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The Takshashila PLA Insight
Issue No 117.
November 13, 2021
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Understanding DoD China Military Power Report

The US Department of Defence released its annual China Military Power Report last week. It is based on the Chinese People’s Liberation Army's (PLA) activities and developments in 2020. This year’s report was delayed, as it is generally released in the first week of September every year. But despite the delay, it’s worth a full read.

For the PLA, 2020 was a busy year. It was involved in multiple activities within and on the periphery of the country. It was mandated to deliver logistics supply after the break out of the pandemic in January 2020. It also got involved in (initiated) multiple stand-offs along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) with India in eastern Ladakh since May 2020. Furthermore, throughout the first half of the year, the PLA’s activities in the South China Sea increased (The US changed its approach towards the region in July 2020). The PLA even started what some scholars call grey zone tactics by entering Taiwan’s ADIZ almost every day from September 2020. But most importantly, China issued new joint operations military guidelines in November 2020. Thus, it was an eventful year for the PLA, and the DOD report touches on most of these topics in some detail.

I have divided the report summary into four parts: most important developments, key highlights, take-away for India and the parting shot.  


MOST IMPORTANT DEVELOPMENTS:

China’s nuclear modernisation, the cross-Strait problems and advanced technologies and the PLA are the three most significant developments that this report highlights.

China’s Nuclear Modernisation

The DoD report claims that China’s nuclear warheads could quadruple by 2030. It has maintained around 200 warheads in the past with a strategy of assured retaliation for deterring nuclear threats or blackmail. However, the report claims that China could have 700 nuclear warheads by 2027 and 1000 by 2030. Of them, at least 200 would be on land-based ICBMs (DF-31 and DF-41) capable of threatening the continental US. 

The report highlights the Chinese scholarship's views on the need to develop low-yield nuclear weapons to increase the deterrence value of the PRC’s nuclear force. The PRC’s concerns are based on the possible usage of the low-yield nuclear weapons by the US on the advancing Chinese Taiwan invasion fleet. The report states that the DF-26 is PRC’s first nuclear-capable missile that can conduct precision strikes, and therefore, is the most likely weapon system to field a low-yield warhead in the near term.

Like last year’s report, this year’s report more conclusively discusses China’s move towards the Launch-on-Warning nuclear posture. It’s called “early warning counterstrike” (预警反击), where warning of a missile strike leads to a counterstrike before an enemy first strike can detonate. The report claims that the PRC probably seeks to keep at least a portion of its force on a LOW posture, and since 2017, the PLARF has conducted exercises involving early warning of a nuclear strike and launch on warning responses. More recently, the discovery of the silos in four places in western China could be one indicator to claim that China is moving towards the LOW posture. {Meanwhile, on silos, do read 
Matt Korda and Dr Hans Kristensen’s latest blog. They discuss the types of silos and support facilities that are needed for an operational missile silo}.

Another important highlight is China’s move towards the Nuclear Triad. We already know about China’s land-based delivery platforms. The report discusses China’s sea-based delivery platforms (six operational SSBNS), equipped with JL-2. The PRC next-gen Type 096 SSBN would be reportedly armed with JL-3. The report doesn’t discuss if JL-3 could reach the continental US if launched from the Type 096 that’s operating in the South China Sea, assuming China adopts a bastion strategy. But based on 40 years of life-span of Chinese SSNs, the report concludes that China will operate Jin-class submarines and Type 096 concurrently.

The report hardly discusses the H-20N, China’s latest strategic bomber. However, recent reports claim that the bombers could arrive this year. Furthermore, in the latest PLA AF anniversary video, the H-20 bombers were also shown.  The report also claims that China already has a nascent nuclear triad.
 
Finally, on nuclear and conventional delivery platforms, the report claims that China fired two anti-ship ballistic missiles in the South China Sea in 2020 but has not acknowledged it yet. It also claims that China has begun operational fielding the DF-17 hypersonic glide vehicle capable of MRBM in 2020, with a possible intention to replace some older SRBM units. While the DF-17 is primarily a conventional platform, it may be equipped with nuclear warheads. 

Dr Fiona S. Cunningham and Prof M. Taylor Fravel have an interesting take on China’s nuclear modernisation. In their latest 
Washington Post article, they argue that these changes reflect Beijing’s attempts to remove any doubts in the minds of other nuclear powers that it can retaliate for a nuclear attack. China worries about the survivability of its nuclear force for two main reasons: US’ offensive capabilities and US missile defences. “A larger nuclear arsenal, kept at a higher state of readiness, would leave China better equipped to deter any nuclear attack its adversaries might be tempted to initiate. And capabilities like the one China reportedly tested this summer could help Chinese weapons overcome new missile defences — a reminder to the United States that missile defences can trigger counter-innovations,” they argue.

In case of a cross-Strait conflict, they argue that a larger Chinese arsenal might boost the PRC’s chances of deterring the United States from any kind of nuclear use — but also increase China’s confidence about deploying its conventional capabilities (Stability-Instability Paradox: Something worth giving a thought in case of China-India situation).

They conclude that two shifts in China’s nuclear thinking may be happening. Chinese leaders believe that they now need to threaten the US with greater nuclear damage to deter a nuclear first-strike, and China’s leaders may be finding Beijing’s promises not to engage in a nuclear arms race increasingly difficult to fulfil — or less of a priority than deterring US nuclear use with more confidence.

Cross-Strait Problems

The cross-Strait tension is easily the most discussed and worrying aspect involving China since the PRC started breaching Taiwan’s ADIZ daily. The DOD report warns that if China’s 2027 milestone of modernisation of the PLA capabilities to be networked into a system of systems for “intelligentized” warfare is realised, it could provide Beijing with more credible military options in Taiwan contingency. The 2027 goal aims to comprehensively modernise military theories, military organisational form, military personnel, and weapons and equipment. Chinese media have cited military sources to report that the PLA’s 2027 goal is to develop the capabilities to counter the US military in the Indo-Pacific region and compel Taiwan’s leadership to the negotiation table on Beijing’s terms.

The report claims that the PLA A units have extensively trained in 2020 for projecting forces across the Taiwan Strait. The PLA AF has conducted a record-breaking number of flights in Taiwan’s ADIZ and across the Taiwan Strait centre line in response to the perceived warming of ties between Taipei and Washington. The report also highlights that Beijing refuted the existence of the Taiwan Strait ‘median line’ in 2020, a decades-long tacit agreement between two sides intended to reduce miscalculation and avoid sparking an accidental crisis.

The PRC conducting persistent military operations near Taiwan—and training for a Taiwan contingency—likely signals a greater urgency for the PLA to continue to develop and perfect its strategy and capabilities should PRC leaders look to a military option to achieve their objectives, the report claims.

The report states that the PRC could use the following military option individually or in combination: Air and maritime blockades, limited force and coercive option, air and missile campaign and full invasion of Taiwan. The report also states that the 2015 reforms have seemed to clarify command structures and streamline PLA’s ability to conduct yearlong planning and preparation for joint military operations across the Taiwan Strait. However, some PLA combat units are likely to experience temporary decreases in readiness and proficiency to conduct large-scale joint operations as they reorganize units, integrate new capabilities, and adjust to new command structures. 

Finally, do check Reuters’ latest cross-Strait War-Gaming 
report. David Lague and Maryanne Murray discuss six scenarios for China’s battle with Taiwan. These are 1) Blockade of Matsu Islands 2) Invasion of Kinmen 3) Customs Quarantine 4) Full Blockade 5) Air and Missile Campaign 6) All-Out Invasion. The report also has interesting graphics. 
 

Also, you could read the Takshashila Institution’s China Team’s initial thoughts on the Taiwan Invasion Scenario and India. What suits India, and what should India do?
 
Informatised Military

The report highlights that General Li Fengbiao was the PLA SSF commander. Lt. Gen. Shang Hong and Lt. Gen Ju Qiansheng were the Space Systems and Network Systems Departments commanders, respectively, in 2020. Please note that this was before the recent promotion and changes in mid-2021. The report highlights that the SSF participates in joint exercises and training throughout China, including possible national strategic joint exercises. For instance, the report highlights that the SSF exercised and assessed its ability to establish command posts and provide joint communications to theatre commands in 2019 and 2020.

The report also identifies that the Network Systems Department operates five theatres –
aligned technical reconnaissance bases, a number of signals intelligence bureaus, and several research institutes. The Network Systems Department provides intelligence support to the theatre commands by leveraging a diverse suite of ground-based technical collection assets to provide a common operating picture to geographically dispersed operational units. Meanwhile, the Spaces Systems Department is responsible for nearly all PLA space operations, including space launch and support; space surveillance; space information support; space telemetry, tracking, and control; and space warfare. The report highlights that the Space System Department operates at least eight bases, including those whose core missions are the launch, tracking, R&D, and operation of the satellites vital to China’s overhead C4ISR architecture. The SSF operates tracking, telemetry, and command stations in Namibia, Pakistan, and Argentina. The SSF also operates Yuan Wang space support ships that track satellite and ICBM launches. The report also highlights that China launched 39 SLVs in 2020. All but four were successful, placing more than 70 spacecraft in orbit, including navigation, ISR, communications, test/engineering satellites, and satellites for foreign customers.


KEY HIGHLIGHTS FROM THE REPORT

1) In November 2020, the CMC issued the “Chinese People’s Liberation Army Joint Operations Outline (trial) (中国人民解放军联合作战纲要(试行)” described as the “top-level law” of the PLA’s combat doctrine system in the “new era” that would strengthen the requirements and procedures for joint operations, combat support, national defence mobilisation, and political work, among others. Prior to November 2020, the last update to the PLA’s “operational regulations” had occurred in 1999. The report highlights that the Outline establishes a system for the PLA’s joint operations and focuses on clarifying basic issues regarding the organisation and implementation of joint operations, command rights and responsibilities, and the principles, requirements, and procedures for joint operations, combat support, national defence mobilisation, and political work. Citing Chinese media, the report also highlights that the Outline focuses on “answering the major questions of ‘what wars and how to fight from the system level” and to “focus on the new situation and new problems of our joint operations.” The lack of updated doctrine had been noticeably absent since the PLA began sweeping reforms to its command and organisational structures in 2015, raising questions about how the PLA would practically implement joint command and conduct joint operations and training. The report underlines that the Outline describes that the future combat style of the PLA will be integrated joint operations under the unified command of a joint operations command system.

2) Individual Service Highlights in 2020

PLA Army: Fielded a large number of new platforms in 2020, however, over 40 per cent of the Chinese Army’s main battle tanks are old, and a significant number of infantry brigade also employ outdated weapons. 
 
PLA Navy: Currently has 355 ships, which makes it the world’s largest naval fleet numerically. The report adds that the number is expected to increase to 420 by 2025 and 460 by 2030. However, we should also remember the maintenance aspect of the already operational fleet. The manufacturing cost is just 30 per cent of the total life of a naval vessel. So going ahead, it’s possible the PLAN’s fleet expansion could slow down. 
 
Meanwhile, the PLAN commissioned its first Type 055 cruiser in 2020, launched its second Type 075 large deck amphibious warship in 2020 and commissioned nine Jingdao class corvettes in 2020 (a total 50 out of 70 are in service). Furthermore, PRC’s second indigenous aircraft is expected to be operational by 2024. The report also highlights that a brigade of the PLA Marine Corps reached its fully operational status in 2020, while another four likely achieved initial operating capabilities.
 
PLA AF:  The PLA AF and PLAN constitute the largest aviation force in the Indo-Pacific region with 800 of 1800 4th plus generation aircraft. Furthermore, as of 2020, the PLAAF has operationally fielded the H-6N bomber, providing a platform for the air component of the PRC’s nascent nuclear triad. In 2021, the H-6N-equipped unit will likely be developing tactics and procedures to conduct the PLAAF nuclear mission. Finally, the PLAAF possesses one of the largest forces of advanced long-range SAM systems in the world, composed of Russian-sourced SA-20 (S-300) battalions and domestically produced CSA-9 (HQ-9) and follow-on HQ-9b battalions. To improve its strategic long-range air defences, the PRC has acquired the SA-21 (S-400) SAM system from Russia. China is also developing kinetic-kill vehicle technology to field a mid-course interceptor, which will form the upper layer of multi-tiered missile defence. China conducted a test of a land-based mid-course interceptor on February 4, 2021.
 
Most developments related to RF and SSF are already highlighted in the first section. 
 
PLA JLSF: Last year was a test case for the PLA JLSF as it had to play an active coordinating role to provide logistic support in response to the initial outbreak of COVID-19 in 2020.
 
Reserve Forces, PAP and Maritime Militia: On July 1, 2020, the PRC amended laws, regulations, and policies to bring the Reserve Force under the command of the Central Committee of the CCP and the CMC. The previous arrangement split control of the Reserve Force between the PLA and local Party committees. However, despite this change, the DoD report highlights that significant issues remain in the mobilisation of reserve forces, including which equipment should be used, what level of government pays for the mobilisation, and resistance from enterprises at the sudden requisition of their employees. 

On July 1, 2020, the NPC approved a revision to the Law on the People’s Armed Police Force which officially recognised the CMC as the singular command of the PAP, identified the PAP as an essential part of the armed forces that fall under the leadership of the CCP, as well as affirming its primary mission set of handling security emergencies, conducting counter-terrorism operations, and executing maritime law enforcement and rescue. The PAP was also extremely instrumental in supporting the PRC’s response to the outbreak of COVID-19.

Finally, the report highlights that China has the largest fleet of coast guards with over 130 ships (plus, it operates an additional 70 fast patrol combatants, 400 patrol crafts and over 1000 inshore and riverine boats).

3) Global Power Projection and Interests

The PLAN now has a sizable force of highly capable logistical replenishment ships to support long-distance, long-duration deployments, including two new Fuyu class fast combat support ships (AOEs) built specifically to support aircraft carrier operations. This is a very important point, as mid-sea and mid-air refuelling are major limitations that the PLA faces while transitioning into what its defence white paper calls blue water navy and strategic and long-range air force. 

Meanwhile, the report identifies Cambodia, Myanmar, Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, UAE, Kenya, Seychelles, Tanzania, Angola and Tajikistan as potential countries for the PLA’s facilities in the future.  

4) Interestingly, unlike previous reports, this year’s report also comments on chemical and biological research. It states that the PRC has engaged in biological activities with potential dual-use applications. The report highlights, “The PRC continues to develop its biotechnology infrastructure and pursue scientific cooperation with countries of concern. Available information on studies conducted at PRC military medical institutions has included information that discusses identifying, testing and characterising diverse families of potent toxins with dual-use applications. The United States has compliance concerns with respect to PRC military medical institutions’ toxin research and development because of the dual-use applications and their potential as a biological threat.”

5) Finally, the report also implies that espionage plays a major role in PLA’s research and development. “In 2020, the FBI opened a new PRC-related counterintelligence case about every 10 hours. FBI Director Christopher Wray also stated that “of the nearly 5,000 active FBI counterintelligence cases currently underway [in 2020], almost half are related to the PRC.” In addition, the FBI has seen economic espionage cases with a link to the PRC increase by approximately 1,300% over the past decade.”


TAKEAWAYS FOR INDIA

The report highlights that at the height of the border stand-off between India and China, the PLA installed a fibre optic network in remote areas of the western Himalayas to provide faster communications and increased protection from foreign intercepts. The report also states that the PRC built a 100-home village inside the disputed territory between the PRC’s TAR and India’s state of Arunachal Pradesh. My upcoming research on Civilian and Military Developments in Tibet, which is due to release in the next month, focuses on these aspects: I will share it in the newsletter after it is published. For now, I can highlight that it’s a part of the larger “well-of villages” (630 villages) that China has built on China-India, China-Bhutan and China-Nepal borders. It will have implications on the border dispute in the future.

Finally, as I have discussed elsewhere, India should be worried about the following aspects of China’s military modernisation: Advanced weapons deployment by the PLA A in Tibet and Xinjiang, brigadisation of the PLA A units, developments of swarms techs and drones, China’s efforts to use of advanced tech applications in the armed forces (one of the most worrying aspects for India in the future, as it would again play the catching role if it doesn’t start thinking about informatised warfare more seriously), the PLAN’s increasing footprints in the IOR, China’s JLSF’s increasing capabilities which could help China to sustain longer in forward positions across the LAC in the future and also China’s nuclear modernisation (quality and quantity) and ambiguity.     


PARTING SHOT

Here are some concepts from the report that I found interesting.


1) Effective Control: PLA strategists describe “effective control (有效控制)” as a multi-faceted effort to set a favourable strategic posture and to guide military operations with precise control across the full peace-to-war continuum. They argue that the international system is increasingly defined by crises rather than war. Despite the inherent uncertainty and complexity of crisis and conflict, decision-makers can ultimately ascertain their internal logic and guide them to a satisfactory outcome. 

2) Escalation Management: PRC views of conflict escalation suggest confidence in the controllability of conventional conflict and willingness to conduct offensive operations to demonstrate Beijing’s resolve, seize the initiative, and exploit adversary weaknesses. Similar to their Western counterparts, PLA strategists broadly define escalation as an increase in the intensity or scope of military activities to achieve explicit goals. Escalation can include an increase in actual military operations against an adversary or preparations for military operations, such as an increase in the readiness of one’s nuclear forces.  

3) China’s Defence Budget and Regional Comparison



These are only some key insights that I could identify in a one-time read. But I encourage you to read the complete report, as there is a lot more in it that I have not highlighted.
Additional Reading

-Who Decides China’s Foreign Policy: Chatham House Paper by Dr Yu Jie and Lucy Ridout
This newsletter is written by Suyash Desai, an Associate Fellow, China Studies Programme, at the Takshashila Institution. He has previously completed his M Phil from CIPOD, JNU. 
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