MELBOURNE: A recent video showing a Chinese jet bomber carrying what appeared to be an air-launched hypersonic missile stirred more than a little interest among defence observers, marking the latest example of how far the Asian economic giant’s air power has come in the past two decades.
China’s massive military modernisation effort across all branches of its People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has been impressive, with China’s defence budget growing almost nine times from US$20 billion in 2002 to US$178 billion in 2020.
This has fuelled discussions in defence and security circles about when it will catch up to the US military. Perhaps it has already done so without anyone noticing?
That the global intelligentsia is even having that conversation is testament to the transformation in the Chinese military, which has gone from a force primarily dedicated to domestic territorial defence to one increasingly capable of projecting power far from its shores since its defence spending started taking off around 2004.
CHINA’S GEOSTRATEGIC IMPERATIVES TO PROJECT MILITARY MIGHT
There are strong geostrategic imperatives for China to do so, as the PLA designs its force structure to around a doctrine of what is known in defence and security circles as “anti-access, area denial” (A2AD), primarily around the “First Island Chain”.
This is a string of islands - stretching from Russia’s Sakhalin down to Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, Borneo and encompassing everything in between that provides a series of natural maritime chokepoints surrounding China - where it seeks to actively curtail adversaries’ freedom to operate in the event of a conflict.
Indeed, analysts see the PLA as capable of launching a massive pre-emptive strike against key military facilities and targets throughout the First Island Chain and even beyond into the Second Island Chain (of a line stretching from Japan’s Bonin Islands and down into the northern Mariana Islands) in any potential scenario involving Taiwan.
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With a barrage of ballistic, cruise and even hypersonic missiles, few countries should rule out open conflict if China is pushed to a corner, devastating as the consequences may be.
The modernisation effort has been underpinned by the second-highest defence budget in the world, with the latest figures published by China’s government projecting a 2021 growth of 6.6 per cent, although most analysts believe the figure will be higher.
Chinese airpower has been one of the beneficiaries of the modernisation effort, with the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) now a modern air arm a far cry from a force mainly used for local air defence.
It has done so by leveraging on the acquisition of foreign, in this case, Russian Sukhoi Su-27 fighter jets and signing licence production facilities for these jets in the 1990s.
China also managed to acquire military technology from the broader West, including radar and jet engine technology and had the opportunity to conduct limited studies into western military technology as these nations sought to improve ties during a honeymoon period in the 1990s following the end of the Cold War.
These included the British Rolls-Royce Spey jet engine and the Racal (now Thales) Skymaster radar, which China has since incorporated into air platforms or used as a basis for own reverse-engineered designs.
This technology transfer had the effect of kick-starting China’s domestic military aviation and acting as a springboard for the country to advance national aircraft development programmes.
INDIGENOUS JETS, ADVANCED SYSTEMS
These efforts have been showcased in Chinese frontline fighter development, with China developing an increasingly sophisticated range of combat aircraft ranging from ongoing development of the Russian Sukhoi Su-27/30 family into a line of interceptors, carrier-borne and multi-role fighters equipped with indigenous radars, electronic systems and weapons.
Exact figures are hard to find but China’s defence industry has built hundreds of these aircraft, along with an approximately similar number of the Chengdu J-10 single-engine multi-role fighter.
Both are widely regarded to be roughly equivalent to contemporary western fighter jets such as the F-15s or F-16s used by regional countries Singapore, Thailand and Japan.
China has also invested in stealth technology to render aircraft harder to detect by radars in developing the J-20 Mighty Dragon stealth fighter, one of only two stealth fighter jets being developed outside the US, which is slowly entering service with the PLAAF.
While regarded as less advanced than the American F-22 or F-35, more emphasis on front aspect stealth would mean the J-20 can still mask its approach to a target, reducing an adversary’s reaction time.
The lessons China is learning from the development of stealthy aircraft will also be applied for a long-range stealth bomber expected to be developed later this decade. This could turn the PLAAF into a modern air force a far cry from one equipped mainly with knock-offs of 1960s Soviet designs that were its mainstays even up to the early part of the 2000s.
The improvements in the PLAAF also carry over to the electronic systems on board its aircraft.
Since the turn of the century, China has put three different types of airborne early-warning aircraft into service. Powerful radars enable the PLAAF to look into airspace hundreds of kilometres away and provide command and control of its aircraft from the air.
These aircraft are fitted with advanced phased array radars similar to their western counterparts, with advantages in performance, modularity and maintenance compared to older mechanically-scanned radars.
A LEAD IN HYPERSONIC MISSILES
One area which the PLA is acknowledged to have a global lead is the field of boosted hypersonic missiles.
These comprise of a glider warhead mounted on the booster section of a high-speed conventional ballistic missile capable of speeds in excess of five times the speed of sound while retaining the less predictable, more flexible flight characteristics of slower (relatively speaking) rocket-powered missiles.
Recent photos and videos suggest the PLAAF is conducting flight tests of such missiles on its long-range jet bombers.
The increased range and reach of such weapons complement an existing suite of air-launched land attack and anti-ship cruise missiles that can potentially saturate an opponent’s defences.
Also believed to be in development is an ultra-long range air-to air missile that can receive targeting updates in mid-flight by satellite, before using its own radar to seek out its target during the final attack phase.
This could be used to target high-value targets such as tankers, radar-equipped early warning aircraft, or even bombers carrying long-range missiles before they get in range.
If successfully fielded, this would give a PLAAF a unique capability no other air force is known to possess.
But while is often easy, even tempting, to compare Chinese military capabilities using western systems as a yardstick to compare with when assessing where China is today, it is also worth remembering China is designing a force structure suited for its own stated defensive objectives.
And while the PLA may not defeat a major adversary, this matter less if all it seeks is to inflict sufficient pain to deny an adversary total uncontested movement within the Second island chain as part of its A2AD strategy, especially when intangible factors like a nation’s political will comes into play.
That may be something that China is very close to achieving, if it is not there already.
CHINA’S AEROSPACE INDUSTRY STILL HAS SOME WAY TO GO
However, China’s efforts to mature its defence industry and develop jet engines is still a work-in-progress, despite years of investment.
After almost a decade of powering its twin-engined fighters using domestically designed-and-produced engines, China still has yet to fit them on its carrier-borne and single-engined fighters, suggesting that its military is not confident enough to use them in riskier applications that are less tolerant of failure.
As such, a significant number of its aircraft are still reliant on imported (mainly Russian) jet engines. These include the PLAAF’s current fleet of bombers, strategic transport aircraft and even stealth fighters, and will continue to be an Achilles heel of China’s military industry until it can produce reliable engines.
Shortfalls in the quality and realism of training events is another area the PLA needs to improve on, although China is, to its credit, cognisant of this and is working to address the issue.
This can be summed up in this year’s US Department of Defense report on China’s military power, which noted that President Xi Jinping and the PLA’s senior commanders have continued to emphasise the need to build up its combat readiness so it can “fight and win”.
It added that “this emphasis has not only entailed the PLA conducting more training, but making its training more rigorous and realistic as well as addressing issues in the PLA’s training and education systems relating (to) conducting complex joint operations and adapting to other aspects of modern warfare”.
One of the factors restricting our understanding of where the PLAAF is at in terms of aircraft and training quality is the lack of opportunities other militaries have with China to use as a yardstick.
However, what was purported to be the results of Thai-Chinese air combat exercises from 2015 and 2019, published during a talk by the PLAAF’s Senior Colonel Lee Zhonghua at Xian’s Northwestern Polytechnical University earlier this year suggested that PLAAF fighters using indigenous missiles and phased array radars were more than capable against Thai pilots flying Swedish-built Gripen jets.
WHEN IS IT TIME FOR REGIONAL AIR FORCES TO CONSIDER BUYING CHINESE PLANES?
Countries considering whether the technological advances China has made in its weapons systems means that it is time to think about buying them needs to remember that it operates a distinctly two-tier system, which weapons designed for the export market being decidedly inferior to that used by the PLA.
So while countries like Myanmar, unable to buy Western jets due to cost or political reasons, have acquired frontline combat aircraft like the JF-17 Thunder developed jointly by China and Pakistan, these are nowhere near as sophisticated or capable as the jets flown by the PLA.
That is a policy unlikely to change soon, with little indication China will consider offering its top, or mid-tier weapon systems to interested buyers.
This is probably a key reason why China, despite having boosted its exports of weapons in recent years, has not broken into arms export markets beyond its traditional clients.
The main exception is in the realm of armed drones, with countries close to the US, such as Jordan and the United Arab Emirates, being among buyers of Chinese systems, although these are not the most advanced drones used by the PLA.
However, this was mainly due to US refusal to sell its armed drones.
Yet the recent reported decision by Jordan to withdraw its Chinese-built drones from service and the UAE’s request and recent approval to buy the US-made Reaper drone soon after the self-imposed ban on American drone sales was reversed are probably telling.
Mike Yeo is the Asia reporter for US-based defence publication Defense News.