The armed forces of communist China – the People’s Liberation Army – are the largest military on the planet. Although it’s shrunk considerably from its 1970s peak, the PLA still has around 2.3 million personnel and large air and naval forces, making it a real factor to consider in any security planning involving Asia. In the last few years, those air and naval elements have been increasingly aggressive in promoting China’s territorial claims, while an invasion of resource-rich Siberia is still one of Russia’s major nightmares. There are regular political statements about China’s military power, and it’s often used as an argument for why the west needs to boost its own spending, but the real picture is a lot more complicated.
Firstly, the fact is that while China’s forces are huge, the elements equipped to a near-peer level are actually rather small. The PLA has a fleet of around 8,000 tanks, but well over half of these are the Type 59 or its derivatives. As the Type 59 is a Chinese copy of the ancient Soviet T-54, they’re not a significant threat to a modern western tank. The most common relatively modern tank is the Type 96, which has a new turret with 125mm gun on a stretched T-54 hull; the PLA has about 2,500 of these. It’s a capable tank but still not a match for current Western or Russian designs. The best Chinese tank is the Type 99; it’s basically a highly developed T-72 with a new turret and some advanced systems, and again it’s inferior to an M1A2, Challenger 2, Leopard 2 and probably the latest T-90 models as well. The US Army, by contrast, has around 2,500 top class modern tanks in service.
The situation with aircraft is much the same. China is making progress with designing its own combat aircraft but is having real problems making a reliable jet engine; they’re still heavily dependent on imported Russian engines. Out of a total of around 1,600 fast jets, only about 400 – 150 Russian-built Su-27 and Su-33 FLANKERs, and around 250 Chinese-built copies – are really capable. Most of the rest are heavily modified copies of older Soviet aircraft like the MiG-19. China’s entire strategic bomber fleet is made up of Xian H-6 bombers, a straight copy of the 1954-vintage Tu-16 BADGER. This design is the same age as the B-52 but hasn’t aged nearly so well.
The Chinese navy is running a well-publicized carrier program, currently based around a single operational Russian Kuznetsov-class ship. This carries two dozen Chinese-built FLANKER multirole fighters, but while these are capable aircraft, the ship’s reliance on a ski-jump ramp rather than catapults means they can’t take off with anything near a full fuel or weapons load. One or two locally built carriers are under construction but these appear to be assault carriers similar to the US Wasp, rather than fleet carriers like the Nimitz or Queen Elizabeth classes. Again there’s no indication they will have catapults, seriously restricting their action radius. China also has 24 destroyers and 47 frigates. Some, like the three Type 052 destroyers and four ex-Russian Sovremennys, are modern and quite capable. Others, like the Type o53 frigate, are basically junk. There are ten nuclear submarines, five ballistic missile boats and five SSNs; the missile subs are new (only one is believed to be operational) but little is known about them. The attack subs began entering service in 2007, replacing older models, but are known to be considerably noisier than the 1979 Soviet VICTOR-III class, which was never famous for being quiet.
The PLA does have strong points. It has a formidable amphibious force, which has limited range but could land several divisions on any coast in China’s sphere of influence. There is also a dangerous and rapidly expanding cyberwar capability.
While Chinese equipment is generally inferior to the latest western and Russian systems, a lot of it is reasonably capable, and numerous enough to be a challenge. It’s unlikely that China could project enough force outside her own territorial waters to challenge the USA – or even the UK or France – head on, but cyber-attacks and other asymmetric threats, such as the DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile, could cause serious upsets. In short, China could be a dangerous adversary but isn’t a global player in the same league as the USA just yet.
Disclaimer: The content in this article is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the policies or opinions of US Patriot Tactical.