DoD's 2010 Report on China's PLA Military Modernization (II)

DoD’s new report on China’s People Liberation Army (PLA), “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China,” says that the pace and scope of China’s military modernization has changed over the last decade. Given China’s blistering economic growth over at least the past two decades, it would be highly unusual if the “pace” of military modernization had not increased. What we should focus on is the “scope” of that modernization; those areas where China is putting the most resources in terms of modernization.

The PLA’s primary mission remains deterring moves toward Taiwan independence. China’s massive buildup of missiles and other forces opposite Taiwan is as much a political as military move; a classic strategy of coercion.

The more interesting initiatives are those aimed at bolstering China’s regional and global ambitions. Chinese decision-makers remain heavily influenced by the 1995-1996 Taiwan Strait crisis when the U.S. sailed two carrier strike groups into the area. Much of China’s force modernization is intended to make sure that doesn’t happen again; hence, the much discussed anti-access capabilities the PLA is buying, or, to put it another way, China is buying stand-off.

The PLA’s emphasis on long-range precision strike is consistent with another dominant strain in Chinese military thinking: the revolution in military affairs. Whereas, the RMA crowd has taken a hit in U.S. defense circles because of actual combat experience in recent low-intensity wars, much of China’s thinking remains lodged in the theoretical. An important point to keep in mind is that the RMA has its roots in the maritime domain and that remains the one area where many of the RMA precepts still make the most sense.

“The PLA is attempting the concurrent pursuit of “mechanization” (application of late 20th-Century industrial technology to military operations) and “informatization” (application of information technology to military operations). As a consequence, and in recognition of the high costs of force-wide refitting with state-of-the-art weapons systems, the PLA is selectively acquiring new generation technologies in some areas, while deferring new acquisitions in others in favor of upgrading older, but capable, systems for networked operations.”
That line of thinking can be seen in China’s 2008 defense white paper which emphasized military strategic “guidelines” which include: “fighting and winning local wars under conditions of informatization”; bettering joint operations; and asymmetric warfare, attacking an enemy’s weak points.

Two of the smartest analysts I know, the Navy department’s Frank Hoffman and CSBA’s Jim Thomas, both make the point that China will not try to match the U.S. military force on force in the canonical big theater war scenario. Rather, they’ll seek out seams and weak points in an asymmetric fashion. For example, lots of folks focus on the PLA Navy’s dragging carrier project while not giving adequate attention to its deployment of 60 plus new Houbei class fast-attack craft, each armed with eight YJ-83 anti-ship cruise missiles.

-- Greg Grant

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