China and the Art of War, Part 4
By John D. Turner
25 Mar 2008

“If your enemy is secure at all points, be prepared for him. If he is in superior strength, evade him. If your opponent is temperamental, seek to irritate him. Pretend to be weak, that he may grow arrogant. If he is taking his ease, give him no rest. If his forces are united, separate them. If sovereign and subject are in accord, put division between them. Attack him where he is unprepared, appear where you are not expected.” --Sun Tzu, the Art of War

So what happens if push comes to shove, and you are China and you really do have to fight a heads-up war against the United States? Is it possible for China to do so? What has China been doing in recent years to prepare itself should such come to pass? In past articles we have talked about other aspects of Chinese strategy. Let’s now look specifically at the Chinese military.

Most of us here at home do not think very much about China’s military. If we do, we probably think in terms of the “human wave” attacks the Chinese threw against our forces in Korea back in the 1950’s; hordes of ill-armed troops, seeking to overwhelm our forces by sheer weight of numbers. And looking at a country with a population of 1.3 billion individuals (and a lopsided proportion of males to females – some estimates as high as 200 million draft-age men with no prospects of ever finding a mate) it is easy to envision large armies of much greater size than anything we could field.

But armies are constrained by being forced to fight on the land. It doesn’t matter how many they have under arms, if they can’t get to you, they can’t fight you. This is one of the reasons Taiwan has survived for as long as it has. Without a creditable invasion fleet, the mainland Chinese simply can’t get there in all their numbers. In order to succeed with an invasion, they would need air superiority to avoid having their invasion fleet sunk. They need a way to neutralize the Taiwanese air force which, although smaller, has superior technology (provided by us) and superior training. They also need to have a way to neutralize reinforcements we would send in aid, typically American carrier battle groups.

So they have structured their military to meet these challenges and give themselves a chance of victory should other means of reunification fail and military action be deemed the only option left.

While we have been pursuing other issues, China has been arming and modernizing their armed forces. Though China would prefer not to have to fight a war with the United States (we are after all their largest trading partner), they nevertheless have been preparing to do so and believe that in a limited engagement they could emerge victorious.

While China’s defense spending in absolute terms may seem small compared to the U.S. military budget, it has, nonetheless been growing at a double digit pace for the past 10 years. This year, China has announced its military budget to be $45 billion, up nearly 18 percent over the previous year’s budget.

The Chinese military budget, however, is notoriously hard to pin down exactly. The official figures announced by the Chinese government exclude money used for foreign weapon purchases, military-related research and development, the paramilitary People’s Armed Police, and various other costs. Pentagon analysts and other independent sources estimate the actual budget to be up to three times the official numbers.

And of course, the actual effective “buying power” is even greater; things cost more in the US than they do in China, the US is more technologically advanced than China (adding to the cost), and priorities are different in the US than China. As an example, China has 2.3 million men under arms as compared to 1.37 million in the US. In 2007, the US spent $110.8B on personnel costs, nearly $80,000 per person. Obviously, China spends much less, as an equivalent expenditure would yield a personnel budget for China of approximately $186B, over 4 times China’s annual stated budget, and almost half again as much as what experts estimate China is actually spending on its total military budget.

To get a rough idea what China actually spends on its troops, the daily food subsidy for PLA soldiers was raised on 1 Jan 2007 to 11 yuan ($1.45 U.S. dollars). PLA pilots, on the other hand, receive 39 yuan ($5.10) per day as they need more food in order to “keep up their physical strength.” A little quick math shows that as far as food costs alone are concerned, China spends only around $3.4 million each year to feed its armed forces. Here in the U.S., subsistence allowances (BAS) paid to military personnel are $202.76/month for officers and $294.43/month for enlisted. Based on these numbers and current force breakdown, that works out to $4.5 billion each year to feed a significantly smaller armed force. [1]

So what are the Chinese buying with their money?

In the last 10 years, the Chinese have purchased two Sovremenny class guided-missile destroyers from Russia, the first delivered in 1999 and the second in 2000. This was cause for concern among its neighbors, particularly Taiwan, as the Sovremenny class was designed as a missile-attack vessel. Later, in 2002, it ordered two Sovremenny II class ships, taking delivery of the last in late 2006.

The Sovremenny class destroyers carry the Russian Moskit anti-ship missile system, mounting eight launchers located in two clusters of four. The Moskit 3M80E anti-ship missile is a supersonic (mach 2.5) sea-skimming missile armed with a 300 kg high-explosive or a 200 kiloton (kt) nuclear warhead. It is three times faster than the U.S. Harpoon anti-ship cruise missile, and drastically decreases the response time a ship has to defend against it. Its range is anywhere from 10 to 120 km.

The Sovremenny II class carries a newer version of the missile, the Moskit 3M80M, which has a longer range (out to 200 km). It has been speculated that these vessels are intended for use against American carrier battle groups attempting to come to the defense of Taiwan. Indeed, the class was designed to attack surface combatants, primarily U.S. and NATO warships. Both versions of the Sovremenny also carry an anti-submarine helicopter, 44 Shtil surface-to-air missiles (SAMs), anti-submarine rocket launchers, torpedoes (4 tubes), mines (40), long-range guns (130 mm) and a sophisticated electronic warfare suite.

On the Sovremenny IIs delivered to China, the aft 130 mm guns have been removed and additional close-in defensive systems have been substituted, replacing the AK-630 CIWS systems mounted on the older Sovremennys with the newer CADS-N-1 Kashtan.

The Chinese have also been purchasing submarines, such as the diesel-electric Russian Kilo-class. Kilo class boats can operate very quietly in relatively shallow waters. They are primarily intended for anti-shipping and anti-submarine operations. China currently operates two Kilo, and two improved Kilo boats, with eight more improved Kilo’s on order with delivery completion scheduled for no later than 2010, although there are reports that delivery was actually completed in 2007. They also have their own indigenous submarine construction capability, and are currently producing 2.5 Chinese designed Song class diesel-electric boats each year.

How good is Song? A Song class boat caused the U.S. Navy considerable consternation in October 2006, surfacing within engagement distance from the USS Kitty Hawk, undetected by her escorting battle group. To make matters worse, this happened while the group was conducting an anti-submarine battle exercise. It has been reported that the incident caused as big an effect within the Navy and its NATO allies, as “the Russians launching Sputnik.”

The Chinese are also testing a new diesel-electric boat known as the “Yuan” class, which is heavily inspired by Russian designs. This new submarine is reportedly designed to operate underwater for up to 30 days utilizing “air independent propulsion”, and is armed with Russian SKVAL torpedoes which can reach speeds of 200 knots. The Russians have also sold the Novator 3M-54E (Klub) anti-ship cruise missile to China as well. These missiles operate from submarines and are designed for use against Aircraft Carriers. Each Kilo carries four of these missiles, and they are reportedly also to be installed on the Yuan class boats as well.

Diesel-electric submarines are widely thought by many to be inherently inferior to nuclear powered boats. Nuclear submarine advantages lie primarily in the amount of time they can spend at sea, and the fact that they do not need to surface to recharge batteries. They also have a submerged speed advantage as well, and are commonly believed to be “quieter” than non-nuclear boats.

These advantages are still there, however the differences are not as pronounced as they once were. Improved Kilo-class submarines are deadly quiet. In fact, they are sometimes referred to by the U.S. Navy as “The Black Hole” for their uncanny ability to “disappear”. They are considered one of the quietest diesel-electric submarines; the improved Kilo class boats are said to be capable of detecting an enemy submarine at a range three to four times greater than it itself can be detected. The new air independent propulsion system on the Yuan boats reduces the submerged time advantage enjoyed by nuclear boats. It remains to be seen if the Yuan’s are a quiet as the improved Kilo’s.

The Chinese are also building nuclear boats as well, including ballistic missile submarines. At it’s current rate of increase (and the U.S. Navy’s current rate of decline), it is estimated that the Chinese fleet could surpass the U.S. Navy’s Pacific fleet in size within a decade.

The Chinese are also negotiating with the Russians to purchase the S-300PMU-2 surface to air missile system. A member of the S-300 family of SAMs, this is a sophisticated modern air defense system, capable of targeting and destroying aircraft out to 200 km (120 miles). The system is also capable of shooting down not only short range ballistic missiles, but medium range tactical ballistic missiles as well. It is a longer range version of the S-300PMU-1, which China is licensed to manufacture under the name Hongqi-10 (HQ-10). An upgraded version of the Hongqi-10, the Hongqi-15, also has a range of 200 km as well.

Other buys are in the works as well; AWACS aircraft with air-to-air refueling capability, sophisticated communications equipment, and other aircraft and defense systems. Speaking of aircraft, China has been busy here as well, not only with importing Russian designs, but building indigenous designs of their own.

The Jian-10 (F-10), 20 years in the making, was unveiled in January 2007, and is a Chinese designed fighter, powered by Chinese engines, and firing Chinese precision-guided missiles. The Jian-10 is a fourth-generation fighter more in the role of the F-16 rather than the latest fifth-generation F-35s, however it is a significant step up for China, and a not insignificant entry into the multi-role fighter world, where most opposing forces are fourth-generation or less, and fifth-generation fighters are thin in the air. Taiwan, for example, is currently flying a mix of U.S. built F-16A/B’s and F-5E/F’s, French built Mirage 2000’s, and indigenously designed and produced F-CK-1 A/B’s.

So what does this all mean? Why is China building and buying all this sophisticated military hardware? Who are they afraid of?

The most likely scenario is that China is gearing up for the eventual takeover of Taiwan. China has long pursued a policy of what it terms “reunification”; bringing what it considers a “breakaway 23rd province” back under Beijing’s rule. China has repeatedly warned Taiwan that any declaration of itself as an independent nation will bring an instant military response, and that they will only pursue reunification by peaceful negotiation for a limited amount of time before their patience wears thin.

As to who they are afraid of, that would be us. We have a treaty with Taiwan that calls for us to come to her defense if attacked by Mainland China. Chinese strategy is to 1) build sufficient force to get Taiwan to capitulate without firing a shot. If this fails, then 2) build sufficient deterrent that when they do finally go after Taiwan, we will abrogate the treaty and not come to Taiwan’s aid, or 3) if we do come, to prevent us from accomplishing our objective.

Does China possess enough military might to take on the United States all over the globe? No. But they may possess enough to achieve limited objectives in the Taiwan Straits. Should such a scenario occur, we would most likely not come out of it unscathed. Neither would Taiwan, even if we were able to prevent its fall.

In order to secure Taiwan against amphibious assault, it would be necessary to send aircraft. Carrier battle groups would undoubtedly be dispatched forthwith. However the quickest response would be to send in ground based aircraft, particularly F-16s for which Taiwan already has support infrastructure that could use airstrips already available in Taiwan.

To prevent this, the Chinese have been fielding land-based ballistic missiles at a rate around 100 per year. Currently there are over 1000 such missiles aimed at Taiwan from across the Taiwan Strait. Recently, Taiwan’s president Chen Shui-bian claimed that 1328 missiles are presently aimed at his country. These missiles are a mix of DF-11, DF-15, and DF-15A ballistic missiles. While these are not precision strike weapons, they have a CEP [2] of 150-300 meters. There is no location on the island they cannot hit. And 1000 of them is a fairly large number, which explains why Taiwan is so interested in purchasing Aegis class warships from us. Additionally, the DF-15 is capable of carrying a nuclear payload.

While the Chinese might find it difficult to keep Taiwanese airfields under attack by aircraft (they would have to achieve air superiority over Taiwan first), bombarding them with ballistic missiles is easier, and is a way to soften up the Taiwanese air force in preparation for an air assault that could achieve air superiority. Air Superiority over the Taiwan Straits is a necessary precursor to an amphibious invasion.

The distance from the Chinese mainland to Taiwan is about 130 km at its narrowest, 150 km at its widest. This puts Taiwan within the defensive missile envelope of the S-300 SAM systems China has purchased and is building domestically. In fact, it is possible for the S-300 to engage Taiwanese fighters over Taiwan proper, before they can even cross the strait and enter Chinese airspace to engage the ballistic missile systems located there.

The submarines and surface combatants China has purchased, and the ones they are currently developing are aimed specifically at countering carrier battle groups and other submarines; exactly the forces we would be sending in Taiwan’s defense. And China would have the advantage of interior lines for defense and the ability to concentrate forces, while we would be operating from long range.

Could such a strategy succeed? It’s possible, particularly if we do nothing to discourage the Chinese from pursuing it. One thing about deterrence; it is as much mental as it is physical. If the other side thinks it can win and goes for it, then deterrence fails and you have to decide if you really want to fight that physical battle, or if they have succeeded in calling your bluff.

I would expect China to bide its time a bit longer, build strength, and see what the new administration in the U.S. brings. Who knows how the geopolitical landscape may change. Our focus may change; we may decide to spend more on domestic programs and cut our military further. We may expand our involvement in the Global War on Terror, and spread our resources even thinner. We may enter a prolonged economic downturn and be unable to focus on events unrelated to our immediate well-being.

Unless Taiwan forces their hand by declaring themselves an independent nation instead of the Nationalist Chinese government in exile as they have for the past 50 years, I don’t expect to see China do anything until around 2010-2015 at the earliest.

However history is full of examples of countries going to war before they were ready. When push comes to shove, you fight with the forces you have, not the forces you wish you had.

[1] Military personnel who live in on-base quarters do not receive full BAS, however there are costs associated with the dining halls where they mess. Likewise, military personnel on TDY status may receive additional per diem over and above their BAS. For this reason, these costs are just estimates, but serve to illustrate the point.

[2] CEP – Circular Error Probable. A simple measure of the precision of a weapon system. It is defined as the radius of a circle into which a warhead, missile, bomb or projectile will land at least 50% of the time. Thus, for a weapon with a CEP of 200 meters, there is a 50% chance that a given warhead will impact within a radius of 200 meters of the aim point.