China’s process of modernizing its armed forces has involved the development of indigenously designed weapons systems—some of which appeared to undergo a process of development, procurement, and/or deployment that outpaced the estimates of U.S. and other foreign observers. This paper specifically focuses on four key weapons platforms that have been discussed as “surprise” developments to U.S. analysts:
* Type 039A/B/041 (Yuan-class) diesel-electric attack submarine
* SC-19 anti-satellite (ASAT) system
* Dongfeng-21D (DF-21D/CSS-5) anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM)
* Jian-20 (J-20) stealth fighter aircraft
Chinese military leaders have said the twin-engine J-20 fighter jet could be operational by as early as 2017.
Left – A view of the undercarriage of a PLA Air Force J-20 fighter during its maiden test flight, Jan. 11, 2011. Source: “CAC J-20,” Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft, entry dated Jan. 28, 2011.
Right: A Yuan-class submarine moored pierside. Source: Jeffrey Lewis, “Yuan Class Submarine,” ArmsControlWonk.com, entry dated June 10, 2005.
Particular challenges to accurate predictive assessments on indigenous Chinese military developments include:
* Information denial and/or deception:6 The PRC exercises secrecy over many aspects of its military affairs, and in some instances puts forth false or misleading information. The lack of transparency in the PRC’s military modernization has been a frequent complaint of U.S. defense officials in recent years.
* Underestimation of changes in China’s defense-industrial sector: Once viewed as a bloated and sclerotic industrial sector incapable of adaptation, in the past decade the PRC defense industry has outperformed the expectations of its critics. While it still faces many problems, the Chinese defense industry is far more capable of producing modern weapons platforms than would have been the case in the 1980s or 1990s.
* Difficulty in understanding the PRC national security decision-making process: The decision-making processes of the Chinese government are opaque, particularly in regards to military policy and national security issues. The public emergence and/or testing of some indigenous PRC weapons platforms has also revealed apparent problems of poor bureaucratic coordination, and the possibility of a civil-military divide at the top levels of Chinese policymaking.
* Underestimation of Beijing’s threat perceptions: Many analysts in media, academia, and the government may have failed to fully appreciate the extent to which the Chinese leadership views the United States as a fundamental threat to China’s security. These threat perceptions have been inflamed by a number of events in recent years, to include the 1996 Taiwan Straits Crisis and the accidental 1999 bombing of the PRC Embassy Annex in Belgrade by U.S. aircraft.
* China’s increased investments in science and technology: China’s intensive efforts over the past two decades to stimulate its indigenous capabilities for scientific research and development (R&D)—whether through science education, state funding for research, seeking technology transfers from foreign companies, or industrial espionage—have significantly increased its ability to produce more advanced weapons systems. Furthermore, China’s increasing knowledge of dual-use technologies (i.e., those with both commercial and military applications) in areas such as electronics has also offered significant cross-over benefits to the defense-industrial sector.
* Inadequate capabilities for and/or attention to the exploitation of open-source Chinese language materials: Some of the past flaws in analysis on China’s weapons program could have been partially corrected by increased attention to open-source materials, particularly in regards to academic technical journals and related publications. Increased attention to the messages in authoritative PRC media and political science publications would also have improved understanding of the worldview of the Chinese leadership.
The trends of past decades are no longer a reliable guide to the performance of China’s defense industries. Furthermore, U.S. observers should not take at face value statements from the Chinese government on military policy, as they could either be deceptive, or simply issued by agencies (e.g., the PRC Ministry of Foreign Affairs) that have no real say over military matters. Based on the trends identified in this paper, U.S. analysts and policymakers should expect to see continued advancements in the ability of the PRC to produce modern weapons platforms, and an attendant increase in the operational capabilities of the People’s Liberation Army.
Yuan Class submarine
2006 First Yuan-class submarine estimated to have entered service.
2007 Second and third Yuan-class submarine launched.
2008 Fourth Yuan-class submarine launched.
2009 Second and third Yuan-class submarines enter service. U.S. intelligence reports that Yuan submarines may have air-independent propulsion (AIP) capability.
2010 Fourth Yuan-class submarine enters service, the fourth of which is a potential redesign of previous versions and incorporates Kilo-class features and AIP technology.
2010 China State Shipbuilding Corporation displays AIP technology.
2011 Fifth Yuan submarine delivered, conducting sea trials in Shanghai.
2011 Projected date for serial production.
As of the 2009 DoD report, China had over 60 submarines in service.Series production of the Yuan-class submarine is expected, and some analysts predict that “twenty of the class will be built.”
Particular considerations for each of these case studies are:
* The available evidence suggests that the United States did not expect the development of the Yuan-class submarines—much less that the Chinese Navy had potentially acquired and installed AIP systems in its newer submarines.
* Although the United States was keenly aware of Chinese ASAT development, exact details of the January 2007 test may have been unexpected. Additionally, the seeming lack of coordination among PRC government agencies in regards to the launch highlighted gaps in U.S. understanding of the PRC’s decision-making processes for national security issues.
* The United States apparently underestimated the speed of development of the anti-ship ballistic missile, which reportedly reached IOC in December 2010.
* The United States also may have underestimated the speed of development of China’s fifth-generation fighter jet, the J-20, although the true extent of the aircraft’s capabilities remain unclear.
Brian Wang is a Futurist Thought Leader and a popular Science blogger with 1 million readers per month. His blog Nextbigfuture.com is ranked #1 Science News Blog. It covers many disruptive technology and trends including Space, Robotics, Artificial Intelligence, Medicine, Anti-aging Biotechnology, and Nanotechnology.
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