Friday, May 25, 2007

Underestimating Beijing

The Pentagon's annual report on Chinese military power--set for release today-- will highlight Beijing's continued development of land and sea-based ballistic missiles capable of hitting the United States, according to the Financial Times.

Reporter Demetri Sevastopulo interviewed officials who have seen the assessment, and they tell him that this year's edition will focus on China's continued development of the Jin-class ballistic missile sub, which will be capable of hitting CONUS targets at ranges up to 5,000 miles. The report also examines the strategic implications of the PRC's pending deployment of the DF-31A mobile, land-based ICBM, which also has the range to reach the United States. The Jin-class boats will carry the JL-2 sub-launched ballistic missile (SLBM), which is the naval version of the DF-31.

Yearly assessments of Chinese military power are always controversial; critics often accuse DoD of overstating the PRC threat, and there may be an element of truth in those charges. While both the DF-31 and Jin-class/JL-2 represent quantum technological leaps for Beijing, the Chinese trail the United States in the numbers of deployed missile submarines, intercontinental ballistic missiles (both land and sea-based), nuclear warheads and the accuracy of those weapons. By most assessments, the JL-2 is roughly equal to an early-model Trident C-4 SLBM, which first entered service with the U.S. Navy more than 25 years ago. Still, the new Chinese missile can carry 1 one megaton warhead, and its accuracy is much improved over the first-generation SLBMS carried on the single, Xia-class missile boat, which was built in the 1980s, but spent much of its career in port.

The DF-31 is also range limited, but as a mobile system, it will be much more difficult to track and target--presenting the same sort of challenge posed by Russia's SS-25 road-mobile system. Beijing plans to complement the DF-31 with the longer-range DF-41 ICBM, which is current in development. Current estimates indicate that the DF-41 will have a range of 10-12,000 km, allowing it to strike targets throughout the CONUS. The DF-41 is expected to enter operational service around the end of the decade.

Beyond the updates on Beijing's new strategic systems, this year's China military power report will also be revealing in other respects. First, the final tone and content of the document have always been the product of an internal DoD debate over the nature of the Chinese threat. Some analysts have consistently downplayed the threat, noting the gap between the PRC defense budget and our own. They view the military power document as being unnecessarily provocative when (in their view) we should be taking a more cordial tone toward Beijing. It will be interesting to see if the 2007 report makes any efforts in that area, or takes a harder line toward the PRC.

However, it is worth noting that one of the former leaders of the "less hostile" camp, Ronald Montaperto, was convicted last year of passing classified information to the Chinese. Obviously, not every analyst or official who advocates better relations with China is a spy, but Bill Gertz (and other journalists) have detailed a massive PRC campaign to gather intelligence and buy influence inside the United States. Remember the infamous Hughes-Loral deal, sanctioned by the Clinton White House, which gave China the technology needed to mount multiple warheads on its ballistic missiles?

While the U.S. still enjoys a sizable strategic advantage over China, it would be a serious mistake to underestimate Beijing. In the mid-1990s, a few analysts scoffed when the Chinese announced plans to deploy more than 500 short and medium-range missiles opposite Taiwan, creating a force capable of devastating the island's ports, airfields, military bases and missile defenses. A decade later, the number of CSS-6 and CSS-7's stationed along the Taiwan Strait is between 700-900, backed by the logistics, maintenance and C2 systems needed to support those missiles. The Chinese have also refined the technology associated with each missile system, improving both their accuracy and lethality. The result? Beijing now has the ability to saturate Taiwan's defenses and obliterate its Patriot batteries in short order, making the island even more dependent on U.S. military assistance and protection.

The Taiwan example shows that the PRC is quite serious about meeting its military goals. Five Jin-class SSBNs are currently under construction. As one analyst told the FT, the scope of that single project sends quite a statement. Couple that with the deployment of the DF-31 and the development of the DF-41, and it's clear that China will have a much more capable strategic force in the next 5-7 years. The U.S. will retain its lead for a while, but Beijing has the resources--and apparently, the willpower--to close the gap and at some point, establish quantitative superiority.

It's happened before; when JFK used the "missile gap" as a campaign issue in 1960, the ICBM balance between the U.S. and the Soviet Union was in our favor. Barely 15 years later, at the height of detente, the advantage had shifted to the Russians, and their economy paled in comparison to what the Chinese have achieved. If Beijing keeps spending--and the U.S. loses its resolve to modernize its strategic forces--it's not inconceivable that we could see a similar shift in the coming decades.

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