As this extremely eventful decade winds down, I'd like to give a list of the top PLA related stories from the past 10 years in no particular order. I started off by wanting to create an order but it simply became to difficult for me to justify some of them over other ones.
1. Heated relationship with US military (Taiwan, naval confrontations and PLA growth)
I put this as number 1, because I really do think that this is the most relevant story for us. US military obviously lacked an adversary at the end of the cold war. Early this decade, some people like Richard Fisher and Bill Gertz started to really track PLA advancements as the most obvious adversary to US. In the last couple of years, China was classified by as such by the Pentagon in the Quadcentennial report. Obviously, there are many points of contention. Before KMT took power last year, China and US were always a stupid action away from fighting in the Taiwan Strait. More recently, China's quest for greatness and securing shipping lanes for its natural resources has resulted in a military build-up that puts it directly in conflict with US. There are many in America who fear the rise of China and what that will mean for US's standing in this world. There are many in China who feel that US is unfairly trying to contain the rise of China. Similar to Japan's rise in the 80s, America's rise after world war I and Germany's rise prior to world war I, the rise of China has caused conflicts with the existing super power. In the first two cases, the mutual values and trade relationships between the existing super power and the ascending nation eventually faded. Obviously, we fear for a Germany/Britain scenario playing out if China continues to grow economically and the 2 countries get provoked into a war by Taiwan or something in South China Sea. I think the relationship between China and US is clearly different from any of those 3 cases. The two countries are so closely linked economically that they could cause each other tremendous harm without ever having to fire a shot. Fundamentally speaking, I think China and US can develop a even more cooperative relationship than now. In the long run, China is probably far more likely to have conflicts with neigbhours like India or Russia. Until then, we will see more nervousness by DoD over PLAN's shipbuilding program and PLAAF's next generation fighter program. We will likely see more incidents like Song surfacing next to Kitty Hawk or fish trawlers tangling with SURTASS ship in South China Sea, but I think both sides are calm enough to get by those.
China and Taiwan
Until KMT got voted into power last year, the Taiwan strait was one of the most combustible points in the world. With Taiwan's DPP constantly pushing for greater recognition of its independence and PRC's resistant efforts, the two sides were always a couple of moves away from getting into a major war. This hot point obviously brings a whole new level of risk, because of the probably involvement of the US military. The Anti-Secession Law passed in 2005 only affirmed that China would attack Taiwan if Taiwan ever declares formal independence. In the early past of the century, Taiwan was in the upper hand, because George Bush gave approval for a major weapons package. As time went on, this package was watered down due Taiwan's domestic bickering and the more pragamatic dealings by Bush toward China. To counter the possible sales to Taiwan, China put in some orders to Russians in 2002 to improve the navy and air force. As time went on, China developed more accurate ballistic missiles, LACM, ground attack munitions, surface to surface missiles, amphibious armoured vehicles, amphibious ships and increased airlift to prepare for a possible invasion. After a decade of building up in all services, the power balance across the strait has shifted permanently in PRC's favour. The gap between the 2 parties will only increase over time. Just as concerning to Taiwan, China has continue to build up more missiles facing them. KMT has put removing missiles as a prelude to peace talks, but PLA has the ability to aim them back at Taiwan at anytime. Realistically speaking, most of the damage against important targets in any conflict would be caused by ground strikes with PGMs and cruise missiles rather than those short ranged ballistic missiles. As we speak, tension along the strait is at a 10-year low. In the long run, PLAN would have a problem with its blue water dreams if it has a hostile naval opposition that close to its borders, so the current status quo is not really acceptable for China. By that time, I hope that some kind of agreement would have been worked out between the two parties.
Moving from relying on Russians for military hardware to becoming self sustaining
At the start of this decade, China was basically relying exclusively on Russia for all of its main weapons. J-10 was still in testing stage, so PLAAF relied on buying Su-30s from Russia and building Su-27s locally for air defense. After the nervousness over the proposed sale to Taiwan in 2002, PLAN ordered 2 additional Sovs and 8 improved Kilo submarines from Russia. The air defense still relied on importing different versions of S-300 to protect critical areas like Beijing, Shanghai, Three Gorges Dam and Pearl River Delta. I think all of that pretty much changed by 2006. negotiations for new purchases stopped in the wake of the IL-76 fiasco, but China pretty much ordered all it needed from the Russians by then. Even after that freeze was over, the large orders of Russian hardware of early 2000s never restarted. The truth is that Russia simply did not have anything to offer to China that was better than what China could produce. The Sovs and Kilo submarines have pretty much become white elephants with the commissioning of 052C, 054A and 039A class. The need for Su-30s and S-300 have also disappeared with the induction of J-10, J-11B and HQ-9. As this decade concludes, China is capable of pretty much producing and developing everything that it needs, so its military industrail complex has reached the self-sustainig level.
Varyag and China's carrier program
Ever since that holding company from Macau bought Varyag in 1999, China watchers have wondered when China will get its first aircraft carrier. I think by now, we have all seen the works done to Varyag recently and the Carrier replica in Wuhan. I have writtne in the past on this blog about why China needs a carrier and will not repeat myself again. However, I think it's important to look at how methodical China have been in this process. In the past 10 years, it studied Varyag thoroughly, developed partnerships with other countries to train its pilots, built larger warships like 071 LPD, invested in developing naval fighter and in developing an escort fleet. The interesting part is that current ships like 052C, 054A and 093 are not meant for the future carrier group even though they would do well in that rule, because China has newer destroyers, frigates, supply ships and submarines designed for the escort fleet. I think they were probably ready to start building a carrier 5 years ago, but they waited until everything is ready (which took an entire decade) before starting work on it. Once China's first domestically built carrier is ready, it will be part of a true carrier group rather than a white elephant like the one for Thailand.
Advances in China's space program and ASAT
By nature, space technology had dual use, so the advances in China's space program is also a major story for PLA. The successful ASAT test in January 2007 caused many people to panic over what that might mean for US space dominance in the event of a war. I think this threat was overblown due to the great redundancy in US space netowrk and possible retaliatory strikes. However, other advancements in China's space program have far more profound effects on PLA. The deployment of Beidou network is probably the most important contributor. Even though Beidou 1 is not that accurate, Beidou 2 will be just as accurate for PLA as GPS is for the US military. We have already seen from many pictures that Beidou is pretty much deployed on all PLA assets. Since Beidou guidance was also incorporated on all of China's missiles and satellite guided bombs, it has significantly improved the ground strike capability of PLA. For strategic missiles like CJ-10, Beidou allows them to be as accurate over long range as equivalent US weapons. In addition, the launching of recon satellites like the Yaogan series and Ziyuan series are all extremely important in identifying incoming carrier groups for the ASBM program. The launching of data relay satellites like the Tianlian, ShenTong 1 and FengHuo are important in secured digital communication of data and voice for a theatre-level C3I network. We can see SatCom antennas on the new PLAAF aircrafts and all of the recently launched naval ships for PLAN. Clearly, there were many satellites launched this decade which could help different weapon platforms of PLA. In addition, non-military projects like the moon mission and Shenzhou missions have yielded technologies that could be used on future military satellites.
The emerging submarine threat
This was a much bigger story back in 2005. Back then, China had just launched Yuan, was in the midst of a massive buildup of Song class (3 per year) and also getting those 8 Kilo submarines ordered in 2002. The much vaunted "Sizzler" missiles were mentioned on every article to highlight the threats posed by PLAN. The surfacing of Song submarine next to Kitty Hawk in 2006 only raised the level of alarm over the danger of these quiet diesel submarines. I think some of that fervour has died down in the last couple of years. We have seen Kilo submarines spending most of its time either in one of the Shanghai shipyards (getting repairs or upgraded, not sure which) or resting peacefully beside the dock. They were only able to successfully fire Club missiles in the past year, but it's definitely still not used operationally as much as the Song series. In the recent years, the nuclear submarine threat of 093 and 094 were raised due to the latter's second strike capability. Just looking at the numbers published in open sources, I don't think USN has a good handle on the quantiy and quality of this second generation of PLAN nuclear submarine, but their classified setion is probably far more accurate. One of the most important development recently is that PLAN submarines are making more patrols. That number is released every year and we've covered how this number has risen in the recent years. This increase coincides with the increased number of PLAN deployments in port calls and their anti-piracy missions. I think this threat was overhyped back in its day, because Kilo submarines really never turned out to be as lethal as the China threat group made them out to be. The Yuan submarine was also not generationally better than Song as Westerners originally thought, because it really was still considered by PLAN as part of the Song series. Even so, I think that this is becoming more of a threat now that these platforms have matured in PLAN through more patrols and training exercises.
In many ways, ASBM has replaced submarine threat as the main PLAN assymetric, anti-access threat topic listed by Western China watchers. I'm proud to say that this blog helped bring the ASBM threat into forefront. The Annual DoD report, Bloomberg, China Maritime Studies Institute and others have weighed in on this issue in the past year, because it could be a "game-changer" as Admiral Roughead stated. We've certainly had our share of entries on this issue throughout 2009. From following this issue on Western and Chinese sources in the last couple of years, I think that the Chinese military establishment believes this system is ready for action. Certainly, many parts in the system like tracking and identifying the carrier group will be improved and perfected in the next decade, but they believe ASBM can be used right now.
Lifting European Arms Embargo
This was another story that really peaked in early 2005. At that time, China was still dependent on Russia for most of its military hardware. Just as it was about to be lifted, American and Japanese pressure on Europe + initial reluctance by several EU countries over the embargo thwarted the process. The American argument was that imports from Europe would significantly improve the capabilities of PLA and be harmful to US interests in a possible conflict with Taiwan. At this point, I don't think lifting the arms embargo would really mean that much, because PLA is unlikely to have access to too many systems that it needs and can't already obtain. That's probably why this issue has not been at the top of China's requests in its recent discussions with Europe. Even with the arms embargo on, China was still able to get key systems like Spey engine for JH-7 fighter bomber, key subsystems for Z-10 project, co-development of Z-15 helicopter, engines for Z-9G helicopter, Sky master surveillance radar, diesel engines for different ships, LR7 rescue submarine and key subsystems for diesel submarines. I think that lifting EU arms embargo at this point can still help China in different areas. I've always listed NH-90 helicopter, A330 tanker, advanced quiet technology for submarines, aerospace engines, Aster missiles and naval radar as things that PLA would be interested in from Europe that they can't already get. However, I'm not sure how eager European firms would be at supplying these systems. So I think that even if the EU embargo gets dropped, it's really not going to be a game changer. US and Japan will still protest this move, but it really isn't that significant militarily. There are obviously still certain subsystems that China would be interested, but they would be able to develop a less capable but still adequate version of that on their own. I think the most important gains from Europeans are from the civilian sector. China gained a lot from cooperating in hi-tech industry through joint ventures with Western companies. They gained quality control, production method and management skills that are just as important as the technology themselves.
Phalcon + KJ-2000
This was a huge story back in 2000. At that time, Israel and China negotiated a deal for 4 Phalcon AWACS on A-50 platform. The US goverment forced Israel to renege on the deal with the argument that Phalcon is comparable in performance to E-3C. Jiang Zemin was humiliated, because he was told that China would get those AWACS. In 2004, Israel was also forced by US to back out of doing upgrades on Chinese Harpy drones. Those two incidents pretty much stopped the China-Israeli military cooperation that dated back to license production of Python-3 missiles. As the story goes, KJ-2000 AWACS based on A-50 platform made its first flight in 2003 and the first regiment of KJ-2000s were formed in 2005 or 2006. A lot of people were shocked by the pace at which China developed its own AWACS. At the time, people speculated that Israel had provided China with a lot of assistance on the project. As revealed in 2009, China had cooperated extensively with Israel in the Phalcon project. It provided Israel with much of the solutions in fitting the Phalcon system on A-50. In some ways, India reaped the reward of that project in its Phalcon contract. At the same time, Israel really taught China on how to produce and QC the modules for the AESA radar. It also taught China the command & control part of AEWC&C. As such, even though the Phalcon project did not work out, China received the necessary know-hows to produce KJ-2000. China put in extra resource into the KJ-2000 project and accelerated its development. Similar to the entire European Arms Embargo story, this is another case where US intervention really did not help anyone but China.
Third Generation fighter jets
China designates Su-27, F-16 and other Western 4th generation fighter jets as third generation. This decade saw China changing from a nation that imported the production line and know-how of a 3rd generation fighter jet to a nation that exports the production line and know-how of a 3rd generation fighter jet. Two decades after USAF converted much of its fleet with F-15s and F-16s, PLAAF did the same with J-10s and Flankers. By 2006, J-6s (Chinese version of Mig-19) were finally phased out of PLAAF. A year later, production for J-7s finally stopped at CAC, which means J-7s will probably also be phased out in 10 years (they have rather short service lives). Of course, J-10 project was the most important part of this movement. Although it received a lot of help from the Israelis and the Russians, but J-10 project led to the development of many subsystems that would be used in other fighter jets. People have called J-10 the Apollo project of China and I would agree to that in many ways. At this moment, China have pushed out J-10B and J-11B as the improved variants of J-10 and flanker series. CAC has also successfully finished the development of JF-17 and have helped PAC to set up local production. JF-17 will probably allow China to be competitive in the export market against used F-16s/M2Ks/Mig-29s. J-11B will not be exported. Once J-10 is allowed to be exported, it will probably be thrown in foreign fighter jet competitions against other late 4th generation fighters like super hornets, the eurocanards and su-35. Either way, this was the decade that PLAAF moved from a 2nd generation air force to a 3rd generation air force.
PLAN surface shipbuilding program
Before this decade started, China's best ships were 2 Sovs, 1 051B, 2 052 and a few Jiangweis. We've talked about it many times before, but it's pretty amazing how much PLAN surface fleet has improved in the past decade. I've written several entries on this before, so I will keep this short. The improved quality and quantity of PLAN shipbuilding program can attribute to the improvements in the civilian shipbuilding industry and development of a entire generation of naval subsystems (some of which were copied off Russians). As seen recently with submarine tender, hospital ship, ELINT ship and replenishment ships, the building program is taking care of the entire fleet rather than just destroyers and frigates. Not only are the new ships more capable, they are also designed to operate further away from the shores. Basically, this decade represents the start of China's effort to move from a brown water navy to a blue water navy.