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The Pentagon’s latest annual assessment of Beijing’s military power declares that China is planning to double its nuclear stockpile over the next decade, already operates the world’s largest Navy, is advancing rapidly in its space capabilities, and is embedding artificial intelligence technology in many of its weapons systems.
The Pentagon’s annual assessment of China’s comprehensive program for the modernization and expansion of its armed forces is somewhat reminiscent of the ‘missile gap’ angst during the Cold War, and in this respect appears to have the same objective of justifying additional increases to the Pentagon’s already exorbitant budget.
Nonetheless, it cannot be disputed that China’s armed forces are steadily acquiring a very formidable array of weaponry and support platforms that are already capable of challenging the Pentagon’s objective of achieving and maintaining ‘full spectrum dominance’ in all potential battlefields against all prospective ‘adversaries’ or enemies in all possible theatres of war and confrontation.
Although the US still has a significant advantage in key areas, most decisively in long-range ballistic missile and nuclear attack forces, a US military attack against China is no longer guaranteed of success and would face the near certainty of a strong and extremely damaging counter-attack against US forces and ‘assets’ in the Asia-Pacific region (including any allied countries in the region foolish enough to join such an attack).
A large-scale military attack by the US would also prompt China to test the capabilities of its notorious ‘satellite killers’, which if they are as effective as many experts suspect could render inoperable much of the Pentagon’s military hardware not just in the Asia Pacific region but worldwide, and would risk a limited but still substantial nuclear attack against the continental United States.
In several key aspects the Chinese and US armed forces are pursuing similar objectives, such as rapidly expanding their naval and air power, moving towards more integrated joint force structures and operations to achieve greater interoperability and coordination in complex battlefield environments, and integrating emerging information technologies like AI into a wide range of weapons and operating systems.
The Defense Department’s 2020 China Military Power report estimates that China will “at least double” its nuclear stockpile to about 400 warheads and is placing great emphasis on strengthening its nuclear deterrence.
China is also making some adjustments to its operating procedures with respect to its nuclear arsenal.
“New developments in 2019 further suggest that China intends to increase the peacetime readiness of its nuclear forces by moving to a launch-on-warning (LOW) posture with an expanded silo-based force.”
A similar shift has occurred in Russia, where the incessant NATO war games with nuclear capable attack forces along Russia’s western and northern borders has prompted the government to revise its nuclear launch policies.
China is also working towards establishing its own version of a nuclear triad force, with air-launched ballistic missiles, in addition to ICBMs. Pentagon officials estimate that China will have 200 intercontinental missiles within the next five years.
“Combined with a near-complete lack of transparency regarding their strategic intent and the perceived need for a much larger, more diverse nuclear force, these developments pose a significant concern for the United States,” said Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Chad Sbragia, speaking of the report’s key findings at a press conference at the Pentagon.
The Pentagon’s expressed concern over the transparency of China’s military program might be more convincing if it were to ever conduct a complete financial audit of its own operations for the US Congress as required by US law. Consecutive reports by the Inspector General have noted that somewhere between 15% and 25% of the Pentagon’s budget spending cannot be accounted for by its own financial auditors.
Even former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld stated that $2.3 trillion of Pentagon funds could not be accounted for on 10 September 2001, the day before the Pentagon’s accounting department was obliterated by a suspicious terrorist attack which still has not been adequately explained.
The United States has also been trying to include China in discussions related to renewing the New START treaty, which governs the number of deployed strategic nuclear weapons and launch platforms that the United States and Russia can keep in their inventories.
China has said on numerous occasions that it isn’t interested in participating in a trilateral discussion with Russia and the US on nuclear arms control, pointing out the vast disparity in the three countries nuclear arsenals, force structures and capabilities.
Nonetheless, the US insists on trying to include China in the negotiations, which must be successfully concluded before February of next year if the arms control agreement is to remain in effect.
“The United States is willing to make progress with Russia while waiting on China to recognize its interests in behaving like a great power and a responsible nuclear weapons state by pursuing negotiations in good faith,” Sbragia said.
The annual assessment also states that based on quantity China has built up its Navy to become the world’s largest with 350 ships and submarines. That’s a significant change from last year’s report, which describes China as having the largest ‘regional’ Navy.
“In comparison, the U.S. Navy’s battle force is approximately 293 ships as of early 2020.”
Speaking to the conservative American Enterprise Institute, Sbragia added “the caution is always [that] numbers are one element, not the entirety… There’s tonnage, capacity, sophistication.”
Presumably ‘sophistication’ refers to long-range force projection capabilities and overall destructive firepower. For instance, China commissioned its first domestically produced aircraft carrier last year, with its second currently under construction, compared to the fleet of 11 US nuclear-powered aircraft carriers. China’s submarine fleet, while expanding rapidly, also remains vastly outgunned by the US fleet of strategic nuclear attack submarines.
For years, Pentagon leaders have boasted that despite China’s build up of new technologies and weapons, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) lacked the training and fighting experience in joint combat scenarios that synchronize land, air, and sea power, giving the United States tremendous advantage in any potential direct conflict. According to this year’s report, the PLA is working hard to change that.
“More striking than the PLA’s staggering amounts of new military hardware are the recent sweeping efforts taken by (Chinese) leaders that include completely restructuring the PLA into a force better suited for joint operations, improving the PLA’s overall combat readiness, encouraging the PLA to embrace new operational concepts, and expanding the overseas military footprint.”
The expansion of large-scale joint military exercises and manoeuvres with Russia is very significant in this respect.
Additionally, China’s space activities are advancing rapidly, the report says, noting that China wants to have its own permanent space station by 2022. “Beijing has devoted significant economic and political resources to growing all aspects of its space program, from military space applications to civil applications such as profit-generating launches, scientific endeavors, and space exploration.”
The People’s Liberation Army is also putting emerging technology, particularly artificial intelligence, at the centre of its efforts to modernize its military.
“The PRC is pursuing a whole-of-society effort to become a global leader in AI, which includes designating select private AI companies in China as ‘AI champions’ to emphasize R&D in specific dual-use technologies,” the report states. It’s part of China’s five-year plan to become the world’s dominant player in the technology by 2030.
“In 2019, the private PRC-based company Ziyan UAV exhibited armed swarming drones that it claimed use AI to perform autonomous guidance, target acquisition, and attack execution. During the past five years, China has made achievements in AI-enabled unmanned surface vessels, which China plans to use to patrol and bolster its territorial claims in the South China Sea. China has also tested unmanned tanks as part of research efforts to integrate AI into ground forces’ equipment,” it says.
Just as the United States says artificial intelligence is helping to increase the speed and accuracy of warfare, China is also operating under that assumption.
“The PLA argues that the implementation of ‘intelligentized’ capabilities will increase the speed of future combat, necessitating more rapid processing and fusing of information to support quick and efficient command decision making.”
Sbragia described the underlying strategy informing how China develops and fields weapons, and undertakes military operations, as one of ‘active defence’. China, he said, sees itself as constrained by the “requirement to safeguard national interests and not do so in a matter that would be catastrophic to long term (social and economic) aspirations… Use of force, bound by those two conditions… always in those terms.”
The US political and military leadership has been intent on confronting and demonizing China this year, sending a record number of warships and aircraft (including long-range nuclear capable strategic bombers) into areas adjacent to China’s extensive maritime borders this year and concentrating their efforts on the zones most likely to provoke and antagonize the Chinese – the strait between the Chinese mainland and Taiwan and nearby areas, and disputed border areas in the South China Sea.
In June, Chinese state media and internet users accused the United States of making “another provocative move” as a warship sailed through the Taiwan Strait — the seventh such transit by the US Navy this year, possibly timed to coincide with the anniversary of China’s 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. LINK
At the end of August the Taiwanese Defence ministry said that another US Navy missile destroyer had sailed southwards through the sensitive strait and would continue to sail south into the disputed South China Sea. Although the ministry did not reveal any details about the US warship, they said that it was on an ‘ordinary mission’ adding that the situation was ‘normal’. Earlier in August, the US guided-missile destroyer USS Mustin sailed through the strait, in a move considered extremely dangerous by China. LINK
Earlier this month, Taiwan`s Defence Ministry denied claims made on social media that it had shot down a Chinese military aircraft over the Taiwan Strait, condemning the allegations as an attempt to further inflame tensions at a time when the US and China are already pushing each other to the brink of conflict in a war of nerves that could easily get out of control as the two countries send their armed forces into increasingly dangerous and risk-laden confrontations to demonstrate their determination to ‘not back down’. LINK
Last week, China’s state media reported that the country’s two commissioned aircraft carriers conducted simultaneous military exercises at sea for the first time.
The Global Times claimed that the exercises will enable China to deploy a dual carrier combat group, which could be used for “possible reunification-by-force operations on the island of Taiwan,” as well as providing additional “resistance against US provocations in the South China Sea.”
The China based Modern Ships magazine also cited foreign commercial satellite images as showing that the Navy’s first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, has recently departed from its base in Qingdao for military drills. As early as September 1, ship spotters reported the Liaoning and China’s second aircraft carrier, the Shandong, heading out of their ports for training missions, while that same day Twitter user Navy Recognition reported that J-15 fighters from the Liaoning were conducting live-fire exercises.
Hong Kong-based wenweipo.com reported that the Shandong had departed from a shipyard on September 1 and was headed toward the Bohai Sea to carry out exercises. Also that day, Chinese Twitter user Jimmy Chan posted satellite imagery purportedly showing the Liaoning sailing in the Yellow Sea.
According to Modern Ships, this was the first time that China’s two aircraft carriers have conducted simultaneous exercises at sea since the Shandong was commissioned in December of 2019. Global Times cited a Chinese military expert as claiming that it is only a matter of time before the “PLA Navy gains the capability to simultaneously operate two carriers in multiple approaches, including a dual carrier combat group.”
The expert claimed that the two carriers combined will provide the PLAN a “significant boost in efficiency and capability,” especially for the deployment of fighter jets. He added that even if the two ships do not cross paths this time, it is a major step toward a “true dual carrier era” for the Chinese Navy.
The Global Times quoted Chinese naval expert Li Jie as claiming that the two carriers are operating at a time when China has been “facing military pressure from countries like the US in the Taiwan Straits and the South China Sea.”
He also mentioned India as a possible threat to China’s maritime transport lanes (particularly around the western entrance to the Malacca Strait between Malaysia and Indonesia), and stated that the two aircraft carriers can “squeeze the island of Taiwan from different angles,” while the DF-21D and DF-26 anti-ship ballistic missiles can “lock down the island and deny possible US intervention.”
The appearance of the two carriers in September suggests there was a slight delay from the original plan which was widely reported in the media in May of deploying them simultaneously to participate in war games in August simulating an invasion of islands occupied by Taiwan. In addition, the location of their deployment is closer to their bases in the Bohai Sea and the Yellow Sea, rather than passing near the Dongsha Islands as had been reported by Japanese and Taiwanese media, as well as the South China Morning Post, in May. LINK
— Navy Recognition (@NavyRecognition) September 6, 2020
While it appears that China is acting cautiously with its newest aircraft carrier for the moment, possibly to carry out further training and testing of the vessels operating systems before it enters into full combat duty, recent large weapons sales from the US to Taiwan, including missile defence systems and the F-35 fighters, may be prompting China to calculate that it will be necessary to use force to reunify the mainland with the renegade island province, and that it will be necessary to do so sooner rather than later in order to pre-empt the deployment of the latest and most advanced weapons systems from the US on the island.
It is likely that the Pentagon would prefer a major military confrontation with China now rather than in five or ten years.
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