MIT Security Studies Program Seminar

The China Threat?

Col. Russ Howard, USA
Head of the Department of Social Sciences
Director of the Combating Terrorism Center
U.S. Military Academy at West Point

October 13, 2004

Col. Howard took this opportunity to provide an update of a 1999 monograph on the People's Liberation Army (PLA).1 The conclusion of his presentation (and the original monograph) was that the PLA does not represent much of a threat to the United States. The PLA has neither the inclination nor the ability to threaten the United States. Those who speak of a China threat in the short-term are exaggerating and inflating the China threat. Although China has developed capable missiles and aircraft, the PLA's arms are still short and its legs are still slow. After recent efforts at PLA modernization, it may be in a moderately better position compared to other regional militaries, but has not closed the gap with the U.S. military. The gap between the U.S. military and the PLA, especially in terms of technologically-advanced weaponry and ability to efficiently use these weapons, may have grown larger in recent years.

In recent years, there have been four important developments related to PLA modernization. First, PLA strategists have focused on developing asymmetric capabilities and focused on tactics that the weaker power could use to defeat the stronger power. Second, the PLA has expanded its arsenal of missiles and advanced aircraft. Third, in 2003 China became the third country to successfully launch a manned spacecraft, which may have important future implications for space warfare. Fourth, with Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian's re-election in 2004 and calls for revising the constitution, cross-strait relations are very tense.

If China tries to become a hegemon, from a capabilities standpoint, this is more likely to be something to worry about in 2050 than in 2015. The PLA is still weak in many fundamental areas including systems integration, propulsion, and computer technology. China is dependent on Russia for most of its advanced weapons. The PLA has shown no signs of being able to indigenously produce advanced weapons. The PLA lacks power projection capability. The lack of in-flight refueling prevents the PLA Air Force (PLAAF) from projecting power. The lack of aerial escort and weak anti-air warfare (AAW) capability of surface ships prevents the PLA Navy (PLAN) from being able to project power on the sea. PLA infantry is very heavy, and when coupled with weak lift assets, severely limits the PLA's ability to transport forces to other places. The PLA has also shown very little ability to deal with a U.S. Navy Carrier Battle Group.

According to the Department of Defense's July 2003 report on Chinese military power, the PLA is trying to exploit existing technology to develop asymmetric tactics and develop diversified force options. However, Col. Howard argued that this report depends too much on open sources and too much on speculation. He noted that the report relies on phrases such as "is expected to," "is reported to," "could," "may", "may eventually." There is little indication in the report that the PLA has realized its goals of military modernization. Col. Howard criticized many China-watchers for talking about future PLA force structure as if the U.S. military will not build new weapons.

The PLAN is still very backward. The plans to acquire eight more Kilo-class submarines from Russia will improve capabilities, but PLAN operators are still inexperienced and weak compared to modern militaries. The PLAN still does not have an aircraft carrier, and in order to have a credible fleet, the PLAN would need to have at least a few carriers. The PLAN is plagued by insufficient training time, few live-fire exercises, and very poor integration of assets.

The PLAAF is also very backward. All but 150 of the PLAAF's aircraft are 1950s or 1960s technology. In 1992, China started receiving Su-27s from Russia, but they have been slow in integrating these assets and in the 1995-6 Taiwan Strait crisis, the Su-27s did not fly due to maintenance problems. The PLAAF has no in-flight refueling capability, suffers from insufficient training time, and like the rest of the PLA, has not been combat-tested since 1979.

The PLA has insufficient lift to project power. Advancement in the PLA is still based on party loyalty rather than military accomplishments and abilities. Overall, the PLA suffers from poor morale. With its large numbers, the PLA is irresistible in defense and incapable in offense. Although China is a nuclear power, it is not a nuclear threat.

In the Q & A, Col. Howard briefly described a few of the actions he would recommend if he were in charge of PLA modernization. He suggested that he would thoroughly review the footage from the Gulf War, cut the Army by half, re-solidify the Sino-Russian relationship, modernize ground and air forces, and increase the capability of Special Operations Forces.

Col. Howard concluded by suggesting that for the near-term, China is a regional threat, not an international one. By approximately 2015, the PLA may have developed the capability to sustain a coercive attack against Taiwan, but any threats to the United States will not materialize in the near-term.

1See Russell D. Howard, "The Chinese People's Liberation Army: "Short Arms and Slow Legs," INSS Occasional Paper 28, September 1999.

Rapporteur: Michael A. Glosny

back to seminar schedule, Fall 2004