Keeping the Pacific

An American Response to China’s Growing Military Might

By Roger Cliff, Evan Medeiros, and Keith Crane

Roger Cliff and Evan Medeiros are RAND political scientists. Cliff specializes in China’s military strategy, China’s science and technology, and U.S. defense policy in the Asia-Pacific region. Medeiros focuses on China’s national security policy, its military and defense industrial affairs, and U.S.-China relations. Keith Crane is a RAND economist who focuses on defense and international economics.

If the U.S. military does not continue to upgrade its technological capabilities, China could challenge the United States for military dominance in East Asia by 2020. As of today, China’s military and rapidly advancing defense industries are focused on finding ways to defeat the United States in the event of a conflict between the two countries, the most likely one being over Taiwan.

To enhance America’s military posture in the Pacific, U.S. defense leaders should consider not merely the technological capabilities that China is developing but also the specific strategies by which it might use those capabilities against the United States. RAND’s analysis suggests several ways to increase the ability of U.S. forces in the Pacific to deter and, if necessary, to defeat a Chinese attack against Taiwan.

China’s defense industries have been producing an increasing number of modern weapon systems.

China’s Military Modernization

Since the late 1990s, China’s defense industries have been producing an increasing number of modern weapon systems. Although many fall short of the most advanced systems now entering the U.S. inventory, some Chinese weapons of today are comparable to the U.S. weapons fielded in the 1970s and 1980s and that still make up the bulk of the U.S. inventory. To retain its qualitative military advantage over China, therefore, America will need to continue to develop and field systems that are significantly more advanced than the types that China is now in the process of developing and fielding.

China’s defense industry has benefited from the rapidly increasing technological capabilities in China’s broader economy. China’s integration into the global economy has resulted in steady improvements in the research, development, production, and management of many of China’s state-owned defense industrial enterprises.

Similarly, the improvement and the growing exposure to Western teaching and scientific methods of China’s universities and technical schools mean that they are turning out increasingly well-trained and independent-thinking scientists, engineers, and technicians. As salaries and working conditions in China’s defense industries improve, they are able to attract higher-quality university and technical school graduates, employees of high-tech civilian enterprises, and Chinese nationals who have studied or worked abroad.

U.S. Naval Base Guam in Apra Harbor.
The U.S. Naval Base Guam, in Apra Harbor, could become home to an aircraft carrier, closer to potential flash points in Asia.

Perhaps the most significant change in China’s defense industries in recent years has been the dramatic increase in resources flowing to them. Between 2000 and 2005, the amount spent on weapons procurement by the People’s Liberation Army more than doubled.

The net effect of these changes has been a qualitative improvement in the output of China’s defense industries. They are now producing certain systems that, while not cutting edge, are comparable to many systems now in the inventories of the United States and other advanced militaries.

Between 2000 and 2005, the amount spent on weapons procurement by the People’s Liberation Army more than doubled.

China’s Type 98 tank, for example, is comparable in capability to the main battle tanks of other Western countries, although so far the Type 98 tank has been produced in only small quantities. China has launched two classes of naval destroyers that are expected to have air defense capabilities comparable to those of U.S. cruisers and destroyers equipped with the Aegis air defense system. China is currently producing two classes of modern diesel-electric submarines and is building two new classes of nuclear submarines that are far better than their predecessors. The C-802 antiship missile carried by China’s naval combatants is comparable in capability to early versions of the Harpoon missile that is still used on U.S. naval combatants.

Since the 1990s, the Shenyang Aircraft Corporation has been coproducing, with Russian assistance, the Su-27 fighter jet, which is roughly comparable to the U.S. F-15. An indigenously built fighter jet, the J-10 is comparable to the U.S. F-16 and has reached initial operational capability. China’s PL-9 air-to-air missile is comparable to the U.S. AIM-9M Sidewinder that was in production until 2004, and China is developing a radar-guided missile, the SD-10, that is expected to match up to the U.S. AIM-120 advanced medium-range air-to-air missile. Other systems under development in China include an airborne early warning and control aircraft comparable to the U.S. Airborne Warning and Control System, a surface-to-air missile system expected to be comparable to early versions of the U.S. Patriot, a cruise missile expected to be comparable to the U.S. Tomahawk, and a high-speed antiradiation missile. China has also purchased several weapon systems from Russia that are highly advanced and, in some cases, exceed U.S. capabilities.

The strategic significance of the advances in China’s defense industries could be huge.

China’s military is well known for its short-range, conventionally armed ballistic missiles. They provide a unique capability for China and one that is extremely difficult to counter. Carried on road-mobile launchers, they are exceedingly hard to locate and to attack before they are launched. In addition, the latest models are believed to have accuracies of 50 meters or less. China is also reported to be developing a ballistic missile capable of hitting a moving ship at sea. If this latter effort were successful — a big “if” — it would give China a unique and unprecedented military capability.

However, a number of shortcomings remain. China has yet to develop a dedicated attack helicopter. Its antisubmarine warfare technology is weak. It appears to be nowhere close to fielding any kind of stealth aircraft. It does not have a super-agile, infrared-guided, air-to-air missile like those of the United States, Russia, and Israel. And it has nothing like the range of precision air-to-ground munitions employed by U.S. air forces. Moreover, narrowing the technological gap will be costly; prior to 2025, China is unlikely to have resources available for defense comparable to those currently available to the United States (see Figure 1).

Figure 1 —

Projected Chinese Military Expenditures over 22 Years Are Much Less Than Actual U.S. Military Expenditures over the Previous 22 Years

Projected Chinese Military Expenditures over 22 Years Are Much Less Than Actual U.S. Military Expenditures over the Previous 22 Years
SOURCE: Modernizing China’s Military, 2005.

Nonetheless, the strategic significance of the advances in China’s defense industries could be huge. As long as the products of U.S. defense industries continue to advance, it is unlikely that China’s defense industries will produce systems that directly challenge U.S. technological dominance. Conversely, if the U.S. military does not continue to upgrade its technological capabilities, it is possible that by the end of the next decade, China will be able to field a military capable of challenging U.S. dominance in East Asia.

If China focuses on developing its capabilities for military operations near the coast of East Asia and avoids investing in expensive long-range power projection assets — such as aircraft carriers, heavy bombers, and long-range transports — then, by 2020, China could have the resources to field modern military forces that, while not numerically equal to those fielded by the United States, would at least be of comparable magnitude. Furthermore, China will have the advantage that its home territory is located within the region, whereas East Asia is nearly halfway around the globe from the United States. Whether the United States will retain its military advantage over China, therefore, depends both on China’s actions and on whether the United States will replace its current weapon systems with new ones that are qualitatively superior. America currently possesses substantial military and technological advantages over the Chinese military, and these must be retained while China devotes greater resources to military modernization.

China’s Military Strategy

America needs to retain a strategic as well as a technological advantage. Chinese military doctrinal writings discuss how to defeat a militarily superior adversary such as the United States. We found these writings in openly published Chinese-language books on military strategy, articles in Chinese military journals, reports from Chinese military newspapers, and recent Western studies of Chinese security policy. We found in the writings at least seven strategic principles that have implications for U.S. forces in the Pacific.

The first strategic principle is seizing the initiative early in a conflict. Chinese military analysts note that Iraq, by not seizing the initiative in the 1991 Gulf War, allowed the United States to build up its forces until it had overwhelming superiority. If China is to be victorious against a militarily superior power, China must go on the offensive from the very beginning. In the context of a conflict between the United States and China, this means that U.S. forces stationed permanently in the Western Pacific will be critical, because China is likely to go on the offensive before additional forces can be brought into the theater.

A second and related strategic principle for defeating a militarily superior adversary is the importance of surprise. Surprise is valuable not only for an immediate tactical advantage but also as an important way of seizing the initiative. Surprise puts the adversary in the position of reacting to China’s moves, making it easy to maintain the initiative thereafter. In the context of a conflict between the United States and China, this means that the ability of U.S. forces in the Pacific to avoid and survive surprise attacks will be critical.

Related to the first two strategic principles is a third one: the value of preemption. If China waits for a militarily superior adversary to commence hostilities, it will be difficult for China to seize the initiative, and the adversary will likely wield the preponderance of forces. If, by contrast, China initiates a conflict, China can seize the initiative and may also enjoy an initial advantage in the local balance of forces. Preemption also greatly increases the chances of successfully achieving surprise. In the context of a conflict between the United States and China over Taiwan, this means that China might initiate hostilities by preemptively attacking U.S. forces in the region, even before China has attacked Taiwan, on the presumption that the United States will inevitably intervene in a conflict with Taiwan.

A fourth strategic principle is raising the costs of conflict. At least some Chinese military analysts believe that the United States is sensitive to casualties and economic costs and that the sudden destruction of a significant portion of our forces would result in a severe psychological shock and a loss of will to continue the conflict. When this principle is combined with the preceding two, it suggests a belief that a preemptive surprise attack on U.S. forces in the Pacific could cause the United States to avoid further combat with China. Although the last time such a strategy was attempted in the Pacific the ultimate results were not favorable for the country that attacked, the Chinese military doctrinal writings that we examined did not acknowledge such historical counterexamples.

A fifth strategic principle is that of limited strategic aims. A militarily inferior country cannot expect to achieve total victory over a militarily superior adversary. But if its aims are limited, the inferior country could create a situation in which the costs to its adversary of reversing the results of an initial offensive exceed the benefits of such a reversal, and therefore the adversary will choose to live with the results. In the context of a conflict between the United States and China, this principle suggests that if China’s leadership believes it can quickly accomplish its military aims and present the United States with a fait accompli (such as the invasion and occupation of Taiwan) without threatening any truly vital U.S. interests, then China might embark on such a conflict even if its leadership recognizes that the United States could ultimately prevail if it desired.

Perhaps no U.S. military vulnerability is as important, in Chinese eyes, as its heavy reliance on its information network.

The sixth and seventh strategic principles are avoiding direct confrontation and conducting “key point strikes,” or concentrated attacks. China knows that it cannot win in direct, force-on-force combat with the United States. However, all militaries rely on certain critical functions, any one of which, if disrupted, will render a military unable to operate effectively. Chinese doctrine identifies five such targets: command systems, information systems, weapon systems, logistics systems, and the linkages between the systems. In the context of a conflict between the United States and China, this means that the United States must be prepared for attacks that are focused less on its main combat forces than on key support systems.

Perhaps no U.S. military vulnerability is as important, in Chinese eyes, as its heavy reliance on its information network, which includes command, control, communications, computer, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance systems. Chinese strategists believe that the U.S. military’s awesome power derives in large degree from its effective integration and use of information technology. Successfully attacking that system will affect U.S. combat capabilities much more profoundly than would directly targeting combat platforms. Chinese strategists also believe that the U.S. military information network is not just vulnerable but also fragile. Thus, the foundation of the U.S. military’s success can also be its undoing.

Proposed U.S. Counterstrategy

Based on the weapons being fielded by China’s military and on the vulnerability of U.S. assets to the types of attacks described in China’s military doctrine, we offer six recommendations for mitigating the potential effects of such attacks.

Our first recommendation is to strengthen passive defenses at U.S. air bases and aviation fuel storage facilities in the Western Pacific. The ability of China’s ballistic missiles to disrupt flight operations at air bases would be reduced by strengthening runways (for example, by adding a layer of concrete to them) and increasing rapid runway repair capabilities. The ability of the missiles to destroy aircraft on the ground would be reduced by constructing hardened aircraft shelters, because aircraft are most vulnerable when they are parked in the open. Constructing underground fuel tanks would similarly reduce the vulnerability of fuel supplies.

Our second recommendation is to deploy air defense systems with antiballistic missile capabilities, both on land and at sea, near all air bases and other facilities in the Western Pacific that the United States would use in the event of a conflict with China (see Figure 2). By themselves, ballistic missiles are capable of damaging only runways and “soft” targets, such as unsheltered aircraft and aboveground fuel tanks. But China is also developing cruise missiles and acquiring aircraft with precision-guided munitions, which are capable of destroying “hard” targets, including aircraft shelters and buried fuel tanks. To the extent to which air defense systems are capable of intercepting ballistic missiles and preventing the shutdown of runway operations, U.S. fighter aircraft stationed at those bases would be able to defend them from cruise missile and aircraft attacks. And even if land- or sea-based air defense systems were unsuccessful at defeating ballistic missile attacks, they would also be capable of defending the bases against follow-on attacks by cruise missiles and manned aircraft.

Figure 2 —

Light Blue Area of Ocean Shows Portions of the Western Pacific That Are Most Vulnerable to China’s Missile, Aircraft, Covert Operative, and Computer Network Attacks

Portions of the Western Pacific That Are Most Vulnerable to China's Missile, Aircraft, Covert Operative, and Computer Network Attacks
SOURCE: Entering the Dragon’s Lair, 2007.

Our third recommendation, designed to undermine Chinese special operations forces and covert operatives, is to extend the coordination that now exists between U.S. and local forces in Korea to U.S. facilities in Japan and Guam. Chinese military doctrinal writings recommend using special operations forces and covert operatives to attack key strike points at air bases and other facilities. Because such attacks would generally originate from areas outside of U.S. military bases, the local security forces will be critical lines of defense, as will be the coordination between local forces and U.S. base forces. Given the ongoing threat from North Korean special operations forces, these defenses have long been in place at U.S. facilities in Korea, but now they should exist at U.S. facilities in Japan and Guam as well. The bases can further reduce their vulnerability to covert operatives by installing antisniper systems, fortifying perimeter security, and shielding key areas from outside view.

Our fourth recommendation is to establish more U.S. air bases in the region or, alternatively, to operate land-based aircraft from a broader range of existing locations. Increasing the number of airfields that China would have to neutralize and thus reducing the amount of Chinese firepower that could be devoted to each target would decrease the possibility that one or two Chinese attacks could significantly disrupt U.S. military operations in the region.

Our fifth recommendation is to consider deploying an additional U.S. aircraft carrier in the region. Currently, the United States keeps one aircraft carrier full time in the Western Pacific. Given the many threats to land-based aircraft, having an additional aircraft carrier on the scene could become extremely valuable. The closest additional carriers (other than those that might be transiting through the region) are now based on the U.S. west coast. Because a conflict with China could begin with little warning, as much as two weeks could elapse before an additional aircraft carrier would reach the area of combat operations. An aircraft carrier based in Hawaii would still take at least a week to reach the waters near Taiwan. An aircraft carrier departing from Singapore, by contrast, could arrive in three days, and one departing from Guam could arrive in about two days.

Given the many threats to land-based aircraft, having an additional aircraft carrier on the scene could become extremely valuable.

Our sixth recommendation is to reduce the vulnerability of the U.S. information network. Many of the above proposals for defending against attacks on critical facilities will also reduce the vulnerability of information networks to physical attack. But given the interest that Chinese military writers have shown in this topic, it seems likely that, in the event of a conflict with the United States, China will devote significant resources to computer network attacks and related information operations. The effectiveness of such efforts will depend largely on exploiting poor U.S. information-security practices. Conversely, the potential damage from Chinese information operations can be reduced significantly by enforcing proper security practices for U.S. military information systems: eliminating known security vulnerabilities, using software encryption, isolating critical systems from publicly accessible networks, eliminating unencrypted links to secure computers, enhancing user identification measures, and monitoring network activity.

Given the possibility that China could nonetheless succeed in disrupting U.S. information systems despite these measures, the U.S. military should also maintain and exercise the ability to conduct operations without continuous, high-bandwidth communications between units. Such operations could entail using communications technologies that are out of date by modern standards or even using completely autonomous operations, without data from remote sensors or direction from higher headquarters.

These suggestions do not represent an exhaustive list of enhancements that should be made to the U.S. force posture in the Pacific. We have not performed an economic cost-benefit analysis of these options, and so we cannot definitively say that the military benefits of the recommendations made here exceed the financial costs of implementing them. We can say, however, that in light of what we know about China’s current and future military capabilities and its military doctrine, the potential Chinese threat to U.S. facilities in the Western Pacific is real and growing, and there are a number of concrete actions that the United States can take to reduce the threat. square

Related Reading

Advances Underway in China’s Defense Industries, Roger Cliff, RAND/CT-256, 2006.
China’s Military Modernization and the Cross-Strait Balance, Roger Cliff, RAND/CT-247, 2005.
Entering the Dragon’s Lair: Chinese Antiaccess Strategies and Their Implications for the United States, Roger Cliff, Mark Burles, Michael S. Chase, Derek Eaton, Kevin L. Pollpeter, RAND/MG-524-AF, 2007, 154 pp., ISBN 978-0-8330-3995-8.
Modernizing China’s Military: Opportunities and Constraints, Keith Crane, Roger Cliff, Evan S. Medeiros, James C. Mulvenon, William H. Overholt, RAND/MG-260-1-AF, 2005, 296 pp., ISBN 0-8330-3698-X.
A New Direction for China’s Defense Industry, Evan S. Medeiros, Roger Cliff, Keith Crane, James C. Mulvenon, RAND/MG-334-AF, 2005, 330 pp., ISBN 0-8330-3794-3.