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Sunday Book Review: Chinese Aerospace Power

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Chinese Aerospace Power is a collection of essays generated at a December 2008 colloquium organized by the Naval War College’s China Maritime Studies Institute. The collection is held together by a common focus on maritime oriented Chinese aerospace military capabilities. Edited by Andrew Erickson, CAP is part of a series of similar volumes on Chinese maritime military issues. Taken together, the essays supply a vision of how the United States and the People’s Republic of China envision high technology warfare against one another.  In some sense this would remain asymmetric warfare; the PLA would attack perceived US weaknesses using means that the US itself does not normally employ, including ground based cruise missiles and conventional ballistic missiles.  However, conflict between the modern PLA and the modern US military establishment would look much more “symmetric” than any conflict that the United States has been involved in since the Vietnam War.  The battlespace would horizontally extend deep into China and into the Pacific, and vertically extend between space and the sea floor.

CAP avoids treating any particular system as the key to Chinese military power. Even the much touted ASBMs are placed within context of other Chinese capabilities, and of the role they’d be expected to play within the system of anti-access systems. Another element of this system that has received less attention than it should is the PLA’s collection of land attack cruise missiles (detailed in a chapter by Michael Chase), which provide a similar but somewhat more manageable threat to US bases and ships in the region. Together with the ballistic missiles, the cruise missiles have the potential to overwhelm air defense capabilities, especially given the limitations on total number of SAMs carried by US air defense ships. A chapter by Toshi Yoshihara tracks Chinese views of the development of sea based anti-ballistic missile defense in the United States and Japan, with the upshot that China views such systems as a genuine, but potentially manageable, problem.

CAP also highlights some areas in which technological and doctrinal development has lagged. In particular, the PLAN appears roughly a generation behind in aerial anti-submarine warfare, even allowing the decay of US capabilities over the past decades. This includes both fixed wing maritime surveillance aircraft and ship-borne helicopters. Indeed, the development of helicopter technology and doctrine in the PLA has lagged in general, with total numbers of rotary aircraft running behind international standards. This may have been due to some uncertainty regarding how responsibility for helicopters is divided between the PLAAF and ground combat organizations. In the future, it will be worth watching PLA-assisted disaster relief operations (both domestic and international) to track continued development of rotary aircraft capabilities.

CAP includes some discussion of Chinese carrier aviation, but this is not a major focus.  In short, it will take some time for the Chinese to perfect carrier aviation, and between now and and the presumed  endpoint (modern, fixed wing carrier capabilities with 3-5 active platforms) there is much time and money to be spent, as well as many choices to be made.  The Shi Lang gives some indication of what these choices may be (ski jump carriers launching mainly air superiority aircraft) but it’s still possible for the PLAN to go in other directions.  In particular, Chinese development of big deck amphibious warships will be very interesting to watch; these warships are likely to carry helicopters for the foreseeable future, but Chinese development of some kind of equivalent to the F-35B isn’t out of the question in the long term.  Again, people will be paying a lot of attention to China’s use of naval aviation assets in disaster relief operations.  Aircraft carriers obviously represent a move in a different direction than the anti-access capabilities represented by cruise and ballistic missiles; even ski-jump carriers are power projection tools, designed to provide cover over task forces deployed at distance.

Given my own focus on how the configuration of military institutions affects policy, strategy, and procurement, I read the essays that touched upon the role played by the PLA Second Artillery Corps with great interest. The Second Artillery is responsible for ballistic missile development and deployment, and has become both a partner and bureaucratic competitor for the PLAAF and the PLAN. The Second Artillery historically had primary responsibility for nuclear deterrence against the Soviet Union and the United States, and accordingly controlled Chinese ballistic missile forces. Over time, however, a potential conventional role for the SAC in a conflict over Taiwan developed. With improved targeting technology, conventional SAC ballistic missiles could disable airfields and other critical military targets in the first hours of war. Later, the potential use of Anti-Ship Ballistic Missiles would give the SAC a role in deterring US intervention.

There are two interesting stories here. The first is a basic institutional logic about how a bureaucracy develops capabilities beyond its core mission. Not entirely without prodding, the SAC has created a non-nuclear mission for itself, and indeed would be expected to play a critical and decisive role in superpower conflict without direct reliance on nuclear weapons. When a (quasi) service is built around ballistic missiles, it finds new and innovative ways of using ballistic missiles, especially when it needs such innovations to maintain political and bureaucratic relevance. In this case, the SAC has pursued innovations that have potentially decisive effect at the operational and strategic levels. Institutional design has consequences; build a service around bombers, and you get interesting bomber technology and doctrine, build it around missiles and you get interesting missile developments.

The second is an inevitable counter-part to the first; divisions of responsibility between bureaucratic organizations invariably create conflicts between those organizations. We know less about conflicts between the PLAAF and the SAC than we do about those between the USAF and USN, but such conflicts definitely exist, and often appear to coalesce around control of information technology. Modern warfare is extremely hungry with regards to information, communications, and bandwidth, and the PLAN, PLAAF, and SAC all want access to and control of the platforms and capabilities that create and distribute information.

In an actual war context, we don’t know how these conflicts would play out. PLA anti-access capabilities involves use of a system of systems designed to deter and defeat efforts to penetrate sea and air space near the Chinese littoral. These systems include diesel electric submarines, surface launched cruise missiles, land launched cruise missiles (targeting both enemy ships and enemy airbases), air launched cruise missiles, and ballistic missiles. On the surface this seems an exceedingly imposing collection of capabilities. In actual fighting, coordination between services and capabilities would prove extremely demanding. Interservice conflict invariably produces friction, notwithstanding “jointness” or whatever term the Chinese may use to describe the concept of interservice operations.  The collection does an excellent job of highlighting where the rifts lay, and describing the effect that they’ve had on planning and procurement.

More broadly, the discussion of interservice conflict in the Chinese context highlights both the contingency of specific configurations of military power, and the policy impact of particular institutional choices. As I have labored to argue, there is nothing natural or necessarily optimal about the current distribution of responsibilities across US military services; other countries make much different choices, even when they face similar security environments. More importantly, the choice of configuration has a big impact on how doctrine, technology, and procurement will play out. Military bureaucracies almost invariably compete with one another, with the most serious issues arising when mission requirements cross service boundaries. China now faces a situation where exceedingly complex operational tasks are divided between three “services,” an issue that may prove problematic if push ever comes to shove.

As with all such collections, some entries are stronger than others. There are very few clunkers, however, and anyone interested in the subject will have their own favorites. Some of the essays could be difficult for a layman to penetrate, but an understanding of the arguments has value beyond the evaluation of Chinese military capabilities.  These essays shine a light on how China is thinking about fighting the United States, deterring US intervention in regional conflict, and shaping US behavior in the Western Pacific.  Given that the book is the product of a Naval War College colloquium and that it includes the work of many individuals close to the development of USN doctrine and strategy, it also gives good indication of how the United States views the prospect of war against China.  It bears note that the book is relevant whether or not we evaluate a war between China and the United States as likely; the technologies, doctrines, and procurement priorities outlined will guide US and Chinese policy for at least a generation, and calculations regarding the likelihood and likely course of war will guide how the two nations related to one another diplomatically.

For those with even more interest in the subject, here’s a talk on the book by Andrew Erickson:

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