Military strength is eluding China
By John Pomfret
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 25, 2010; A01
MOSCOW - The Moscow Machine-Building Enterprise Salyut on the east side of town has put up a massive Soviet-style poster advertising its need for skilled workers. The New Year's party at the Chernyshev plant in a northwest suburb featured ballet dancers twirling on the stage of its Soviet-era Palace of Culture.
The reason for the economic and seasonal cheer is that these factories produce fighter-jet engines for a wealthy and voracious customer: China. After years of trying, Chinese engineers still can't make a reliable engine for a military plane.
The country's demands for weapons systems go much further. Chinese officials last month told Russian Defense Minister Anatoly E. Serdyukov that they may resume buying major Russian weapons systems after a several-year break. On their wish list are the Su-35 fighter, for a planned Chinese aircraft carrier; IL-476 military transport planes; IL-478 air refueling tankers and the S-400 air defense system, according to Russian news reports and weapons experts.
This persistent dependence on Russian arms suppliers demonstrates a central truth about the Chinese military: The bluster about the emergence of a superpower is undermined by national defense industries that can't produce what China needs. Although the United States is making changes in response to China's growing military power, experts and officials believe it will be years, if not decades, before China will be able to produce a much-feared ballistic missile capable of striking a warship or overcome weaknesses that keep it from projecting power far from its shores.
"They've made remarkable progress in the development of their arms industry, but this progress shouldn't be overstated," said Vasily Kashin, a Beijing-based expert on China's defense industry. "They have a long tradition of overestimating their capabilities."
Ruslan Pukhov, the director of the Center for Analysis of Strategic Technologies and an adviser to Russia's ministry of defense, predicted that China would need a decade to perfect a jet engine, among other key weapons technologies. "China is still dependent on us and will stay that way for some time to come," he said.
Indeed, China has ordered scores of engines from the Salyut and Chernyshev factories for three of its new fighters - the J11B, a Chinese knock-off of the Russian Su-27; the J10, which China is believed to have developed with Israeli help; and the FC1, which China modeled on an aborted Soviet design. It also told Russia that it wants a third engine from another factory for the Su-35.
How China's military is modernizing is important for the United States and the world. Apart from the conflict with radical Islamism, the United States views China's growing military strength as the most serious potential threat to U.S. interests around the world.
Speaking in 2009, Liang Guanglie, China's minister of defense, laid out a hugely ambitious plan to modernize the People's Liberation Army, committing China to forging a navy that would push past the islands that ring China's coasts, an air force capable of "a combination of offensive and defensive operations," and rocket forces of both "nuclear and conventional striking power."
The Pentagon, in a report to Congress this year, said that the pace and scale of China's military reform "are broad and sweeping." But, the report noted, "the PLA remains untested in modern combat," thus making transformation difficult to assess.
'Could be sitting ducks'
One area in which China is thought to have made the greatest advances is in its submarines, part of what is now the largest fleet of naval vessels in Asia. In October 2006, a Chinese Song-class diesel-powered attack submarine reportedly shadowed the USS Kitty Hawk aircraft carrier and surfaced undetected four miles from the ship. Although the Pentagon never confirmed the report, it sparked concern that China could threaten the carriers that are at the heart of the U.S. Navy's ability to project power.
China tried to buy Russian nuclear submarines but was rebuffed, so it launched a program to make its own. Over the past two years, it has deployed at least one of a new type of nuclear-powered ballistic-missile submarine called the Jin class and it may deploy as many as five more.
The Office of Naval Intelligence said the Jin gives China's navy its first credible second-strike nuclear capability; its missiles have a range of 4,000 miles. But in a report last year, the ONI also noted that the Jin is noisier than nuclear submarines built by the Soviets 30 years ago, leading experts to conclude that it would be detected as soon as it left port.
"There's a tendency to talk about China as a great new military threat that's coming," said Hans M. Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists. But, when it comes to Chinese submarines carrying ballistic missiles, he said, "they could be sitting ducks."
Another problem is that China's submariners don't train very much.
China's entire fleet of 63 subs conducted only a dozen patrols in 2009, according to U.S. Navy data Kristensen obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, about a tenth of the U.S. Navy's pace. In addition, Kristensen said there is no record of a Chinese ballistic-missile sub going out on patrol. "You learn how to use your systems on patrol," he said. "If you don't patrol, how can you fight?"
China's missile technology has always been the pointy edge of its spear, ever since Qian Xuesen, the gifted rocket scientist who was kicked out of the United States during the McCarthy period in the 1950s, returned to China.
U.S. government scientists have been impressed by China's capabilities. On Jan. 11, 2007, a Chinese missile traveling at more than four miles a second hit a satellite that was basically a box with three-foot sides, one U.S. government weapons expert said. Over the past several years, China has put into orbit 11 of what are believed to be its first military-only satellites, called Yaogan, which could provide China with the ability to track targets for its rockets.
China is also trying to fashion an anti-ship ballistic missile by taking a short-range rocket, the DF-21, and turning it into what could become an aircraft-carrier killing weapon.
Even though it has yet to be deployed, the system has already sparked changes in the United States. In September, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said China's "investments in anti-ship weaponry and ballistic missiles could threaten America's primary way to project power and help allies in the Pacific - particularly our forward bases and carrier strike groups." The U.S. Navy in 2008 cut the DDG-1000 destroyer program from eight ships to three because the vessels lack a missile-defense capability.
But the challenge for China is that an anti-ship ballistic missile is extremely hard to make. The Russians worked on one for decades and failed. The United States never tried, preferring to rely on cruise missiles and attack submarines to do the job of threatening an opposing navy.
U.S. satellites would detect an ASBM as soon as it was launched, providing a carrier enough warning to move several miles before the missile could reach its target. To hit a moving carrier, a U.S. government weapons specialist said, China's targeting systems would have to be "better than world-class."
Wu Riqiang, who worked for six years at the China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation as a missile designer, said that while he could not confirm that such a missile existed, he believed weapons such as these were essentially "political chips," the mere mention of which had already achieved the goal of making U.S. warships think twice about operating near China's shores.
"It's an open question how these missiles will do in a conflict situation," said Wu, who is now studying in the United States. "But the threat - that's what's most important about them."
The deployment of a naval task force to the Gulf of Aden last year as part of the international operation against pirates was seen as a huge step forward for China. The implication was that China's military doctrine had shifted from defending China's borders to protecting China's interests, which span the globe. But the expeditionary force has also provided a window into weaknesses of the People's Liberation Army, according to a new report by Christopher Yung, a former Pentagon official now at the National Defense University.
China's lack of foreign military bases - it has insisted that it won't station troops abroad - limits its capacity to maintain its ships on long-term missions. A shortage of helicopters - the workhorses of a naval expeditionary force - makes it hard for the ships to operate with one another. China's tiny fleet of replenishment ships - it has only three - doesn't give it enough capacity to do more than one such operation at a time.
China's navy, according to Yung, also has difficulty maintaining a fresh water supply for its sailors. And poor refrigeration on its ships makes it hard to preserve fruit and vegetables, something that makes for griping on board.
"The sailors during the first deployment had a real morale problem," Yung said, adding that following their mission, they were taken on a beach vacation "to get morale back up."
Empowering local commanders, considered key to a successful fighting force, is something that Beijing clearly has yet to embrace. British Royal Navy Commodore Tim Lowe, who commanded the Gulf of Aden operation for the U.S. 5th Fleet up until May, noted that while other navies would send operations officers to multinational meetings to discuss how to fight pirates, China would dispatch a political officer who often lacked expertise. The concept of sharing intelligence among partner countries was also tough for the Chinese to fathom. To the Chinese, he said, "that was an unusual point."
Tension with the Kremlin
China's military relations with Russia reveal further weaknesses. Between 1992 and 2006, the total value of Russia's arms exports to China was $26 billion - almost half of all the weapons Russia sold abroad.
But tensions arose in 2004 over two issues, Russian experts said. Russia was outraged when it discovered that China, which had been licensed to produce the Su-27 fighter jet from Russian kits, had actually copied the plane. China was furious that after it signed a contract for a batch of IL-76 military transport planes it discovered that Russia had no way to make them. After receiving 105 out of a contracted 200 Su-27s, China canceled the deal and weapons negotiations were not held for several years.
Purchases of some items continued - S-300 air defense systems and billions of dollars worth of jet engines. An engine China made for its Su-27 knock-off would routinely conk out after 30 hours whereas the Russian engines would need refurbishing after 400, Russian and Chinese experts said.
"Engine systems are the heart disease of our whole military industry," a Chinese defense publication quoted Wang Tianmin, a military engine designer, as saying in its March issue. "From aircraft production to shipbuilding and the armored vehicles industry, there are no exceptions."
When weapons talks resumed with Russia in 2008, China found the Russians were driving a harder bargain. For one, it wasn't offering to let China produce Russian fighters in China. And in November, the Russians said they would only provide the Su-35 for China's aircraft carrier program if China bought 48 - enough to ensure Russian firms a handsome profit before China's engineers attempted to copy the technology. Russia also announced that the Russian military would buy the S-400 air defense system first and that China could get in line.
"We, too, have learned a few things," said Vladimir Portyakov, a former Russian diplomat twice posted to Beijing.
Christmas is not a time nor a season, but a state of mind. To cherish peace and goodwill, to be plenteous in mercy, is to have the real spirit of Christmas.