China will soon have air power rivalling the West’s
THERE is no question which country gets the starring role in “The Military Balance”, the latest annual review of the world’s armed forces by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), a London-based think-tank. Amid renewed jostling between the world’s great powers, it is the pace of military modernisation in China that stands out.
China’s president, Xi Jinping, wants to be able to challenge America’s military might in the western Pacific. He is making big progress. China’s once bloated armed forces are becoming leaner and a lot more capable. They are also benefiting from a defence budget that is growing at a steady 6-7% a year, in line with GDP. The IISS declares that China has become an innovator in military technology and is “not merely ‘catching up’ with the West”.
For some of the most advanced science, Mr Xi is tapping the private sector. Non-state firms are helping the armed forces to develop quantum technologies that will boost their ability to make use of artificial intelligence and big data, as well as to develop unhackable communications networks. A potential advantage that China has over the West is that its tech firms have little choice about working on military projects. The Pentagon has to woo sceptical Silicon Valley companies. Firms in China do what the government tells them to do.
Such exotic technologies will take time to be deployed on the battlefield. But China’s focus on them may cause the West’s already eroding military edge to disappear entirely. “The Military Balance” offers a striking example of the progress China has made: in two years’ time, if not before, America is likely to lose its monopoly of radar-beating stealth combat aircraft with the introduction into service of China’s Chengdu J-20. This has a much longer range than America’s new F-35 fighter and will be a serious threat to American warships in the Pacific.
At least as worrying for American commanders in the region is the dramatic upgrading of China’s inventory of air-to-air missiles (AAMs). The short-range PL-10, which was introduced in 2015, is regarded by military analysts as comparable in performance to Western equivalents, such as the Sidewinder II. This year, the PL-15, a radar-guided “beyond visual range” missile (BVRAAM), should enter service. Carried by a J-20, the PL-15 can destroy an aircraft 50km away that is trying to evade it. “The Military Balance” believes that a version of the missile is in the works that will have a cruise speed of Mach 3. It is similar in design to the European Meteor, the best BVRAAM in the West’s inventory, which is only just entering service.
Another system, yet to be named, would provide China with an ability to knock out targets as far away as 400km, a far greater range than any other air-to-air weapon in service. It would threaten aircraft that currently operate safely from a considerable distance, such as tankers and planes used for airborne surveillance and control. China’s message to its adversaries with these new missiles is clear. As “The Military Balance” puts it, air superiority “will have to be won—and likely only temporarily—with the commitment of a level of ‘blood and treasure’ not required since the end of the cold war.”