizing behavior in the South China Sea). China is most definitely adding to its military power – and it wants to add more (and more sophisticated bits, such as “information warfare”).
Dangers of faddism
But it is equally important to maintain perspective and to avoid “faddism” in our analyses. Fads exist everywhere, even when it comes to the supposedly steely-eyed, fact-based world of assessing Chinese military power. Over the past quarter century, western estimates of the PLA have gone from the “gang that couldn’t shoot straight” dismissals of the 1990s to grave pronouncements of a “China threat” narrative of the mid-2000s.
It is not yet a fact that China has achieved any kind of true anti-access/area denial capacity in the far western Pacific. The South China Sea is not yet a “Chinese lake.” Other countries in the region have been adding to their military strength, and the United States especially has been working hard to balance against Beijing’s rising potential military power.
Overall, the gap in military capacities between China and its competitors remains sizable. That does not automatically translate into peace and stability, however; military environments are always dynamic, and change is a given. But perhaps it is time to move the pendulum back from the alarmism of the mid-2000s to a more nuanced assessment of Chinese military strengths and weaknesses.
Richard A. Bitzinger is a Senior Fellow and Coordinator of the Military Transformations Program at the S.Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. The opinions expressed here are his own.
The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of Asia Times.