The Pentagon released its 2014 report to Congress, Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China on Thursday. An annual requirement since 2010, the report outlines military technology advancements and the techniques and training the branches of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) have undertaken in the last year.
While the report seldom contains any earthshattering revelations on China’s military advancement, it does — in very broad strokes — give insight to the developments in China that give the Department of Defense the most concern.
The following is a selection of Chinese weapons that were highlighted in the report.
No piece of Chinese hardware in the last decade has prompted more U.S. concern than the China’s first modern aircraft carrier — Liaoning.
The 55,000-ton ship is a former Ukrainian-built, Soviet-era ship the Chinese are using to learn the ropes of carrier operations — some of the toughest and most dangerous work at sea.
“The carrier most likely will conduct extensive local operations focusing on shipboard training, carrier aircraft integration, and carrier formation training for the next three to four years. The carrier conducted operations in the East China Sea and South China Sea in November may be used for other missions as needed,” read the report.
A People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) strike group formation operating in late 2013 almost collided with the Ticonderoga-class cruiser USS Cowpens (CG-63).
The carrier is widely seen as a training ground for a domestic carrier program China first hinted at in 2010 and parts of the Chinese regional government dropped more hints in 2013.
“The first Chinese-built carrier will likely be operational sometime at the beginning of the next decade. The formation of carrier battle groups will enable the [PLAN] to conduct comprehensive sea control and power projection operations and enhance its long-range operational capabilities,” read the report.
Though the carrier grabs headlines, the actual military utility of the ship is still very much up for debate.
“Liaoning currently is more of a political statement than a naval threat, posing little operational danger to the United States, its allies in East Asia, or even to smaller regional nations,” wrote Bernard D. Cole, a retired U.S. Navy officer and instructor at National Defense University, in USNI News in May.
China’s Stealth Fighters
China continues development of the twin-engine Chengdu J-20 fifth-generation stealth fighter as part of an effort to “develop aircraft with low observable features, advanced avionics, super-cruise engines.” The Pentagon report insists that the aircraft will not enter service before 2018. The aircraft is described as a multi-role aircraft in the report rather than an air superiority fighter like the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor. The report notes “China faces numerous challenges to achieving full operational capability, including developing high-performance jet engines.”
China is also developing the smaller twin-engine Shenyang J-31 fifth-generation fighter, which bears a resemblance to the Lockheed F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. The report notes that it is unclear which branch of the People’s Liberation Army will operated the new aircraft or if it will be offered for export. “It is unclear if the J-31 is being developed for the PLAAF or the PLA Navy Air Force, or as an export platform to compete with the U.S. F-35,” the report notes.
China’s Flying Shark
The Chinese navy also conducted carrier-based operations with its new Shenyang J-15 Flying Shark unlicensed derivative of the Sukhoi Su-33 Flanker in 2013. By September of last year, the report notes that PLAN pilots flying the J-15 were conducting full-stops and takeoffs with weapon loads at full maximum gross weights onboard the carrier Liaoning. “Although the J-15 has a land-based combat radius of 1,200 km, the aircraft will be limited in range and armament when operating from the carrier, because the ski-jump design does not provide as much airspeed and, therefore, lift at takeoff as a catapult design,” the report notes.
The PLA is also continues development of the Xian Y-20 heavy strategic airlifter, which first flew at the beginning of last year. “The Y-20 could also acquire additional missions such as an airborne warning and control system (AWACS) and as an aerial refueling tanker,” the report notes.
China is modernizing its geriatric Tupolev Tu-16 Badger-derived Xian H-6 bombers with two upgraded variants that could pose a threat to the US carrier fleet and land bases in the Pacific. The upgraded H-6G has hardpoints capable of carrying four anti-ship cruise missiles. Meanwhile, the newer H-6K has new turbofan engines and room to carry six anti-ship or land attack cruise missiles. “Modernizing the H-6 into a cruise missile carrier has given the PLA Air Force a long- range stand-off offensive capability with precision-guided munitions,” the report notes.
The Chinese have three operational nuclear ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) which will likely start strategic deterrent patrols this year, according to the report.
The new 11,000-ton Jin-class Type 94 boomers have been under development by the People’s Liberation Army Navy for the last decade and are China’s first real entrée into the sea-based deterrent world.
“Three JIN-class SSBNs (Type-094) are currently operational, and up to five may enter service before China proceeds to its next generation SSBN (Type-096) over the next decade,” according to the report.
With five or six boats in the PLAN’s inventory, China could have a consistent strategic deterrent patrol parallel to France or the U.K. in the next few years, Eric Wertheim, author of Naval Institute’s Guide to Combat Fleets of the World told USNI News in February.
The new boomers replace the older Type 92 Xia-class submarines armed with the much less capable JL-1 submarine launched ballistic missile (SLBM).
Paired with the Jin-class is the new Chinese JL-2 SLBM, which is far more cable than the JL-1 missile that was paired to the Xia-class boomer.
The missile has an “estimated range of 7,400 km. The JIN-class and the JL-2 will give the PLA Navy its first credible sea-based nuclear deterrent,” according to the report.
The missiles could reach Alaska or the U.S. West Coast according to the estimate from a report from the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) released earlier this year.
According to unconfirmed press reports, the JL-2 is a three-stage missile capable of carrying three to six warheads with a yield of 90 kilotons a piece or a single warhead with a yield of 250 to 1000 kilotons.
China continues to develop its already formidable integrated air defense system. “Defense against stealth aircraft and unmanned aerial vehicles is also a growing priority,” the report notes. The force includes Russian-built SA-20 (S-300 PMU1/PMU2) and the indigenous HQ-9. China interested in the SA-X-21b (S-400). “Russian officials have stated China would not receive the S-400 until at least 2017,” according to the report. “Simultaneously [China is] developing its indigenous HQ-19 which appears to be very similar to the S-400.”
China is also bolstering it early warning systems with the addition of the Kongjing-2000 airborne early warning aircraft—similar in concept to the Boeing E-3 Sentry or Northrop Grumman E-2D. The aircraft would provide coverage at long ranges and low altitudes for faster response and command targeting to weapon systems, according to the report. China is also improving reconnaissance technologies to include infrared, multiple-spectrum, pulsed Doppler, phased array, and passive detection, the report says. The Chinese early warning systems are networked with their integrated air defenses.
Guided Missile Destroyers
China is expanding its surface fleet with ships that look similar to the U.S. and Western allies, according to the report.
The Type-052D Luyang III guided missile destroyer is an expression of several advances in surface weapons technology.
“The first Luyang III, which will likely enter service in 2014, incorporates the PLA Navy’s first multipurpose vertical launch system, likely capable of launching ASCMs, land-attack cruise missiles (LACMs), surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) and anti-submarine missiles. China is projected to build more than a dozen of these ships to replace the aging Luda- class destroyers (DD),” according to the report.
However, absent from the report is a discussion of ship’s radars.
The new ships field Type 346 AESA radar and a Type 518 L-band radar paired with the CPMIEC HQ-9B surface-to-air missile defense system, which maybe able to detect U.S. fifth generation stealth aircraft.
Intermediate Range Ballistic Missiles
In the last several years, Chinese missile technology has been dominated by DF-21D so-called carrier killer missile.
“China is fielding a limited but growing number of conventionally armed medium- range ballistic missiles, including the CSS-5 Mod 5 (DF-21D) anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM),” read the report.
“The CSS-5 Mod 5 gives the PLA the capability to attack large ships, including aircraft carriers, in the western Pacific Ocean. The CSS-5 Mod 5 has a range exceeding 1,500 km and is armed with a maneuverable warhead.”
The missile — which U.S. officials claim is operational — has never been seen in use and there’s little evidence the PLA has developed the information, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) to guide the missile effectively to a moving carrier target.
The Chinese are also developing medium range missiles that are able to strike regional targets — including Taiwan.