assessments

China's Military Modernization Push Remains a Work in Progress

7 MINS READApr 11, 2019 | 09:00 GMT
This photo taken on April 24, 2018, shows J-15 fighter jets on China's sole operational aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, during a drill at sea.
(-/AFP/Getty Images)

This photo taken on April 24, 2018, shows J-15 fighter jets on China's sole operational aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, during a drill at sea. Despite Beijing's military advances in recent years, Washington will have the upper hand over China for another decade at least.

Highlights
  • Over the past 20 years, China has made tremendous progress in improving its military capabilities, but its modernization program will remain a work in progress in the decade to come.
  • China trails the United States in terms of nuclear attack submarines, the ability to conduct aerial refueling and a sufficient amphibious capacity, and it is unlikely to close the gap in the immediate future.
  • Beijing will continue to develop its capabilities on these fronts, but based on current projections, it will not reach parity with the United States by 2030.

There's no question that China has rushed forth at breakneck speed to modernize its military over the past few decades. With the second most powerful navy in the world, China has restructured its military, overhauled its command and control, introduced new capabilities and expanded its logistics. The country has advanced so far that U.S. officials warned in the 2019 Defense Intelligence Agency's "China Military Power" report that China has grown more confident in its new capabilities and could start actively using them. Despite its impressive rollout of new weapons and the development of new capabilities, however, China isn't ready to close the gap on the United States just yet. Whether on nuclear-powered submarines, aerial refueling capabilities or the logistical ability to land a sufficient number of forces in Taiwan, Beijing still has plenty of work to do before it can finally attain some of its most cherished goals.

The Big Picture

China's military has conducted an astounding modernization drive in the past two decades, raising China's geopolitical heft, forcing Washington to shift its focus toward Beijing and further propelling the great power competition. But while this modernization drive has been profound, China's armed forces still display plenty of shortcomings.

Plumbing the Depths for Parity

One prime area where China lags behind the United States is in submarines, particularly nuclear attack submarines. The Chinese navy has added a sizable number of diesel-electric submarines to its fleet — including some of relatively advanced design — but the number of available nuclear-powered attack submarines remains inadequate to China's needs. In contrast to its approximately 50 diesel attack submarines, China only operates an estimated six nuclear attack submarines. Moreover, China's existing nuclear-powered submarines, including its latest Type 093 boats, still trail far behind both U.S. and Russian designs in terms of quality, as they are noisier, possess less advanced sensors and deploy propulsion technology that is not as capable.

Nuclear attack submarines are vital for China for two reasons. First, they offer China the most realistic and effective way to project military power far from its shores. While Beijing is in the process of building up a very capable surface fleet, it is not yet powerful enough to reliably break through the first island chain — the first stretch of islands that rings China's eastern shore from Japan down through Okinawa to the Philippines — let alone dominate distant waters against U.S. naval opposition. But due to their stealth factor, submarines offer China the hope of countering U.S. maritime operations far beyond the first island chain, even if Beijing cannot yet dream of exerting control over distant waters. While diesel-electric submarines are well-suited for warfare within the first island chain, only nuclear submarines combine the stealth and the range necessary to engage in modern, long-distance operations. Indeed, Germany (in both world wars) and the Soviet Union built up powerful submarine fleets precisely because their surface navies could not contend with the respective fleets of the Allies or NATO.

A map showing the two island chains in relation to China.

Advanced nuclear attack submarines are also critical for China's navy because they provide another powerful means to counter its main adversary's own submarines. In fact, submarines remain one of the most effective ways of hunting down other such vessels, particularly in deep waters. While China has developed a host of capabilities to counter an encroaching enemy surface fleet, it is still developing its own anti-submarine warfare capabilities and, once again, only in a fashion that will be effective in the first island chain. Various anti-submarine warfare assets, such as the Type 927 catamaran, the KQ-200 maritime patrol aircraft and the Type 056A corvette, are unlikely to operate effectively beyond the first island chain because of their limited range and relatively low ability to defend themselves against an attack. Nuclear attack submarines would not only assist the Chinese in pursuing enemy submarines within the first island chain but also provide the country with the only effective means of hunting down enemy submarines elsewhere.

In terms of the great power competition, China is well-aware of its comparative weakness on nuclear submarines. Beyond building an improved version of the Type 093 submarine, China is also expected to concentrate its efforts on developing a much-improved Type 095 vessel that will likely incorporate advanced silencing technology and carry a significant arsenal of varied torpedoes and missiles. But even if China manages to construct a Type 095, it is unlikely to be as technologically sophisticated as the state-of-the-art U.S. Seawolf and Virginia-class submarines, as well as the Russian Yasen-class submarines. In terms of quantity, too, China cannot hope to roll out as many nuclear attack submarines as the United States for the foreseeable future.

Trailing at Sea and in the Air

Another Chinese shortcoming, especially relative to the United States, centers on its aerial refueling capacity. China maintains a partial fleet of around a dozen H-6U and IL-78 tankers, but that is not nearly enough to service an air force the size of China's. Aerial refueling, however, is an important method by which China could increase the range and loiter time of its combat aircraft. If Beijing could accomplish this, its bombers could reach even more distant targets, while its fighter aircraft could remain in the air longer to guard key targets. As China develops new combat aircraft like the H-20 stealth bomber, for instance, aerial refueling capacity will become all the more important to maximize the capabilities of such aircraft.

And just as it seeks to overcome its deficiencies in terms of nuclear attack submarines, China is already moving forward with attempts to improve its aerial refueling capacity. It has developed buddy refueling (in which one fighter acts as a mini-tanker to refuel a fellow aircraft) for its J-15 carrier-borne fighters, while it is also developing a tanker version of its new Y-20 strategic transport aircraft. These developments, especially once large numbers of the Y-20 tankers come off the assembly line, will do much to bolster China's aerial refueling capacity, but it will be a long time before China develops enough of these aircraft to make a strategic impact.

A graphic showing respective projections for the U.S. and Chinese militaries to 2030.

But there is another Chinese shortcoming — this one related to Taiwan, whose reunification is a critical Chinese objective and a scenario for which the Chinese armed forces plan and train extensively. At this stage, China simply lacks sufficient sealift capacity to transport enough forces to conduct a credible mass amphibious invasion of the island. Even with the most optimistic estimates — which includes the increased number of Type 071 amphibious transport docks (six) and landing ships (60) — the Chinese could land no more than four divisions (about 40,000 troops) in a mass invasion scenario. Although China could bolster these numbers by sending subsequent landing waves, conducting airborne drops or mobilizing commercial shipping, it is unlikely to overcome Taiwanese defenses.

Ultimately, even as China builds up its amphibious capacity by constructing more Type 071 vessels and new Type 075 amphibious assault ships, it is unlikely to have the wherewithal to present a credible invasion threat to Taiwan for at least another decade. That is not to say that China does not possess other means by which to coerce or even defeat Taiwan, but the chances of a sudden and immediate victory through a massive landing operation appear remote.

Together, these gaps in capability — whether they restrict China's ability to compete with the United States, pursue its primary goal of reunifying with Taiwan or engage in expeditionary operations — will continue to weigh down Beijing's geopolitical ambitions. China has certainly made tremendous progress over the last two decades, but its modernization program remains a work in progress.

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