Is China's military a paper tiger or a real tiger?

Contradictory stories on China's military capabilities arrived this week. China's long-awaited DF-21D medium-range anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM) is now assumed to be operational, according to Admiral Robert Willard, commander of United States Pacific Command. And Aviation Week and Space Technology reported (with photographs) that China's new J-20 fifth-generation stealthy fighter has begun flight testing. Are the United States and its allies losing an arms race in Asia? Not so fast, says the Washington Post: China's military struggles to perform the most basic peacetime tasks and has gone over 30 years without any combat experience. By the Post's account, China's military is a paper tiger and is years away from operational competence. But this assessment also implies that time, diligence, and money - all of which China possesses - will fix its operational problems.

In an interview with the Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun, Willard asserted that China's DF-21D ASBM has achieved "initial operational capability" although he expects that China will continue to test the missile for several more years. He noted that China has yet to perform an end-to-end over-the-water test of the system against a moving naval target, but he concluded that "the component parts of the anti-ship ballistic missile have been developed and tested."

The DF-21D uses a maneuvering re-entry vehicle warhead and it is unclear whether the U.S. Navy's Aegis air and missile defense system can currently cope with this type of threat. China's ASBM system is only as good as the long range radars and satellite sensors that can acquire targets such as a U.S. carrier strike group. The U.S. certainly has the capability of attacking China's ocean surveillance satellites. But escalating a U.S.-China conflict into space might be the last tactic the U.S. would wish to consider; U.S. military forces are currently highly dependent on a variety of space assets and thus have a strong incentive to keep combat away from those platforms. The question then for U.S. policymakers and strategists is how much risk they are —to take during a crisis with their carrier and expeditionary strike groups. And what the diplomatic consequences might be of failing to "show the flag" with surface naval forces inside a conflict zone.

Closer to earth, Aviation Week and Space Technology reported that China has begun flight testing its J-20 fifth-generation stealth fighter. The arrival of the J-20 on the runway puts it only a few years behind the troubled F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which is still struggling to complete its test program. Last May, in a speech railing against bloated defense budgets, Defense Secretary Robert Gates asked, "Is it a dire threat that by 2020 the United States will have only 20 times more advanced stealth fighters than China?" One wonders whether that assertion is still operative, especially given the large cost advantage China enjoys with manufacturing and the continuing test and cost problems suffered by the F-35.

Clashing with these reports was a story in the Washington Post about China's military problems. According to the Post,

1. China still can't manufacture reliable jet engines and must rely on Russian imports. China's problems with engines extend into shipbuilding and armored vehicles.

2. China's Jin-class ballistic missile submarines are noisier than those built 30 years ago by the Soviet Union. There is no record of a Chinese ballistic missile submarine ever going out on patrol.

3. In 2009, China's fleet of 63 submarines conducted only 12 patrols all year. By contrast, U.S. submarines conducted ten times as many patrols that year; 21 U.S. attack submarines are on patrol at this moment.

4. The Chinese navy has yet to master the basic logistical issues (food, water, resupply) of long-endurance deployments.

So is China's military a paper tiger or a real tiger? It is no contradiction for China's weapons designers to deliver the DF-21D and J-20 while China's defense ministry simultaneously underfunds training and equipment maintenance. Such a pattern is standard practice at most defense ministries. However, recent editions of the Pentagon's annual report on Chinese military power have noted that China is adjusting by spending more on training and by taking other steps to improve the quality of its officers and soldiers.

With enough time, diligence, and money, China can fix its problems with training, equipment maintenance, and engine manufacturing. None of the input factors, especially money, are limiting in China's case, a marked contrast with most other countries and, increasingly, the United States. U.S. policymakers will need to make clever and agile adjustments to a Chinese military modernization program that seems to be advancing faster than forecast and that has the resources needed to fix its backlog of operational problems.

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For those not completely consumed by commentary about our current mug's game in Afstan, there is a past article in "Orbis Magazine" by Naval War College professor, Cmdr Jim Kraska (Ret), outlining a theoretical scenario set five years from now in which a Deng Feng 21D missile sinks the USS GEORGE WASHINGTON.

In my view, this ASBM system may never need to be used by China, and they know it. Its existence may ensure that our navy operates away from ocean areas that China perceives as their near abroad, unless the threat can be soon met by a U.S. counter-measure...a counter-measure other than in space, which I concur would be a slippery slope.

More anonymous confusion.

This article is by a professor associated with the Naval War College's Center for Naval Warfare Studies who offers that smoke may prevent anti-ship ballistic missile carrier acquisition. Put a littoral combat ship in front of a 35 knot carrier and start the multispectral smoke generators. Blow-up the over-the-horizon emitting radars and problem mostly solved?:

The J-20 appears to be a larger jet than either the PakFA or F-22 with big twin engines and canards that no doubt would be a pretty huge signatures on the F-35's electro-optical distributed aperture system and helmet mounted display, and AESA radar. There is no indication it would have a smaller radar signature than the F-22 or F-35.

There is no chance its pilots would have the same experience or monthly flying hours as ours with a decade of combat flying.

But I'm confident Air Power Australia will make every effort to exploit this new aircraft even though it probably is more directed against India's partnership with Russia on the PakFA.

His other points about subs and blue water naval experience are equally true. A sea blockade in the Straits of Mallacca would cut off fuel to China and might rapidly end most conflicts. Add a few bombs on commuter rails and city highways and current 10-day Chinese traffic jams would turn into indefinite ones. China plans to curtail auto sales next year due to traffic problems...and the smog isn't getting any better either.

As I understand it, a sequence of five events must occur for a ASBM to successfully engage a target such as a moving aircraft carrier at sea. That sequence is: detection, tracking, penetration of the targets defenses, hitting a moving target, and finally, causing sufficient damage/destruction. A single broken link renders an attack incomplete -- hence ineffective.

I wonder how close the Chinese are to actually perfecting their ASBM as opposed to where we are in tweaking our AEGIS system, which has shown its potential for shooting down a low orbit entry vehicle, as it did in 2008, with the USS Lake Erie destroying an errant Russian satellite (with a bit of help from the Air Force)?

In the end, China may find itself saddled with an expensive system that will become neutralized by the time its completely operational. . .speaking of a mug's game?


If the J-20 could supercruise at 65,000' like the F-22 (I think the F-22 can do that), and if it had a radar signature about like the F-22 or F-35, would the F-35 down much lower and slower see it in time for it do anything? It seems to me that height and speed would give a very large advantage.

Smoke to foil and incoming projectile and the battle line being screened by a destroyer, 20th century stuff that I can understand; that's pretty cool.

The Three Gorges Dam is a rather good target too.

The discussions of Chinese ASBM are all predicated on one undiscussed assumption: that the Chinese (or anyone for that matter) have the ability to hit a moving target using a sub-orbital projectile moving at more than Mach 10.

The last price estimate I heard for Prompt Global Strike was a cool billion dollars a missile for us to do it. Mainly because we don't actually have the technology now, so it would all need to be developed from scratch. Ballistic missiles (even theater ones) are only effective because they have nukes on them, so accuracy isn't really a big deal (even the Pershing II only had a CEP of 30m against a preselected stationary target). Hitting a carrier, that is maneuvering, with a slug, on the other hand requires a great deal of accuracy, one that I'm not entirely sure any country is capable of delivering at this juncture.

The Three Gorges Dam is a rather good target too.

Very creative thinking. Perhaps I'm mistaken, but aren't you the gent who keeps writing that shutting down the Ho Chi Minh Trail would've helped win the Vietnam War, even though documents captured in the 1970 Cambodian incursion showed an estimated 80% of the supplies from NVN came down by boat and were offloaded in Sihanoukville? Keep up the good work.

Backwards Observer:

I mentioned the Three Gorges dam as a further illustration of vulnerability. I was thinking along the lines of a cyber-attack or use of carbon fibre bombs rather than breaking the dam itself.

Yes, I am the gent who mentioned the Trail. Sihanoukville was closed to NVA use in 1970. South Vietnam fell in 1975, so for 5 years the NVA was mostly dependent upon the trail for supplies. During those years and all the years prior, I believe all the men for the NVA came down the Trail.

Ian: Good follow-up commentary. The Chinese may be working on a mid-trajectory correction capability to address the problems that arise, that you and Tyrtaios allude to.

But, again as you state, is this technology workable, or is it somewhat flight of the imagination, such as was the case with Star Wars, at this time frame?

Anonymous: Even with mid-course correction, any system would need pretty serious terminal phase guidance and steering to account for a) your moving (evading) target as the re-entry vehicle descends, and b) atmospheric turbulence.

As to whether this is workable:
The Russians have been firing people into space for 50 years, but in 2008 a Soyuz capsule overshot its landing zone by 400 km. Keep in mind that the Soyuz (after the Soyuz 12 modifications) are the safest spacecraft in the history of manned space flight. Rocket science is still very much experimental.

I think while physically possible, any working system would be both unreliable and orders of magnitude more expensive than countermeasures (like the smoke referenced above).


Thanks for the reply. As far as The Trail, I'll take your word for it.

Do you think Manas Air Base in Kyrgyzstan would be used for airstrikes against China? Is that what it's secondary purpose is?

Also, do you think a bombing campaign against China will convince them to become a democracy?

Doubt we stopped movement on the Ho Chi Minh trail. Similarly, Taliban attempts at cutting off supplies coming into Afghanistan stop only a fraction of supplies.

That LOC example shows the limits of fast high altitude airpower, or ground guerrillas against secured convoys on complex terrain and military targets that move, can hide, or use decoys. But that does not mean airpower and even EBO-like concepts don't have some value...just not stand-alone, single or dual (AirSea) component EBO...but rather Joint capabilities to include Land.

Back to the Ho Chi Minh trail, early attempts at sensor-use along that trail is an example of an evolution (not revolution) that should have continued and expanded beyond Improved-REMBASS. Elsewhere, someone commenting on Wanat and Keating, implied that manned and unmanned are mutually exclusive, while the reality is few sensor platforms are truly unmanned.

If the small unmanned ground vehicle or unattended ground sensors had been present in the dead space near OP Topside monitored by Soldiers, it would have been a far more viable OP position. If the USAF UAS flown all the way from Kandahar due to scarcity of assets had not crashed into a mountain, it may have expanded the outstanding capabilities provided by USAF and Army attack and assault/MEDEVAC aircraft in supporting COP Keating.

Similarly, the Chosen Company platoon (+) at Wanat was awake at stand-to and was attempting to use an advanced ground sensor. However, if they had organic small UAS in that platoon, they might have detected enemy movement the night of the attack more readily and used it for targeting threats before the attack commenced at 0420.

Video from that and other organic division and brigade level UAS could have been fed to JTACs, inbound Apache aviators, and fast mover pilots to assist situational awareness. A reference to a villager's comment about UAS availability was in the original Wanat draft but is missing in the final version. The fog of war will always be present, but that doesn't mean we should not use/improve our fog lights or deny they have value!

Men/women will never be replaced in warfare. However teaming of manned and unmanned systems has great potential to enhance battlefield success if we continue to research, fund, and perfect such technology for the ground component to the same extent we already fund and possess asymmmetric advantages in the air and on the sea.

IMHO, history is important, but never should be used as an excuse not to move forward with new technologies and TTP/doctrine to include the current hybrid of COIN and Counterterrorism.

Finally, back to the direct subject, doubt anyone believes the U.S. and friends would EVER attack China from the air or sea first. But treaty obligations and a wish to avoid appeasement would probably lead a coalition to retaliate if China became aggressive against a neighbor.

That, however, is an extremely unlikely event because our economies are so intertwined and it would be a lose-lose proposition. IMHO, our primary focus should be rogue states.

Move Fwd on AirLandSea wrote:
That, however, is an extremely unlikely event because our economies are so intertwined and it would be a lose-lose proposition.

Amen to that. Even Confucius say, "Don't be a dick."


Another key value in Confucian thinking--the second leg of the tripod--is humaneness, the care and concern for other human beings.

Excerpt from the Analects:
Confucius said: "...The humane man, desiring to be established himself, seeks to establish others; desiring himself to succeed, he helps others to succeed. To judge others by what one knows of oneself is the method of achieving humanity..." 1 1. Sources of Chinese Tradition, Wm. Theodore de Bary, ed. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1960), Analects VI:28

A second, very important concept in the Analects of Confucius and again, in later Confucian thought is that of ren. Sometimes that term ren is translated as goodness, benevolence.

I prefer to translate it as humaneness or humanity because the character is made up of two parts. On the left is the element that means a person or a human being. On the right the element that represents a number two. So, ren has a sense of a person together with others. A human being together with other human beings, a human being in society.