PLA soldiers undertake a training exercise at Stonecutter Island in Hong Kong. Photo: AFP / Anthony Wallace
PLA soldiers undertake a training exercise at Stonecutter Island in Hong Kong. Photo: AFP / Anthony Wallace

China’s military advanced along several fronts in 2016 in its concerted program to develop new asymmetric and conventional warfare capabilities while continuing to challenge the United States for military control of key waterways in Asia.

As 2016 drew to a close, China flexed its military muscle with the high-profile dispatch of its lone aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, to an area of the western Pacific in a carrier battle group formation. Seven warships accompanied the carrier – three destroyers, three frigates and a supply ship.

Contrary to many western China analysts’ who said the Chinese carrier would take many years to deploy, Chinese state media trumpeted naval drills as a sign the the carrier will ready for combat operation sooner than expected.

“Compared with other countries, China has progressed ahead of expectations,” Zhang Junshe, a senior researcher at the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Naval Military Studies Research Institute, told state-run media, adding “other countries’ aircraft carriers normally spent five to six years or even 10 years to gain combat capability.”

The blue-water naval operations followed the disclosure earlier this month that weapons upgrades are not the only focus of the PLA. The new open ocean drills followed the adoption in December of a new force projection doctrine called “rapid force projection.” The doctrine will complete a transition from the previous focus fighting regional military conflicts to conducting larger-scale global operations involving what Beijing calls high-technology informationized forces.

A review of military developments in China and throughout the world over past year provides a clear picture of China’s military priorities, both conventional and strategic nuclear.

As the year ended, China conducted a flight test of a new missile known as the Dong Ning-3 that the Pentagon believes is a missile designed to hit US satellites in space in a crippling attack in the early phases of a conflict that would limit American military forces from navigating forces, pinpointing targets and gathering intelligence.

The DN-3 test took place in early December and was couched as a missile defense interceptor test in a bid by the Chinese military to mask its development of anti-satellite capabilities. The Chinese Defense Ministry dismissed published reports of the ASAT test as “groundless.” Pentagon officials confirmed the test took place and expressed concern about one of China’s most important asymmetric weapons.

The DN-3 is believed to be a missile capable of attacking satellites in high-earth orbit – the location of most strategic navigation and intelligence satellites.

For Pentagon intelligence analysts tasked with monitoring Chinese weapons development 2016 was also a year in which PLA began deploying multiple warhead weapons. China’s most potent intercontinental ballistic missile, the new DF-41 was flight tested in December 2015 and confirmed by the Chinese Defense Ministry as a normal “scientific test.”

But there is nothing normal about a strategic missile armed with multiple warheads that represent a quantum increase in strategic nuclear lethality. Most of China’s nuclear force until recently were designed to deliver a single large warhead over thousands of miles.

In February, US intelligence had detected what was described in classified reports as the uploading of additional warheads on older, single-warhead DF-5 missiles.

Between the new DF-41, still under development, and the increased warheads on the DF-5, strategic war planners are now beginning to re-calculate the warhead size and mix for the US nuclear arsenal to be better prepared to deter the expanding Chinese nuclear force.

Adm. Cecil Haney, commander of the Strategic Command at the time, disclosed in a speech in January that China was adding multiple warheads to its missiles and re-engineering its long-range ballistic missiles to carry multiple nuclear warheads.”

US President-elect Donald Trump surprised many strategic and foreign policy analysts Dec. 22 when he announced on Twitter that “the United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes.”

The United States is currently engaged in a slow but expensive strategic arsenal modernization that will invest US$450 billion in new missiles, submarines and bombers over the next 20 years.

Trump also set off a controversy by questioning a key premise of US-China relations that has limited American engagement with key regional partner in democratic-ruled Taiwan.

China appeared to react to the Trump remarks by seizing an underwater glider from a US Navy ocean survey ship earlier this month. The drone submersible was eventually returned to the Americans.

China would conduct a second DF-41 flight test on April 19 when two dummy warheads were monitored in flight over western China.

Also in April, China flight tested its new ultra-high speed strike vehicle known as the DF-ZF – a maneuvering missile stage that is designed to defense missile defenses. It was the seventh flight test of the missile-launched glider and a high priority weapon for the Peoples Liberation Army to deliver nuclear weapons or conduct precision conventional attacks, such as against ships at sea.

On maritime territorial disputes, China continued to fuel controversy with the militarization on some 3,200 acres of new islands it dredged in the South China Sea. In February, the Pentagon spotted the deployment of advanced Chinese HQ-9 surface-to-air missiles on Woody Island, in the Paracel island chain in the northwestern part of the sea.

Further south, China began building hexagonal gun emplacements on several of the disputed Spratlys Islands. The guns were finally disclosed this month in new satellite images that revealed large-caliber naval guns and short range anti-ship missiles on several reefs.

The problem for the United States is not that the emplacements currently do not threaten US Navy warships that the Pentagon says are committed to conducting freedom of navigation operations near the dispute islands and reefs.

A senior military officer said, however, that the gun emplacements and nearby fire control radars are “plug-and-play” facilities that appear designed to handle much more lethal anti-ship missiles, like the C-802 anti-ship missile with ranges of up to 24 miles – enough to threatening passing US warships.

Another major asymmetric weapon the advanced in 2016 was China’s formidable cyber warfare capabilities. In February, the PLA revealed it plans to rapidly build up cyber attack capabilities. “It is more necessary for us to build a brand new ‘operation force,’” said Col. Li Minghai of the PLA’s National Defense University and deputy director of the university’s Center for Cyberspace Security.

Li said the Chinese military is preparing for a major buildup of cyber warfare capabilities, not merely a tinkering of current structures that will complement conventional and other forces. “In the 21st century, seizing control of cyberspace is of decisive significance, like seizing control of the sea in the 19th century and seizing control of the air in the 20th century,” Li said. “Cyber operations in the future will follow the new battlefield rules determined by the winning mechanisms of ‘real-time sensing, sensitive response, source destruction and chain cutoff, joint winning.’”

To address the growing Chinese cyber threat, the US Pacific Command launched a new cyber military force called CyberPAC, the command’s cyber warfare force. Few details about the new force were disclosed.

The year also began with a war of words between China and the United States over the South China Sea. For the United States, word salvos were fired by the new commander of the US Pacific Command, Adm. Harry Harris, who bluntly accused China in February of seeking hegemony in East Asia.

Harris announced that Chinese island-building had been completed and the next step was militarizing the islands – something he noted pointedly that Chinese supreme leader Xi Jinping had promised would not take place.

“China is clearly militarizing the South China Sea and you’d have to believe in the flat Earth to think otherwise,” Harris said. The buildup included the new surface-to-air missiles on Woody Island, new radars on the Cuarteron Reef, the 10,000-foot runway on Subi Reef, on Fiery Cross Reef and other places.

Further east, Harris warned that China has been sailing warships and conducting aerial sorties near the Japan’s Senkaku Islands, that China is claiming as its territory. Harris announced the United States is obligated to defend the Senkakus from Chinese encroachment under the US-Japan defense treaty.

By March, the commander of the US Air Force Space Command, outlined in testimony to Congress the growing threat to American military and intelligence satellites from space warfare weapons from China and Russia.

“Adversaries are developing kinetic, directed-energy, and cyber tools to deny, degrade, and destroy our space capabilities,” said Air Force Gen. John Hyten, the commander. “The need for vigilance has never been greater.”

The testimony followed China’s create in December 2015 of a new dedicated military group called the Strategic Support Forces that will be responsible for space warfare, cyber warfare and other electronic warfare capabilities.

China continued its covert information attacks on the US military throughout the year, using its state-run media to highlight provocative activities by the Chinese military. For example, the official Xinhua news agency reported in March how a Chinese submarine commander had boasted of conducting a mock attack on a US Navy formation during a submarine patrol in the East China Sea.

The Chinese submarine skipper “commanded the submarine to use tactics to silently approach the formation…. Like an underwater sniper, Huang Donghai quietly took aim at the opponent, successfully organizing and carrying out a simulated attack,” the news agency reported.

Also over the East China Sea, a Chinese J-10 jet threatened a US reconnaissance flight by flying dangerously close on June 7. The threatening action is part of Chinese military efforts to thwart increased US intelligence-gathering against the Chinese in the region.

On the intelligence-gathering front, China’s spies scored impressive victories. Several Chinese agents were caught buying or stealing valuable defense-related information through cyber attacks and other operations.

One of the most significant cases was revealed in March when a Chinese businessman, Su Bin, pleaded guilty in a US court in Los Angeles of conspiracy to hack computer networks of American defense contractors and steal valuable jet fighter secrets. The hack led to the lost of secrets on the F-22 and F-35 jet fighters, and details of the C-17 military transport aircraft.

“Our adversaries’ capabilities are constantly evolving, and we will remain vigilant in combating the cyber threat,” FBI Assistant Director Jim Trainor said after the plea was reached.

A Florida court case in August resulted in a prison term for a Chinese-born woman, Wenxia Man, on charges of conspiracy to export export-controlled items to China, including jet engines for F-35s, F-22s and F-16s, as well as an attempt to send China a Reaper drone – one of the military’s frontline unmanned aircraft. The attempted exports were thwarted by authorities.

The Pentagon’s Joint Staff J-2 intelligence directorate also warned in October that China’s Lenovo computer manufacturer was seeking to infiltrate the military’s supply chain with compromised computers that could permit remote access by Chinese hackers.

For the US military, one of the most significant intelligence disclosures was revealed by the vibrant Chinese military enthusiast website — not from spies or cyber intrusions into Chinese networks.

The disclosure in March revealed a construction plans for a major buildup on Scarborough Shoal, one of the disputed Spratly Islands located strategically close to Subic Bay in the Philippines, where the US military was planning a buildup of forces under an enhanced US-Philippines defense agreement.

A graphic for the construction bid showed Chinese plans to deploy guided missile frigates at the shoal – located some 150 miles from Subic Bay.

US military officials said other intelligence officials said Scarborough is the third location in the Spratlys for a triangle of military bases.

US Rep. Randy Forbes (R., Va.) said of the Scarborough Shoal disclosures: “China’s strategy in the South China Sea is clear, and has been for some time: They intend to use coercion and force to reshape the region in accordance with their preferences, regardless of international law or norms.”

In July, the United Nations Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague ruled against China in its island dispute with the Philippines, effectively nullifying China’s expansive claims to 90 percent of the South China Sea that are legally international waters.

Yet the United States government failed after the ruling to agitate effectively that the court ruling at undermined Chinese maritime territorial claims.

Bill Gertz

Bill Gertz is a journalist and author who has spent decades covering defense and national security affairs. He is the author of six national security books, including iWar: War and Peace in the Information Age (Threshold Editions).

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