China’s new J-31 stealth fighter made its debut at an international airshow last month, prompting a U.S. fighter pilot to predict, “They’ll eventually be on par with our fifth-gen jets.” A U.S. test pilot added, “They sure look like F-35s and F-22s” (more on that in a moment). The J-31’s splashy unveiling is only the latest example of China’s full-tilt push to field a modern, power-projecting military. Is the U.S. prepared for a China that has the wherewithal and willingness to flex its muscles across the Asia-Pacific region?
While much of the world is slashing defense spending, China is boosting its defense budget by double-digit percentages annually: In 2014, Beijing increased military spending by 12.2 percent—at least officially. The actual increase may have been as high as 40 percent. This follows increases of 10.7 percent in 2013, 11.6 percent in 2012 and 11.2 percent in 2011. China’s military-related spending has jumped 170 percent the past decade. “By next year,” The New York Times reports, “China will spend more on defense than Britain, Germany and France combined.” Here’s the payoff, according to a recent Pentagon study:
China has “a growing ability to project power at increasingly longer ranges.”
The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) air force deploys more than 2,800 aircraft, not including unmanned aerial vehicles. Of these, an estimated 600 are considered “modern” warplanes.
“China is developing a multi-dimensional program to improve its capabilities to limit or prevent the use of space-based assets by adversaries during times of crisis or conflict.”
China deploys more than 1,000 short-range ballistic missiles and is fielding “a limited but growing number of conventionally armed medium-range ballistic missiles, including the CSS-5 Mod 5 (DF-21D) anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM),” which gives China “the capability to attack large ships, including aircraft carriers, in the western Pacific.”
Indeed, DoD studies dating back more than a decade indicate that Beijing has been developing capabilities “to deter or counter third-party intervention, including by the United States,” to dissuade the U.S. from intervening in what China considers its sphere of influence, and should conflict arise, to prevent the U.S. from projecting assets into the battlespace before Beijing achieves its objectives. As the Pentagon put it in 2000, in the event of conflict, Beijing’s goal would be “to achieve a military solution before outside powers could intervene militarily.”
The Pentagon’s shorthand for this is “A2AD”—Beijing’s anti-access/area-denial strategy. Deployment of advanced cruise missiles is a key element of A2AD. The DF-21D, for instance, is a land-based ASBM that uses sensors to maneuver as it descends and then strikes its target at a shallow angle of attack. (The DF-21D has a range of some 1,500 km.) The National Air and Space Intelligence Center reported in 2013 that Beijing has 200-plus short-range missile launchers (with a range between 150 km and 800 km) and up to 140 medium-range missile launchers (with ranges from 1,500 km to 3,000 km). As a recent National Defense University report concludes, Beijing could use this ASBM arsenal to launch swarm or “saturation” strikes against U.S. assets, especially carrier strike groups.
Further fortifying A2AD, China is primed to deploy as many as 73 attack submarines, 58 frigates, 34 destroyers, five ballistic missile submarines and two aircraft carriers by 2020, according to the Congressional Research Service.
How did Beijing change the balance so rapidly? As the world’s factory floor, China has the economic resources to outfit its military with modern equipment; and as a communist tyranny, China has no ethical qualms about stealing what it can’t buy.
That brings us back to the similarities between the J-31 and America’s newest warplanes. According to information-security firm Mandiant, “a unit of the PLA has in fact been chartered to compromise the U.S. infrastructure and steal our intellectual property.” Specifically, China has penetrated computer systems related to development of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
On the strength of these investments and thefts, China is bullying its neighbors; declaring sovereignty over vast swaths of international airspace, international waterways and territories belonging to other nations; and as the Pentagon bluntly puts it, trying “to become the preeminent Asian power.”
That presents a problem for today’s preeminent Asian power: the United States.
Given the capabilities of the U.S. military, the balance of power would still seem to favor the United States—that is, until one considers that America’s military assets and security commitments are spread around the globe, while China’s are concentrated in its neighborhood. Washington’s mixed-bag response to Beijing’s buildup reflects this reality.
The “Pacific pivot”—the Obama administration’s term for reorienting America’s focus and forces to the Asia-Pacific—makes sense in theory. Early examples of the pivot include the buildup and modernization underway on Guam; deployment of missile-defense assets in Hawaii, Guam, Japan, Australia and at sea; expanded U.S. access to facilities in Australia, the Philippines and Singapore; the deepening alliance with Japan; and an emerging partnership with India.
But events in the Middle East and Europe are preventing the United States from disengaging from these regions and redeploying assets to the Pacific.
Moreover, Washington is simply not equipping the Pentagon with the tools to deter a rising China and thus make the pivot work. In fact, Washington is chopping away at America’s deterrent capabilities:
The Air Force is reducing its fleet by 286 planes. In 2013, the Air Force stood down 31 squadrons due to funding constraints.
Half of the Marine Corps’ fixed-wing fighters are grounded due to sequestration.
The Navy has been ordered to cut surface combatants from 85 ships to 78, had to seek a congressional waiver to deploy just 10 carriers (rather than the legally-mandated 11) while USS Gerald Ford is completed, and could be forced to cut the carrier fleet down to eight flat-tops. In fact, six of the nation’s 11 aircraft carriers are “in some stage of maintenance now and one-third of the amphibious force is in a similar state because routine maintenance had been delayed while operating tempo remained high,” the U.S. Naval Institute reports .
At the height of President Reagan’s buildup, the Navy boasted 594 ships. Today’s fleet numbers 284 ships. Current recapitalization rates will not keep up with plans to retire ships, leading to “a Navy of 240-250 ships,” according to former Navy Secretary John Lehman. At that size, America’s fleet will be equal to what she deployed in 1915.
“For us to meet what combatant commanders request,” explains CNO Adm. Jonathan Greenert, “we need a Navy of 450 ships.” That gap has real-world implications: The Asia-Pacific region will be left unprotected by a U.S. aircraft carrier for some 130 days next year.
The new AirSea Battle concept seems tailored-made for responding to Beijing’s A2AD strategy. Under AirSea Battle, if a shooting war starts, America would not limit its operations to targets in the South and East China Seas, but would strike missile launchers, command-and-control assets and airbases deep inside China. Beijing has no answer for this in the conventional realm, which presents a problem.
“Given that the concept entails deep penetration of Chinese territory to destroy and disrupt PLA command-and-control nodes used for conventional operations,” cautions Ben Schreer of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, “Beijing might well perceive such attacks as American attempts to disarm China’s nuclear deterrent.”
Thus, if the objective in publicizing AirSea Battle is to make China think twice about taking military action in the South China Sea—and thus to deter China—it’s not inconceivable that China could take dramatic preemptive steps in some future crisis. And if the missiles start flying, AirSea Battle could leave Beijing with few options other than to skip several rungs on the escalation ladder. No one wants that.
While Beijing fancies itself a master of asymmetry, the asymmetric sword cuts both ways. The United States has plenty of moves it can make to counter China.
As President Reagan argued during the Cold War, “A little less détente…and more encouragement to the dissenters might be worth a lot of armored divisions.” Perhaps Washington should start highlighting Beijing’s contempt for human rights by offering a platform to the regime’s enemies—journalists, bloggers, the underground Church, Tibetan independence advocates, laogai survivors, Charter 08 signatories, political dissidents, families victimized by the one-child policy, Hong Kong democracy activists. Beijing is acutely sensitive to the international opprobrium attached to these issues and has no answer to them—except systemic political reform, which would be in America’s and Asia’s interest.
There are some 3 trillion barrels of oil in America’s Rocky Mountain states, and the U.S. will be the world’s leading oil producer by 2017 and a net oil exporter by 2030. As Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey observes, an energy-independent America “has the potential to change the security environment around the world.” He calls on policymakers to view “energy as an instrument of national power.” Wielding this instrument could have a profound effect on an energy-starved China.
Researchers at RAND propose “using ground-based anti-ship missiles (ASM) as part of a U.S. A2AD strategy” by linking together several strategically located partner nations—Indonesia, Malaysia, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines—in a regional ASM coalition. Given departing Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s recent remarks about the Army “leveraging its current suite of long-range precision-guided missiles, rockets, artillery and air-defense systems” with an eye toward “hardening the defenses of U.S. installations…and helping ensure the free flow of commerce,” it seems Washington is prepared to show Beijing that two can play the A2AD game.
The best move Washington could make is being taken off the table by sequestration. That move is deterrence. Defense has ebbed to 3.2 percent of GDP—headed for just 2.3 percent of GDP by 2022-23. The last time America invested less than 3 percent in defense was, ominously, 1940.
Is that enough to deter Chinese military adventurism, to prevent a mishap from spiraling into a military confrontation no one wants? Only Xi Jinping can answer that. And that’s a worrisome notion.