China’s growing military power is seen already by many observers as a threat to the balance of power in the western Pacific. What has received less attention is China’s efforts to transform its air and ground forces. Yet, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is on a path towards the capability to project power throughout Asia and to deny the United States access to Central Asia. The Chinese military also is investing heavily in capabilities to exploit perceived U.S. military vulnerabilities. The net result could be Beijing’s ability to dominate Central Asia.
Along with many other nations, China concluded that the 1991 Gulf War presaged a military technical revolution. The key aspects of this revolution were improvements in mobility and information. The PLA adopted the slogan of a ‘revolution in military affairs with Chinese characteristics’ as the shorthand definition of its effort to develop a military that is smaller than before but at the same time more flexible, agile and capable. The Chinese military is investing in a range of new weapons systems including short and medium-range ballistic missiles, advanced strike aircraft, airborne surveillance and even unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). The PLA land forces are being restructured to increase their mobility, flexibility and combined arms capability. In addition to its power projection capabilities, the PLA is also investing in capabilities intended to exploit potential vulnerabilities in U.S. forces. The Chinese military is developing the means to hold at risk U.S. C4ISR systems, particularly those in space.
The People’s Republic of China also is pursuing a political strategy designed to counter what Beijing views as U.S. encirclement. The centerpiece of this strategy is the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). It normalizes relations with China’s neighbors, functions as a major instrument of its diplomacy and defense policy, and as a forum for coordinating economic issues involving it, Russia, and the Central Asian states. The PLA has conducted joint exercises with other SCO members including, for the first time in 30 years, an exercise with Russian forces in August 2005.
How should the United States respond to China’s growing ability to project power into Central Asia and deny the United States access to the region in time of war? There are some investments which would support U.S. power projection anywhere in Asia. These include missile defenses, particularly mobile systems such as Patriot, Aegis, Theater High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) and potentially the Kinetic Energy Interceptor. Because of the sensor requirements to support mobile defenses, the Department of Defense needs to invest in the Space Tracking and Surveillance System, a set of satellites that will provide global tracking and discrimination of ballistic missiles and their warheads. Clearly stealth aircraft, both current systems such as the B-2, F-22 and F-35, as well as a future strategic bomber, are critical to countering China’s improving air defenses. Long-range UAVs such as the Global Hawk will be vital to U.S. C4ISR capabilities and to ensure against successful attacks on space-based systems. Finally, the U.S. military must also consider what force improvements may be required to support power projection missions in Central Asia. Additional C-17s and modernized tankers will be required to support a substantial deployment into Central Asia.
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