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DoD's 2010 Report on China's PLA Modernization (IV)

What does the above chart pulled from DoD’s annual assessment of China’s military modernization tell us? It illustrates the maximum range of the various missiles in the PLA arsenal; the “strike” component of a “reconnaissance strike complex.”

What’s missing is the reconnaissance piece. Smart weapons require a smart reconnaissance and targeting network otherwise they’re useless. The overlays on the map above are misleading in that we do not know whether China can accurately target those areas that fall within various missile envelopes.

So far anyway, the U.S. is the only country to have built a truly global reconnaissance strike complex. Cold War exigencies and nearly limitless defense spending enabled the U.S. to build both the reconnaissance and the strike components, something other nations were unable to do.

As CSBA’s Barry Watts writes in his excellent study, “Six Decades of Guided Munitions and Battle Networks,” there is little indication any nation, including China, will replicate that complex in the “foreseeable future”:

“The reason for this unusual situation is, of course, the enormous resource burden of independently reproducing such a capability. Electro-optical reconnaissance satellites, the GPS constellation, B-2 bombers, Joint STARS and other air-breathing reconnaissance platforms, F-22s, TLAMs, and CALCMs illustrate both the up-front costs of developing a robust capacity for near-real-time global strike, and the ongoing costs of sustaining it.”
We know China isn’t sitting on its hands and is developing a reconnaissance strike complex of its own; it’s just that it’s focused on the Western Pacific. The DoD China report says:
“Over the long term, improvements in China’s C4ISR, including space-based and over-the-horizon sensors, could enable Beijing to identify, track, and target military activities deep into the western Pacific Ocean.”
When China will develop that capability, the report doesn’t say; “long-term” could mean a decade or it could mean far longer. At a Pentagon press briefing this week announcing the release of the China report, a senior defense official told reporters the DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile remains a notional capability as the Chinese struggle with assembling the reconnaissance strike complex piece parts:

“[W]here we see them still facing roadblocks is in integrating the missile system with the C4-ISR. And they still have a ways to go before they manage to get that integrated so that they have an operational and effective system.”

As far as the reconnaissance piece, the report says:

“China is planning eight satellites in the Huanjing program that are capable of visible, infrared, multi-spectral, and synthetic aperture radar imaging.”
China currently uses the U.S. GPS constellation but is building its own, the Bei-Dou-2/Compass system:
“The initial BeiDou-2 constellation will become part of a more advanced BeiDou-2/Compass system with global coverage, expected in the 2015-2020 timeframe.”
Would China to finally begin actual tests of its DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile, we probably could gain a pretty good understanding of how far the PLA has progressed in building a WestPac focused reconnaissance strike network that places at risk carrier battle groups and fixed installations such as Guam.

How long the U.S. will maintain its reconnaissance strike network monopoly in WestPac is anybody’s guess. Regrettably, the DoD report didn’t provide much clarity on the matter.

-- Greg Grant

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