Breaking Down the Pentagon’s 2020 China Military Power Report: A Quest for PLA Parity?

Overall Assessment: 

My first impression is that this is the latest and greatest of the Pentagon’s China Military Power reports since their inception two decades ago. At 173 pages, it is quite possibly the longest and most substantive. A high-water mark in public analysis from the Office of the Secretary of Defense to date, it begins with a self-critical stocktaking of previous editions, yielding striking conclusions concerning the rapidity and relative comprehensiveness of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA)’s progress. This wake-up call regarding the current advanced state, and rapid forward advancement, of the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) military capabilities, should land loudly on the desk of Members of Congress and all other U.S. foreign policy and defense community stakeholders. Essential reading, indeed!

The report puts key concerns front and center: arguably, China’s meteoric military progress in recent years has not simply narrowed the gap in limited niches, but has in fact pursued parity and even selective superiority to the degree that, broadly interpreted, “China is already ahead of the United States in certain areas”:

– “Shipbuilding: The PRC has the largest navy in the world, with an overall battle force of approximately 350 ships and submarines including over 130 major surface combatants. In comparison, the U.S. Navy’s battle force is approximately 293 ships as of early 2020.

– Land-based conventional ballistic and cruise missiles: The PRC has more than 1,250 ground-launched ballistic missiles (GLBMs) and ground-launched cruise missiles (GLCMs) with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers. The United States currently fields one type of conventional GLBM with a range of 70 to 300 kilometers and no GLCMs.

– Integrated air defense systems: The PRC has one of the world’s largest forces of advanced long-range surface-to-air systems—including Russian-built S-400sS-300s, and domestically produced systems—that constitute part of its robust and redundant integrated air defense system architecture.” 

One need not accept upfront the report’s assessment that “it is likely that Beijing will seek to develop a military by mid-century that is equal to—or in some cases superior to—the U.S. military, or that of any other great power that the PRC views as a threat.” But as this 7.5 MB tome documents with excruciating thoroughness the sea change in capabilities the PRC has achieved already, the following conclusion emerges cogently: “What is certain is that the CCP has a strategic end state that it is working towards, which if achieved and its accompanying military modernization left unaddressed, will have serious implications for U.S. national interests and the security of the international rules-based order.” That definitely merits the attention of all who value the peace and prosperity underwritten by the global system that has risen over seven decades from the ashes of devastating world war.

Significant Superlatives:

The report confirms larger achievements that have been openly visible for some time. By the overall conclusion of the report’s data compilation at the end of 2019, China had achieved:

– the world’s largest standing ground force,

– the world’s largest navy, already with 50+ ships more than its American counterpart,

– the world’s largest coast guard “by far,”

– the Indo-Pacific’s largest air forces,

– the world’s largest sub-strategic missile forces,

– one of the world’s largest and most sophisticated surface-to-air missile forces–part of an Integrated Air Defense System architecture that is “robust and redundant… over land areas and within 300 nm (556 km) of its coast,”

– and the world’s leading maritime militia.

Major Nuclear Developments: 

As it has been doing for years, China is pursuing a nuclear weapons arsenal that is increasingly sophisticated, diverse, and regularly-updated. Some of the most significant examples of this pattern include the ongoing development of follow-on DF-5C and DF-31B ICBM variants. Beyond that, China’s nuclear weapons capabilities are developing in at least three big new ways.

First–as foreshadowed in a recent tweet by Secretary of Defense Dr. Mark T. Esper–the Pentagon projects that China’s nuclear warhead stockpile will “at least double in size” over the next decade from the current “low 200s.” This growing arsenal will be applied in part to the increasing of multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle (MIRV) capabilities. Meanwhile, “The number of warheads on the PRC’s land-based ICBMs capable of threatening the United States is expected to grow to roughly 200 in the next five years.” This Chinese nuclear buildup raises important questions about the significance of previously-reported items:

“China maintained a high level of activity at its Lop Nur nuclear weapons test site throughout 2019, according to the U.S. Department of State’s April 2020 Executive Summary of Findings on Adherence to and Compliance with Arms Control, Nonproliferation, and Disarmament Agreements and Commitments. The executive summary states, “China’s possible preparation to operate its Lop Nur test site year-round, its use of explosive containment chambers, extensive excavation activities at Lop Nur, and lack of transparency on its nuclear testing activities – which has included frequently blocking the flow of data from its International Monitoring System (IMS) stations to the International Data Center operated by the Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty Organization – raise concerns regarding its adherence to the ‘zero yield’ standard adhered to by the United States, United Kingdom, and France in their respective nuclear weapons testing moratoria.”

Second, China is pursuing a “nuclear triad” by developing a “nuclear-capable air-launched ballistic missile.” Such a weapon might be deployed on a succession of dual-capable bombers, first the H-6N and ultimately “the future H-20 flying wing stealth bomber.” This complements ongoing efforts to develop an undersea deterrent. Six Jin-class (Type 094) SSBNs have been built, with four going to sea and “two outfitting at Huludao Shipyard.” Neither the report itself nor Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense (DASD) for China Chad Sbragia’s earnestly engaging rollout presentation with the American Enterprise Institute was able to elaborate on the sensitive question of precisely what sort of patrols PLAN SSBNs have, or have not, engaged in thus far.

Third, China’s long-established approach of maintaining launchers, missiles, and warheads separated in peacetime may be changing in important ways, at least at the margins. The report states that “nuclear and conventional PLARF [PLA Rocket Force] brigades conduct ‘combat readiness duty’ and ‘high alert duty’ which apparently includes assigning a missile battalion to be ready to launch, and rotating to standby positions as much as monthly for unspecified periods of time. Authoritative PLA textbooks on strategy state ‘high alert duty’ is valuable for the defender in a nuclear war, recommending the PLARF adopt a high alert posture conceptually comparable to the claimed high alert posture kept by portions of U.S. and Russian nuclear forces, and that such a posture is compatible with the PRC’s active defense concept, NFU policy, and post-strike response approach.”

Additionally, public photos document the development of new missile silos, part of a broader set of indications that China “intends to increase the peacetime readiness of its nuclear forces by moving to a launch-on-warning (LOW) posture with an expanded silo-based force.” The report reasons as follows: “Commercial imagery from 2019 has revealed that China has constructed an ICBM silo at one of the PLARF’s Western training ranges that is smaller than China’s existing CSS-4 (DF-5) silos. According to state media, the CSS-X-20 (DF-41) ICBM can be launched from silos; this site is probably being used to at least develop a concept of operations for silo basing this system. There are also some indications that China may be building new CSS-4 (DF-5) ICBM silos.”

A Rocket Force to Be Reckoned With:

China’s enormous world-class rocket forces have benefitted, from, among other things, more ballistic missile testing and training launches “than the rest of the world combined” in 2019. The clear implication: watch that space!

Straddling the nuclear and conventional realm, itself a concerning area of growing emphasis for China, is the DF-26 intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM). It is designed to be able to attack both land targets (e.g., military facilities on Guam) and sea targets (e.g., a carrier strike group operating in the region). Intriguingly, the report states: “PRC strategists have highlighted the need for lower-yield nuclear weapons in order to increase the deterrence value of China’s nuclear force without defining specific nuclear yield values. A 2017 defense industry publication indicated a lower-yield weapon had been developed for use against campaign and tactical targets that would reduce collateral damage. The DF26 is China’s first nuclear-capable missile system that can conduct precision strikes, and therefore, is the most likely weapon system to field a lower-yield warhead in the near-term.” The author is neither able to find any open sources that elaborate on this point, nor is surprised at their apparent paucity or difficulty to access.

The inventory of this versatile, highly advanced missile is growing rapidly. In this regard, the following line from the report should grab policy-makers’ attention: “The PLA has fielded approximately 200 IRBM launchers and more than 200 missiles.” Since the only other PRC missiles universally-recognized as true IRBMs by range would be the few if any remaining DF-3s, it is reasonable to assume that the vast majority of these 200 IRBMs are DF-26s. That single system’s dominance of China’s arsenal within that set of operationally-important range parameters would seem to represent great confidence in it–no need to hedge Beijing’s bets with multiple types with broadly overlapping capabilities. It would represent extraordinarily fast production and deployment in highly-consequential numbers, itself a related sign of confidence, of a leading-edge weapons system.

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tianze.zhang@graduateinstitute.ch