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​People's Liberation Army Air Force J-20 stealth fighter at an undisclosed location on Feb. 9, 2017.  Photo by Sunson Guo

China is accelerating the improvement of its military, drawing closer to parity with the US in a number of key technologies, and building a smaller but far more professional force of troops, according to a new Defense Intelligence Agency assessment. More troubling, though, is that China’s mounting military proficiency across the spectrum of arms is making its leaders more comfortable with the idea of employing force to achieve their political ends.

In “China Military Power: Modernizing a Force to Fight and Win,” released Jan. 15, the DIA paints a picture of a Chinese military that is increasingly modern and professional. The pace and character of these developments will make it more difficult and costly for the US to honor its security commitments to friends and allies in the Indo-Pacific region, particularly with regard to Taiwan, which the Chinese government has always insisted is simply a “breakaway province” and not a sovereign country.

The encyclopedic, 125-page white paper is a new document, and is separate from the annual Pentagon report on Chinese military power mandated by Congress. That report has been criticized by members of Congress in recent years for becoming watered-down and more ambivalent about China’s military capabilities. The DIA said it patterned this report “in the spirit of Soviet Military Power” document of the 1980s and ‘90s.

“China is building a robust, lethal force with capabilities spanning the air, maritime, space, and information domains which will enable China to impose its will in the region,” DIA director Army Lt. Gen. Robert Ashley said in a foreword to the new report. It has transformed from “a defensive, inflexible, ground-based force charged with domestic and peripheral security … to a joint, highly agile, expeditionary and power-projecting arm of Chinese foreign policy.”

Ashley said China is growing “in strength and confidence” and will demand “a greater voice in global interactions, which at times may be antithetical to US interests.” The report, he said, aims to give US leaders “a deeper understanding of the military might behind Chinese economic and diplomatic efforts,” so American leaders can have “the widest range of options for choosing when to counter, when to encourage, and when to join with China in actions around the world.”

Though the document doesn’t forecast an imminent conflict between the US and China, it notes that Chinese military publications call for unstinting defense of claims China has made on sea lines of communication, fisheries, and fossil fuel deposits in the waters within hundreds of miles of its coast, and in extending its power projection capabilities well beyond the “island chain” lines in the Pacific. Those publications advise stern resistance to “third parties”—read, the United States—seeking to back up allied countries in the region whose goals conflict with China’s, and reject any consideration of Taiwan as anything other than Chinese territory.

China’s top military priority, in fact, is to “deter any attempt by Taiwan to declare independence,” and it has organized and equipped with the principal aim being to “deter and deny foreign regional force projection.”

The DIA said China’s double-digit growth in defense spending has slowed, but is still increasing, to where it now spends about $170 billion a year on its military, or about 1.3 percent of its Gross Domestic Product. It gets more for its money than the US does, however, benefitting from what DIA called the “latecomer advantage.” It explained that “China has not had to invest in costly R&D of new technologies” to the same degree as the US. “Rather, China has routinely adopted the best and most effective platforms found in foreign militaries through direct purchases, retrofits, or theft of intellectual property.” By taking this approach, China has been able to rapidly expedite its military modernization “at a small fraction of the original cost” of developing these systems on its own.

China has a “robust” investment program in precision, long-range tactical missiles; a series of new mobile intercontinental ballistic missiles; a new indigenous aircraft carrier; hypersonic weapons, directed energy and lasers; artificial intelligence; and stealth, among many other technology pursuits, the DIA noted. It has set goals to be world-class or world-leading in most of these by 2030-2035.

The People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) is seeking to build both a medium-range and long-range stealth bomber “to strike regional and global targets,” with an operational capability predicted in the 2025 timeframe; roughly when the new USAF B-21 bomber is expected to enter service, the DIA said. These aircraft will have “full-spectrum upgrades compared with current operational bomber fleets, and will employ many fifth-generation fighter technologies in their design.” It also said that with delivery of the new strategic bomber, China will have matched the US and Russia in deploying a true nuclear triad of deterrence capabilities.

Even so, China’s most advanced H-6 bombers, based on the Russian “Badger” series, can today carry cruise land-attack cruise missiles that give them a “long-range, standoff, precision-strike capability that can reach Guam,” the DIA reported.

China is expanding its inventory of airborne early warning and control aircraft, and is equipping it with active electronically scanned array (AESA) radars “that offer instantaneous target updates, electronic beam steering, advanced/specialized radar modes, very large search volumes, and the ability to stare at a target or track thousands of targets simultaneously.” These have “increased ability to detect low-observable targets.”

Although China is developing fifth-generation fighters along the lines of the American F-22 and F-35, it will concentrate on shedding its third-generation fleet and becoming “a majority fourth-generation force within the next several years.” Its J-10B/C and J-11B/J-16 Flanker-derived jets are comparable to the most up-to-date versions of the American F-16 and F-15, respectively, according to the report.

China has advanced tremendously in unmanned aerial vehicles, which emulate the US Predator and Reaper types by offering both a strike and reconnaissance capability. “China has sold armed UAVs to customers such as Iraq” and claims speeds for these aircraft of 170 mph, with an endurance of 20 hours, and ability to carry two guided air-to-surface missiles.

The DIA estimated that China will have “an ISR capability to effectively support traditional air missions, including ground support and air superiority, along with the PLA’s emerging capabilities in space” by 2020.

China’s air defenses, already formidable, will be improved by the addition of the Russian S400 Triumf system, and the upgrade of the Chinese copy, the HQ-19, in the next couple of years. The latter will likely have a ballistic missile defense capability.

Air mobility is being addressed by China’s development of the Y-20, a C-17-lookalike powered by the same engines as China’s other main transport, the Russian IL-76. Derivatives for air refueling and paradrop, among other missions, are expected. China is also investing in new production of the world’s largest airlifter, the An-225.

The DIA also noted that China is stepping up its training capabilities, investing in an air combat maneuvering instrumentation (ACMI) system to debrief pilots in major exercises patterned on USAF’s Red Flag series. It seeks to “replicate real-world combat environments as closely as possible” and has multiplied its joint-service exercises to this end. It has also increased exercises, such as with Thailand, to gain experience in “foreign operational concepts and tactics.” China has vastly multiplied the number of military attachés it deploys among its worldwide embassies, to observe, engage with, and report on foreign militaries.

The DIA noted that China has taken firm steps to replace the Army-centric command structure with a Joint system that elevates the other services and improves their interoperability.

In 2015, China established the Strategic Support Force, an entire branch of the military dedicated to “cyber, aerospace, and electronic warfare capabilities.” This service reports directly to the Central Military Commission of the Chinese communist party. According to a Chinese strategy document, the SSF “will integrate reconnaissance, early warning, communications, command, control, [and] navigation, … and will provide strong support for joint operations for each military service branch.”

The DIA said it has not created a classified version of the report.