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Pentagon sees Chinese military capabilities expanding

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    Pentagon sees Chinese military capabilities expanding

    Daniel Wasserbly JDW Staff Reporter - Washington, DC

    Key Points
    China's defence modernisation is shifting the regional military power balance, according to a new US report

    The PLA is increasing its strategic strike capability with new ballistic missiles


    China's pursuit of a comprehensive defence modernisation programme including more advanced ballistic missiles is shifting the military power balance in Asia, according to the US Department of Defense (DoD).

    The Pentagon's assessment was released on 25 March in its annual report to Congress on China's military power.

    Although China's capability to project military power over long distances is still limited, the country is continuing to pursue 'disruptive military technologies' that have implications for the Asia-Pacific region and beyond, according to the DoD's report.

    A senior US defence official told reporters: "The People's Liberation Army [PLA] is pursuing comprehensive transformation from a mass army designed for protracted wars of attrition on its territory to one that's capable of fighting and winning short-duration, high-intensity conflicts along its periphery against high-tech adversaries."

    The PLA has said its defence budget for 2008 was about USD60 billion, marking a nearly 18 per cent increase from the previous year. Confirmed amounts are, however, difficult to ascertain because China has only modestly improved its military accounting transparency. According to the DoD report, those official numbers do not reflect "the totality of military expenditure".

    DoD estimates of China's total defence expenditures for 2008 are between USD105 billion and USD150 billion, said the official.

    The report asserts that China will gain "greater flexibility and options for strategic strike" in 2009 or 2010 by fielding JL-2 submarine-launched ballistic missiles on its Jin-class (Type 094) nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines, the first of which became operational (without its missiles) in 2007.

    These platforms would be in addition to China's deployment in 2006 and 2007 of two new intercontinental ballistic missile classes: the DF-31 and DF-31A. Both missiles are road-mobile, solid-propellant systems and the Pentagon notes that DF-31As have an 11,200 km range that allows them to reach "any location in the continental United States".

    As far as anti-access and area-denial capabilities, China has or is acquiring "quiet submarines, advanced anti-ship cruise missiles, wire-guided and wake-homing torpedoes, or anti-ship ballistic missiles" that pose threats to large surface ships and aircraft carriers.

    According to the report, the PLA has also established a naval base on Hainan Island that "appears large enough to accommodate a mix of attack and ballistic missile submarines and advanced surface combatant ships". This location gives the PLA Navy direct access to "vital international sea lanes and offers the potential for stealthy deployment of submarines into the deep waters of the South China Sea".

    Furthermore, China is bolstering its forces that are aligned opposite Taiwan despite a recent thaw in relations. Seven brigades with as many as 1,150 DF-15 (CSS-6) and DF-11 (CSS-7) short-range ballistic missiles are now positioned across the strait from Taiwan. China is augmenting these forces with conventional medium-range ballistic missile systems, including anti-ship ballistic missiles and "at least two land attack cruise missile (LACM) variants" that are capable of either ground or air launch.

    As for China's defence industrial base, "overall trends to date favour the space and missile industry, but the military still relies on Russia for advanced engines, propulsion and electronics", said the official.

    Nevertheless, China has sold nearly USD7 billion worth of conventional weapon systems on the international market from 2003 to 2007. China's primary customer has been Pakistan, with Sudan a close second. Sales to Islamabad have included JF-17 strike aircraft and production facilities, F-22P frigates, helicopters, K-8 jet trainers, T-85 tanks, F-7 fighter/ground attack aircraft and missile technologies.

    The DoD's report also mentions counter-space and cyberwarfare capabilities as areas of notable development. Computer systems all over the world, including US government-owned systems, were targeted for intrusions in 2008 "that appear to have originated within the PRC [People's Republic of China]", the report states. These cyber attacks were intended to exfiltrate information, but the accesses and skills involved are applicable for more serious computer network attacks, according to the Pentagon.

    China has reacted angrily to the Pentagon's claim that its capabilities are altering Asia's military power balance. A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman was quoted on 26 March as calling it a "gross distortion of the facts" mired in "Cold War thinking".

    © 2009 Jane's Information Group