China's Military Modernization Efforts Fall Short; Significant Weaknesses Remain

For Release

February 16, 2015

Although the drive by the People's Republic of China to modernize its military has been underway for more than two decades, significant weaknesses remain, according to a new RAND Corporation report.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the People's Liberation Army was saddled with outdated equipment and poorly trained personnel, as well as the distraction and corruption associated with its involvement in an array of commercial activities. China reacted by pouring money into its military, resulting in double-digit increases in military spending in most years, but many issues remain unresolved.

“Our research found that China's weaknesses fall in two broad categories: institutional and combat capabilities,” said Michael Chase, co-lead author of the study and a senior political scientist at RAND, a nonprofit research organization. “The army faces shortcomings from outdated command structures, quality of personnel, professionalism and corruption.”

In terms of combat capabilities, China has problems with logistical weaknesses, insufficient strategic airlift capabilities, limited numbers of special mission aircraft and deficiencies in fleet air defense and anti-submarine warfare, said Jeffrey Engstrom, co-lead author of the report and a RAND senior project associate.

However, the Chinese are keenly aware of the military's many weaknesses and are working hard to correct them.

The Chinese military trade press, as well as expert foreign observers, note that many of the key weaknesses of the Chinese armed forces stem from shortcomings in organizational structure and continuing concerns about insufficient educational accomplishments and levels of technical proficiency among soldiers and officers. Other personnel issues include problems with corruption, morale and professionalism, including difficulties accepting military discipline and maintaining operational security.

In terms of combat capabilities, many Chinese strategists identify the inability to conduct integrated joint operations at the desired level of competence as the central problem. There are persistent challenges in combat support and combat service support maintenance capabilities. Recent investments in military hardware have made a difference, but the Chinese have struggled to make sure their military service members are able to operate it, according to the study.

While new surface combatants and submarines boast impressive capabilities comparable with those of a modern, world-class navy, the Chinese navy still has problems with the integration of increasingly complex modern weapons and equipment platforms. The Chinese air force has made similar technological strides, but must cope with such challenges as a large force comprising multiple generations of aircraft, a shortage of key special mission aircraft, unrealistic training and insufficient strategic transport capability.

The Chinese military also faces potential weaknesses in its ability to protect Chinese interests in space and the electromagnetic spectrum, and to successfully operate in these areas in support of military campaigns requiring information dominance. As China places more satellites into orbit, the military is becoming more dependent on space capabilities for important functions such as intelligence, navigation and communications.

Chinese military publications assess China as being less dependent on space than the U.S. military, but appear to recognize that the growing Chinese reliance on space also makes them vulnerable. The Chinese also are concerned about their own cybersecurity weaknesses, particularly due to a perceived inferiority in the key aspects of “network military struggle.”

Chase said it will be important for U.S. analysts, planners and leaders to continue to improve their understanding of Chinese military shortcomings as well as how the Chinese see these weaknesses and vulnerabilities. If deterrence fails, that knowledge may help the United States and its allies prevent China from using force to achieve its policy objectives.

The study, “China's Incomplete Military Transformation: Assessing the Weaknesses of the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA),” can be found at Other authors of the study include Tai Ming Cheung, Kristen A. Gunness, Scott Warren Harold, Susan Puska and Samuel K. Berkowitz.

Research for the study was sponsored by the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, which Congress established in 2000 to monitor and report on the economic and national security dimensions of U.S. trade and economic ties with China. The study was conducted within the International Security and Defense Policy Center of the RAND National Security Research Division. The division conducts research and analysis on defense and national security topics for the U.S. and allied defense, foreign policy, homeland security and intelligence communities and foundations and other nongovernmental organizations that support defense and national security analysis.

About RAND

RAND 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.