HONG KONG: Every year since 2000, the Pentagon in the USA has issued a report discussing developments in its chief protagonist, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of China. The 2021 report was delayed by a couple of months compared to last year, but it was worth waiting for as it was full of thought-provoking summaries about China’s military.
Entitled Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2021, or China Military Power Report (CMPR) for short, the 192-page document was published on 3 November.
The CMPR only covers developments till the end of 2020, the better part of a year ago. For that reason, it did not mention the test of a fractional orbital bombardment system (FOBS) several months ago. A FOBS is an alternative means of delivering a nuclear warhead compared to the more common intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).
This CMPR makes sober reading, warning early on, “The PLA’s evolving capabilities and concepts continue to strengthen China’s ability to ‘fight and win wars’ against a ‘strong enemy’ (a likely euphemism for the United States), coerce Taiwan and rival claimants in territorial disputes, counter an intervention by a third party in a conflict along China’s periphery, and project power globally.”
Andrew Erickson, Professor of Strategy at the US Naval War College, told ANI: “Over the past two decades, the PLA has achieved a rapid hardware build-out in quantity and increasing quality, together with sweeping reforms to address ongoing weaknesses in organization, coordination, sophistication and training. China has already arrived as a great power. It has the world’s second largest economy and defense budget, and the world’s largest standing ground force. Its three sea forces [navy, coast guard and maritime militia] are each the world’s largest by number of ships. It has the Indo-Pacific’s largest air force, the world’s largest sub-strategic missile force, and arguably the world’s largest and most sophisticated surface-to-air missile force.”
The most startling developments revolve around the PLA Rocket Force (PLARF), the keeper of China’s nuclear weapon arsenal.
The Pentagon’s 2020 report warned of a doubling of China’s nuclear arsenal, but this year’s conclusions are far more jaw-dropping. It asserts that China will quadruple its nuclear stockpile to 1,000 weapons by 2030!
China currently has a nuclear-weapon total in the low 200s; this will likely reach 700 by 2027, before achieving 1,000 in 2030. Such an astounding expansion in nuclear holdings represents a serious shift in Chinese policy. It is obvious that Beijing has moved away from minimum deterrence towards what the Pentagon is calling “limited deterrence”.
As well as multiplying nuclear weapons, China will “increase the peacetime readiness” of the PLARF and move to a “launch-on-warning posture with an expanded silo-based force”. This is borne out by this year’s open-source discovery of three massive ICBM silo fields deep in China’s interior. The USA has obviously been aware of these for some time, and has hinted there may even be more silo fields awaiting discovery.
Just as importantly, China now has the means to launch nuclear weapons from land, sea and air. Whereas the 2020 report said China was “pursuing” a nuclear triad, this year it reworded it to “possibly already established”.
This is primarily due to development of the CH-AS-X-13 air-launched ballistic missile now being “operationally fielded” on H-6N bomber aircraft. In 2021 the PLA Air Force (PLAAF)has been “developing tactics and procedures” for use of this missile.
Not unexpectedly, China reacted angrily to the US report. Senior Colonel Wu Qian, spokesman for the Ministry of National Defense (MND), said on 5 November that his government was “strongly dissatisfied and firmly opposed” to it. He added that it “disregarded facts and was fraught with bias, made false remarks on China’s national defense policy and military strategy, and fabricated the so-called ‘Chinese military threat'”.
The MND called the alleged nuclear-capability developments in the document as “groundless accusations”. However, Beijing has singularly failed to give adequate explanation for its increased plutonium refining, new missile silo fields and FOBS test. Instead, it resorted to mud-slinging to deflect attention from assertions made in the Pentagon report. It should be remembered that declassified information in these reports has a reliable track record.
Worryingly, China remains totally opaque in terms of its military ambitions and development. China is also implementing an early-warning counterstrike posture plus a ballistic missile defense network, but it never talks publicly about such things, for example. Professor Erickson’s conclusion was that the 2021 report is the best one yet, concurring that its “most explosive revelations” were in the nuclear realm. He concluded, “China has clearly arrived as a top-tier nuclear-weapons state across the board. Its deterrence relations with the United States will reach new levels of difficulty and complexity in coming years.”
The CMPR noted, “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…blocking the flow of data from its International Monitoring System stations…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.”
The report noted that Chinese strategists have highlighted the need for lower-yield nuclear weapons to increase the PLA’s deterrence value, and even that in 2017 a defense industry publication indicated a lower-yield weapon had been developed for use against campaign and tactical targets to reduce collateral damage. It is assumed the DF-26 is that nuclear-capable missile.
Ongoing production of the DF-26, and fielding of the DF-17 with hypersonic glide vehicle last year, saw a significant rise in estimated numbers of Chinese medium-range (150 launchers to 250, and 150+ missiles to 600) and intermediate-range ballistic missiles (200+ to 300).
The USA assesses that the now operational DF-17 may be equipped with nuclear warheads.
Showing just how active China’s missile program is, in 2020 it launched more than 250 ballistic missiles, exceeding the rest of the world combined. This included a significant August 2020 test where four ballistic missiles were fired at targets in the South China Sea.
New satellite imagery published this month shows that the PLA has built targets in the shape of US Navy warships and an aircraft carrier in the Taklamakan Desert. The instrumented target range is near a former test range for the DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile, and is evidence that China is intent on improving its ability to target US warships at sea.
Erickson explained, “PLA missiles and other ‘counter-intervention’ weapons are part of a comprehensive pattern: we can see Beijing preparing to attempt to deter or defeat American defense of Taiwan in coming years by claiming a potent weapons-based capability for every possible scenario contingency and escalation.” What about the naval arena?
The PLA Navy’s (PLAN) force structure grows inexorably, with this the first report to explicitly state that China’s navy and coast guard are the world’s largest. Indeed, numbers quoted are significantly higher than what the US Navy has previously projected.
The PLAN now has 355 major combatants, up five from last year (this figure ignores 85 patrol combatants carrying anti-ship missiles). Significantly, the number of major surface combatants grew 15 in the past year to 145. However, there is a lot of growth left, for China’s navy could reach 460 major vessels by 2030 (up from 425 previously predicted).
For the first time, the report confirmed that China’s nuclear triad now has a “viable sea-based nuclear deterrent”. This is in the form of six Type 094 nuclear-powered ballistic-missile submarines (SSBN). Each submarine carries up to 12 JL-2 submarine-launched ballistic, though the latter’s 7,200km range means they would have to operate far into the Pacific in order to target the east coast of the USA.
However, this situation will radically change when the Type 096 SSBN equipped with the longer-range JL-3 missile enters service. By 2030, the PLAN could possess eight SSBNs, operating the Type 094 and Type 096 concurrently. The JL-3 could target the USA from protected bastions like the South China Sea or Bohai Gulf, instead of its SSBNs having to run the gauntlet of underwater chokepoints to reach the Western Pacific.
The PLAN is enhancing anti-submarine warfare capabilities, an area in which it has traditionally been weak. It is prioritizing landing platform dock and landing helicopter assault vessels for expeditionary operations, rather than the landing ships/craft necessary for an over-the-beach assault.
However, “The PLA may also have confidence in the PRC’s shipbuilding industry’s massive capacity to produce the necessary ship-to-shore connectors relatively quickly.”
Taiwan remains a vexing issue. The American Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley said on 3 November that he believed China would “probably not” take military action against
Taiwan in the “near future”. Nonetheless, he warned, “The Chinese are clearly and unambiguously building the capability to provide those options.”
As for the PLAAF, it possesses 2,800 aircraft, up 300 from a year earlier. Of these, 2,250 are combat aircraft (up 250). The air force is “gradually eroding longstanding and significant US military technical advantages”.
As of this year, China “has at least one early-warning satellite in orbit,” and, in all, more than 200 Chinese reconnaissance and remote-sensing satellites are in orbit, of which the PLA Strategic Support Force operates about half. This is sharply up by 80 compared to 2020 figures. Such satellites provide situational awareness of regional rivals and potential flashpoints, while monitoring, tracking and targeting adversaries.
The PLA ground force clashed violently with India last year. Nonetheless, the ground force of 975,000 soldiers “remains a relative laggard within the PLA in terms of modernization”. Additionally, the PLAN Marine Corps likely missed the mechanization target, as the operationalization of four new brigades has gone slower than expected.
For the first time, the Pentagon included a section on chemical and biological research. However, this new information probably raises more questions than it answers – does the USA suspect that China is developing new biological and chemical weapons, for example?
Chinese espionage was worthy of mention too. Last year, the FBI had almost 5,000 active counterintelligence cases, of which nearly half related to China. In the past decade, economic espionage cases linked to China have increased by 1,300%.
China maintains a military base in Djibouti, and a recent pier expansion means it can now accommodate an aircraft carrier. The CMPR reaffirmed that PLA personnel in Djibouti were lasing US pilots.
Furthermore, “China is seeking to establish a more robust overseas logistics and basing infrastructure to allow the PLA to project and sustain military power at greater distances.”
Future candidates for military bases or PLA logistics facilities with prepositioned supplies are listed as: Angola, Cambodia, Indonesia, Kenya, Myanmar, Pakistan, Seychelles, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Tajikistan, Tanzania, Thailand and United Arab Emirates. Additionally, the report states, “The PRC has probably already made overtures to Namibia.”
Incidentally, Namibia is the world’s fourth-largest producer of uranium oxide, and China owns the globe’s third-largest uranium mine there.
As for Covid-19, the US Department of Defense assessed that the pandemic only “temporarily degraded” PLA readiness or halted production of domestic military equipment.
By spring 2020, PLA readiness and production had returned to normal. The year 2027 is a recurring theme in this report, which will be the PLA’s 100th anniversary.
The outgoing US Indo-Pacific Commander Admiral Phil Davidson warned in March that PLA capabilities and likely intentions to threaten Taiwan are surging towards an unprecedented, dangerous level by around 2027.
By 2027, the report said China aims to: “Accelerate the integrated development of mechanization, informatization and intelligentization, while boosting the speed of modernization in military theories, organizations, personnel and weapons and equipment.”
Erickson observed, “If realized, the PLA’s 2027 modernization goals could provide Beijing with more credible military options in a Taiwan contingency … Clearly, the recent focus by Admiral Davidson and other US officials on PLA threats to Taiwan peaking by around 2027 is not based solely on close-hold information – although that undoubtedly factors in.”
How should this report be read? Erickson responded, “Most fundamentally, as a clarion call to meet China’s challenge before regional security, US alliances and the rules-based international order suffer grave, irreversible damage.”
“The Pentagon’s new China report must inform key decision-makers as well as the general public to marshal the necessary efforts to safeguard peace and security amid Beijing’s mounting challenges to both. The bottom line: Washington and its allies and partners must hold the line through 2035. Starting now! There is no time left to waste,” Erickson summarized.


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