Thursday, February 10, 2011

Keeping the Hype in Check III: China as Global Military Power

Alongside its economic profile, China's military profile has also risen in recent years. Besides the modernization of the country's large armed forces (highlighted by the ASBM and J-20 programs, and renewed talk about a Chinese carrier), the country has engaged in strategic sales of arms (for instance, to Iran and Sudan), and even sent troops abroad on unprecedented missions, as in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization's Peace Mission 2007 exercise (which saw Chinese troops training in the Urals in 2007), and more recently, the dispatch of warships to East Africa to fight pirates.

Some may take this as indicating China will be a global military power before long. Yet, it is not enough to have a large, modern army, navy and air force, or even to be capable of supplying arms and expertise to distant friends and send small forces briefly abroad on occasion. Rather a portfolio of very diverse, specific assets is required, namely:

* A blue-water navy (including sufficient auxiliary ships to sustain long-range operations, and aircraft carriers and amphibious assault vessels capable of projecting force landward from the sea).
* A long-range air force (including long-range bombers, and aerial refueling tankers, in quantities adequate to support major operations).
* Access to bases around the world capable of accommodating substantial air, land and sea forces engaged in actual combat operations for extended periods of time. Ideally some of these would host "forward-deployed" combat and support forces capable of not just providing a presence, but enabling a rapid response to crises.
* Sealift and airlift assets capable of swiftly moving large ground and air forces (think divisions rather than brigades, wings rather than squadrons) outside its region, and sustaining them in place for an extended period (years rather than months).
* The command, control, communications and intelligence infrastructure to manage large ground, air and sea forces engaged in operations anywhere in the world.

China is today in only the earliest phases of developing such assets. The Chinese navy's first carrier is still years away, and as the situation stands, the auxiliary ships simply aren't there. Its air force has only a small fleet of strategic airlifters--its planned fleet of fifty or so Ilyushin-76 transports perhaps half complete now--and its bomber and tanker fleets (the latter quite small, a mere ten aircraft) consist solely of H-6s--China's version of the '50s-era Tupolev-16.1 Despite much speculation about China's presence in Myanmar from the 1990s on, and more recently mention of a possible Chinese base in the Gulf of Aden, the country lacks even a single overseas base. And so on and so forth.

Relatively little attention is paid to most of these items, which tend to be dull and unglamorous and of little interest to superficial observers. (Lumbering transport planes are less exciting than sleek new fighters, auxilliary ships not as cool as destroyers bristling with weaponry.) Nonetheless, acquiring them will not be cheap or quick, the same reason that the European Union (which collectively possesses far vaster resources and more modern and diverse capabilities, by any measure) remains a long way from being in such a position.2

There is the fact of China's geopolitical position to think of as well. While the U.S. is in a relatively secure position in its hemisphere, with virtually no direct threat to its territory from neighboring conventional forces, China is a large power surrounded by many other large powers (e.g. Russia, India, Japan). Along with the issue of Taiwan (so long as relations between the two governments entail military confrontation), this is unavoidably a factor in its military posture, and its freedom to both invest in long-range capabilities, and send large forces far from home. Combined with its economic position (large in the aggregate, but far less impressive when considered in per-capita terms), the likelihood of a shift in its economic strategy bound to have some impact on its expansion, and the prioritization of growth over military acquisition, serious observers are far more likely to think 2050 than 2015 when thinking of a date at which China might be a world-class power in these key respects.

1. The U.S. Air Force, by contrast, has nearly three hundred C-5s and C-17s for long-range transport, over 200 B-1s, B-2s and B-52 serving in the long-range bomber role, and over 500 KC-10s and KC-135s in its tanker fleet--a significant difference in not only the quantity of the aircraft assigned to each mission, but the quality of the aircraft as well.
2. It is noteworthy, for instance, that EU members Britain and France both possess numerous bases around the world capable of facilitating global operations, while Britain, France, Italy and Spain all operate aircraft carriers.

Keeping the Hype in Check II: The ASBM
Keeping the Hype in Check I: The Chengdu J-20

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