A recently released report by RAND Corporation, a global policy think tank shows that the risks posed to the U.S. in a military engagement with China are increasing. This is to be expected as China has been increasing its military budget by double-digit percentages for over two decades. Each year the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) grows more capable while U.S. military power is remaining somewhat stable. Despite the advances by the PLA, it still fails to hold any significant advantages over the U.S. military in a variety of scenarios. This though should not lead U.S. leaders into a false sense of complacency as over time, the PRC will eventually start to overtake the U.S. in several operational areas.
U.S. – China military capabilities – The Report
In a 430-page report written by 14 scholars entitled U.S.-China Military Scorecard: Forces, Geography, and the Evolving Balance of Power, 1997-2017, U.S. and Chinese military capabilities in 10 operational areas are examined. A “scorecard” has been produced for each operational area and capabilities are evaluated for the years 1996, 2003, 2010, and 2017 to provide an assessment on trends. Furthermore the operational areas are evaluated in the context of two scenarios; a Taiwan invasion less than 200 km from the mainland and an engagement over 900 km from the mainland in the South China Sea Spratly Islands.
The report eschews political issues and government policy to instead focus on the military aspects of the scenarios. In this regard the capabilities of military equipment, military doctrine of the U.S. and China, and abilities of both forces are evaluated.
The operational areas evaluated are air, maritime, space, cyber, and nuclear. Four air operational areas are covered: Chinese air base attack; U.S. vs. Chinese air superiority; U.S. airspace penetration; U.S. air base attack. Two maritime operational areas: Chinese anti-surface warfare; U.S. anti-surface warfare. The rest are U.S. counterspace; Chinese counterspace; U.S. vs. China cyberwar; and Nuclear stability.
Due to their nature, the evaluations of space, cyber, and nuclear operational areas are the same for both the Taiwan and Spratly Islands scenarios. Increasing PLA capabilities are more pronounced in the Taiwan scenario than the Spratly Islands scenario as a result of geography; the additional distance stretches PLA capabilities and logistics.
Operational Area: Air
The ability of China to conduct attacks on U.S. and allied airbases is one of the two operational areas that China has finally gained an advantage over the U.S. though this is only in the Taiwan scenario. Over the years the PLA has amassed over highly accurate 1,400 conventional ballistic missiles and hundreds of cruise missiles. U.S. air bases in Japan, particularly Kadena Air Base are seriously threatened by this. While these bases can to a degree defend themselves, a saturation-type strike by PLA missiles can overwhelm defenses and put bases out of operation for days or weeks. If Beijing is to mount a campaign against Taiwan, one can be assured that China will move as swiftly as possible and those days or weeks can make a significant difference.
Regarding air superiority in a Taiwan scenario, China and the U.S. now have a rough parity. The U.S. still maintains qualitative superiority though China is rapidly progressing in its ability to design and field more advanced aircraft. Since 1996, the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) has managed to replace roughly half if its air force with more modern fourth-generation aircraft which while not being as advanced as U.S. fifth-generation types such as the F-22, are still vastly more capable than the second-generation types they replaced. In addition China retains a quantitative edge which would place more pressure on U.S. forces.
The ability for the U.S. to penetrate Chinese airspace has remained roughly the same since 2003 and was the first operational area in the RAND report that saw China and the U.S. reach parity in that year. The PLA has been upgrading its anti-air missile forces with modern, more accurate, and longer-ranged surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems. In addition the acquisition of advanced fighter aircraft and new airborne early warning aircraft have made operations over China-controlled airspace more risky to the U.S. Despite these advances, parity remains as U.S. abilities in deep strike penetrations have improved primarily due to the capabilities of stealth aircraft, the tactical advantage provided by aircraft dedicated to suppression of enemy air defenses (SEAD), and improved stand-off attack capabilities.
The U.S. still has an advantage over China regarding its ability to successfully conduct attacks on PLAAF airbases. As noted before, flying over Chinese-controlled airspace has grown more risky to the U.S. though advantages held by the U.S. in stand-off weapons can mitigate that threat somewhat. U.S. aircraft can engage and destroy PLAAF airbases outside of SAM ranges while advanced guided bombs ensure targets are hit. In fact, improvements in U.S. precision munitions have increased U.S. capabilities and today it is estimated that strikes targeting just runways can close those bases for days.
Operational Area: Maritime
In any operation near China’s mainland, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) now holds an advantage over the U.S. navy while further away, both sides are at parity. A while back, China acknowledged the fact that in the near term, the PLAN would not be able to match the U.S. navy on a qualitative level while U.S. aircraft carriers posed a significant danger. With that in mind, much has been invested into building a significant anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) capability. A2/AD is meant to prevent U.S. naval forces from entering into and operating in the waters off of China through the creation of a high risk threat environment. Anti-ship ballistic and cruise missiles, large numbers of advanced attack submarines, and significant advances in the anti-surface capabilities of its surface fleet have provided China with an advantage over U.S. surface units, particularly aircraft carriers. Many of these capabilities still hold true in the Spratlys where parity has been reached.
The U.S. though still retains incredible destructive power in anti-surface warfare. In a hypothetical amphibious assault of Taiwan, RAND estimated that U.S. submarine, air, and surface forces would wreak havoc on PLAN amphibious forces; U.S. submarines alone would be able to destroy almost 40 percent of China’s amphibious forces in seven days. That figure is enough to throw an entire invasion into complete disarray. In the Spratly Islands, the U.S. still holds an absolute advantage in anti-surface capabilities over a Chinese amphibious force.
Operational Area: Space
The U.S. and China both have parity in their counterspace capabilities. China has been developing significant anti-satellite capabilities including the abilities to destroy low-earth orbit satellites and jam communication and imagery satellites. In response to these threats, the U.S. has developed systems to jam communication satellites, shoot down satellites, and blind imagery satellites.
Operational Area: Cyberwarfare
Despite recent highly publicized cyber-attacks on the U.S. (such as OPM) which are believed to have originated from China, the U.S. holds a slight advantage over China. U.S. cyber technology is vastly more sophisticated than China’s and has greater resiliency; on the other hand China is rapidly improving its skills. Regardless, both are developing significant capabilities and it is somewhat difficult to fully assess the impact of cyberwarfare during a conflict as it is unpredictable.
Operational Area: Nuclear
This component of the report evaluated the survivability of both sides’ second-strike nuclear capabilities. While China has been increasing its number of nuclear weapons, both land and submarine based, the U.S. still holds an overwhelming numerical advantage. It is believed a Chinese first strike would fail to significantly deny the U.S. a second-strike capability though on the other hand, improvements in survivability by the Chinese of their nuclear forces limit the ability of the U.S. to launch a disarming-first strike.
Each year the Chinese military grows more capable. This report basically states what so many in the security field already know while backing it up with fact. If the U.S. desires to maintain military advantages over China, more should be invested into submarines, space capabilities, and the ability to protect airfields and aircraft. A conventional first strike by China can wipe out U.S. airfields in the region thus seriously undermining the ability of the U.S. to mount a counterattack against for example, a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. A Chinese attack on U.S. imagery satellites will deny the U.S. imagery intelligence it needs to plan counterattacks while an attack on communication satellites will limit U.S. combat coordination. The Chinese threat to aircraft carriers and their accompanying surface groups requires a greater investment in undersea warfare which the Chinese still are lagging behind in their ability to counter.
While this report lays out a very realistic good at possible military scenarios, it does leave out politics. In that sense, one must understand that while China can degrade U.S. capabilities, it would be at tremendous cost to their forces an for example, an attack on Taiwan would limit or remove their ability to project power elsewhere such as in South China Sea. Politically, this alone may be sufficient to prevent the Chinese from mounting such an attack regardless of their military advantages.