Chinese Military Progress

Maxwell Kuhns, Lynx Fellow

Ed. Note: As China and the US continue to compete economically, a note on Chinese military technology helps discern the hard power and deterrent conditions that frame the ongoing talks.

The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has been in existence for barely a century; created in 1927, advancements within the last decade have occurred at an intensifying pace.[1]This pace could be attributed to the PLA observing how the U.S fared in the Persian Gulf War; more specifically “the lethality of information enabled weapons and forces, in particular mobility and precision-strike capabilities”.[2]Alteration of the pre-1990 military doctrine led to a doctrine focused on a war in local areas with high technology conditions being the prevalent variable.[3]

Analysis of the Chinese budget offers several indications of Chinese dedication to funding military expense in greater fashion. Despite a slowing in China’s double-digit economic growth, funding has still been emphasized for consecutive modernization plans.[4]Research from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) indicates that defense spending has increased fivefold over the last decade.[5]SIPRI’s database indicates that China spends more than Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, and Vietnam combined, with China’s spending globally only second to the United States.[6]

Leaders within China generally characterize long-term modernization as essential to its status as a great power. As a great power it’s likely that China prioritizes its ability to defend itself within the region (area access and denial), a large portion of its modernization is focused on precision striking capabilities concentrating on airbases and the subsequent airpower directed from them. Emphasis on weapons able to fully shut down assets flown from these airbases can be traced to development of submunitions centered on damaging runways.[7]Additionally, analysis by Project 2049 indicates that China has the world’s first conventionally armed ballistic missile warhead aimed at conducting strikes on airbase runways.[8]

In addition to these specific munitions utilized for runways, China is also developing more assets to threaten ballistic missile defenses within the region. During 2015, Chinese military officials declared that they would be developing a new long range bomber that could launch air launched land-attack cruise missiles (LACM).[9]In order to project additional power China is also designing and producing its own indigenous air craft carrier that will provide its own air defense umbrella.[10]Since, at least 1990 the PLA has prioritized anti-satellite (ASAT) capabilities, enabling forces to challenge U.S space dominance over the Pacific region.[11]

China’s ASAT capabilities pose a direct threat to US IMINT, electro-optical (EO), synthetic aperture radar (SAR), and ELINT satellites that are in low-earth orbit (LEO).[12]Damaging these assets would degrade U.S precision strike capabilities and intelligence for information guided systems. China is also likely developing intermediate-range and intercontinental ballistic missiles (IRBM/ICBM) to deploy ASAT capabilities to target satellites in GEO orbit as well.[13]Cyber weapons are likely been fielded in conjunction with these ASAT weapons to possibly interrupt satellite usage.[14]

Lastly, China is developing counter-measures for U.S deployed ballistic missile defense systems within the Pacific region. These measures include maneuverable reentry vehicles (MARV’s), MIRV’s, decoys, chaff, jamming, thermal shielding, and hypersonic glide vehicles.[15]Technologies such as these counter measures could be utilized with new missile systems being developed such as the DF-31AG, and DF-41 ICBM.[16]

Arms Control Association. 2018. Pentagon Sees Chinese Missile Advances.October 01. Accessed February 10, 2019.

Center for Strategic and International Studies. 2018.China Power.October 09. Accessed February 10, 2019.

Defense Intelligence Agency. 2019. DIA Chinese Military Power Report.Military Report, Defense Intelligence Agency.

Easton, Ian. 2009. “The Great Game in Space.” Project 2049.June 24. Accessed February 10, 2019.

Mastro, Oriana, and Ian Easton. 2017. “Risk and Resiliency: China’s Emerging Air Base Strike Threat.” Project 2049.November 08. Accessed February 10, 2019.

[1](Defense Intelligence Agency 2019)




[5](Center for Strategic and International Studies 2018)


[7](Mastro and Easton 2017)


[9](Defense Intelligence Agency 2019)


[11](Easton 2009)


[13] (Easton 2009)


[15](Defense Intelligence Agency 2019)

[16](Arms Control Association 2018)