China recently conducted its third land-based missile-intercept test. These tests, most likely designed to facilitate “hit to kill” technologies critical for China’s missile defense and anti-satellite programs, are part of a well-planned, enormous military buildup in which the Chinese have been engaged for nearly 20 years.
Here are some features of that effort:
- They have created a large and modern navy, which, by 2020, will be substantially larger than America’s. Its vessels are highly capable and armed with long-range, advanced, anti-ship missiles and air-defense missiles.
- They are upgrading their nuclear arsenal and are on track to more than double the number of their nuclear warheads capable of striking the U.S. homeland over the next few years.
- They already have the world’s largest and most lethal inventory of conventional ballistic missiles as well as large numbers of highly capable and long-range ground-, air- and sea-based cruise missiles. They will continue to expand, diversify, and improve their missile inventory, enhancing their ability to coerce or use force against the United States and its allies and partners in Asia. China now is able to threaten U.S. bases and operating areas throughout the region, including those that it previously could not reach with conventional weapons, such as Anderson Air Force Base on Guam.
- They have almost 2,000 capable fighter aircraft and are on track to introduce two new fifth-generation fighters, which they will likely add to their inventory between 2017 and 2019. China also appears to be developing a new long-range stealth bomber.
- They are significantly upgrading their intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance systems and improving their amphibious capabilities.
- According to the Defense Science Board, they already have offensive cyber capabilities that can inflict existential damage on America’s critical infrastructure.
China’s military modernization is aimed primarily at one country: the United States. The Chinese have carefully studied America’s military and the wars it has fought over the past 20 years and have tailored their buildup accordingly. China’s leaders know that almost the entire firepower of America’s surface navy is centered on its aircraft-carrier task forces. It costs $13.5 billion to build an aircraft carrier but only about $10 million to build a missile with the range, velocity, and accuracy to sink an aircraft carrier. The Chinese have created a “missile centric” military in pursuit of a highly effective asymmetric strategy designed to keep America’s surface navy from intervening in a potential conflict in the Taiwan Strait or in the East and South China Seas.
The Chinese also know that America’s armed forces depend almost completely on space satellites for targeting, intelligence, and communication. Hence the recent missile-intercept test and, more generally, China’s rapid development of anti-satellite capabilities designed to destroy or severely disrupt America’s space assets in every orbital regime. They will have that capability by 2020, if they don’t have it already.
How is America responding to all this? In the years when China’s military modernization first began to bear fruit, America’s armed forces were completely focused on counterinsurgency in the Middle East. In 2011, then–secretary of defense Bob Gates proposed a ten-year budget with modest increases designed primarily to increase the size of the navy in response to the Chinese buildup. Congress and the president responded by cutting a half trillion dollars from the Gates budget and imposing another $500 billion in reductions by sequester.
As a result, both present and future readiness are declining across the force. The Navy, which currently has no effective defense against China’s missile strategy, is shrinking. The Air Force has fewer planes and an older inventory than at any time since the inception of the service. The Army is being reduced to pre–World War II levels. All of this, and more, was recently detailed in the unanimous report of the National Defense Panel, which found that unless the defense cuts were reversed, the armed forces would in the near future be at high risk of not being able to carry out their missions.
China, of course, has watched all this carefully, drawn the obvious conclusion, and stepped up its provocations in the western Pacific.
The Chinese government, which means the leaders of the Chinese Communist party, insists that the purpose of their military buildup is defensive, but anyone who believes that is not familiar either with China’s policy in the western Pacific or the strategy it is using to execute it.
I don’t believe the Chinese intend war with the United States. What they intend is to credibly threaten war, while continuing to shift the balance of power decisively in their favor and thereby achieve their objectives by intimidation. So far they are succeeding.
— Jim Talent serves on the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, to which he was appointed by the U.S. Senate in 2012. He has served on the Senate and House Armed Services Committees and is currently a distinguished fellow at the Heritage Foundation and co-chairman of the American Freedom and Enterprise Foundation.
EDITOR’S NOTE: An earlier version of this piece stated that the Pentagon’s 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review did not mention China, which was not accurate.