China's Military Modernization Increasingly Challenges U.S. Defense Capabilities in Asia


September 14, 2015

A new RAND Corporation report suggests that although China continues to lag behind the United States in terms of aggregate military hardware and operational skills, it has improved its capabilities relative to those of the United States in many critical areas. Moreover, the report finds that China does not need to catch up fully to the United States in order to challenge U.S. ability to conduct effective military operations near the Chinese mainland.

Chinese military developments have garnered considerable attention in recent years, but much of that attention has focused on comparisons of aggregate equipment inventories and discussion of individual weapon systems, without considering how those inventories and systems would perform in specific conflict scenarios.

To address this gap, the RAND report uses a set of operational assessments and scorecards to assess how U.S. and Chinese forces would perform against each other, at various distances from the Chinese mainland and at different points in time from 1996 to 2017.

The report provides a unique, open-source method of assessing how the military balance of power in Asia has evolved and the challenges the United States can expect to face in the region in the future.

“To be clear, the goal of our research is to avoid war, which we do not anticipate and which could be disastrous for both countries,” said Eric Heginbotham, lead author of the report and a senior political scientist at RAND, a nonprofit research organization.

In the event of a conflict, the United States and China could engage in air and missile, maritime, space and cyber warfare, according to RAND researchers. Despite U.S. military improvements, China has made relative gains in most areas, especially the ability to threaten U.S. air bases, to challenge U.S. air superiority and to attack U.S. aircraft carriers.

While trends vary by mission area, U.S. forces retain some important advantages in the context of difficult scenarios. The United States likely would still prevail in a protracted war, but the costs and time required could be much higher than would have been the case as recently as 10 years ago, according to the study.

Geography and distance have major impacts on each nation's ability to achieve critical objectives. China enjoys proximity in most plausible conflict scenarios in Asia, and this advantage in geography and access to relevant basing would largely offset U.S. military advantages. Moreover, China has developed capabilities that capitalize on geography by threatening U.S. forward bases and units.

China's ability to project power to locations far from its border is limited, but its reach is growing. If the United States and China remain on current trajectories, the frontier for U.S. dominance in Asia will progressively recede, according to the report.

“Although the United States probably will not have the resources over the next decade to prevent all further erosion in the balance of military power, it can adjust its operational concepts, force structure and diplomacy in ways that will slow the process and strengthen deterrence,” Heginbotham said. “U.S. defense planners are considering such moves in light of the trends highlighted in this report.”

The report was sponsored by the U.S. Air Force.

Other authors of the report include Michael Nixon, Forrest E. Morgan, Jacob L. Heim, Jeff Hagen, Sheng Li, Jeffrey Engstrom, Martin C. Libicki, Paul DeLuca, David A. Shlapak, David R. Frelinger, Burgess Laird, Kyle Brady and Lyle J. Morris.

The report, “The U.S.-China Military Scorecard: Forces, Geography, and the Evolving Balance of Power 1996–2017,” can be found at

The study was prepared by RAND Project AIR FORCE, a federally funded research and development center for studies and analysis aimed at providing independent policy alternatives for the U.S. Air Force.

About the RAND Corporation

The RAND Corporation is a research organization that develops solutions to public policy challenges to help make communities throughout the world safer and more secure, healthier and more prosperous.