TAIPEI — In 1989, just months before the Tiananmen Square massacre, a US Army captain jumped with the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) 43rd Airborne Division in Kaifeng, China.
The jump would be the last Larry Wortzel would enjoy with the PLA. As assistant Army attaché to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, his next encounter with China’s airborne was at Tiananmen Square.
The “June 4th Incident” tore apart the dreams of many in Washington of a budding cooperative military relationship with the PLA.
Estrangement was further aggravated when the US sent two aircraft carrier groups to the waters off Taiwan during the 1996 Taiwan Missile Crisis. The appearance of the carrier groups embarrassed and enraged senior political and military leaders in Beijing.
The ups-and-downs of US-China military relations, the history of China’s military modernization effort, and Wortzel’s frustration with American academia’s continuing efforts to downplay China’s military capabilities as nothing more than a “nuisance,” are all illustrated in his new book, “The Dragon Extends its Reach: Chinese Military Power Goes Global.” Defense News was given an advanced copy of the manuscript prior to publication.
Today, Wortzel serves as a commissioner of the congressionally appointed US-China Economic and Security Review Commission. Although experienced “China watchers” and senior academics routinely dismiss the PLA as an ineffective fighting force, Wortzel argues that the “PLA is turning into a modern armed force with its own unique operational doctrine.”
Wortzel does not ignore true PLA weaknesses. He notes that although China’s ballistic missile capabilities have modernized and its entire missile force is mobile, the PLA has struggled to field a submarine-launched ballistic missile. Although the PLA Air Force has tested two different versions of a stealth fighter aircraft, J-20 and J-31, and successfully copied advanced Russian fighters, “China’s defense industries have struggled for decades to make a highly durable jet engine.”
However, these are not weaknesses that China will not overcome in time. In part, China has taken advantage of “many Americans, inside and outside of government” who “have a romantic and idealized view of China as a true ally.” China has successfully exploited these people to “steal technology, reverse-engineer military equipment, and learn about how the US military trains and operates.”
Too many US government officials have forgotten that “alliances depend on fundamentally shared values, which are missing from an army that is run by a communist party and has the fundamental mission of keeping in place a ‘people’s democratic dictatorship.’ ”
China’s development of anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) capabilities has forced the US defense establishment to devise an entirely new operational concept, AirSea Battle, to counter it. The Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a Washington think tank, “articulated ‘AirSea Battle’ as a response to what it characterized as an ‘unprovoked challenge’ to US forces in the western Pacific, where the proponents of the strategy describe China as trying to create ‘no-go zones.’”
It was the 1991 Gulf War that shocked the PLA so badly it “produced a major shift in thinking” and brought about the “unprovoked challenge” to US forces in the first place.
The ensuing doctrine for the PLA was broadly called “limited war under high-technology conditions.” It introduced “smart weapons,” developed a more robust space-based communications and intelligence architecture, integrated satellites and precision guidance into its weapons and weapon platforms, and expanded its own awareness of joint operations across the domains of warfare.
As a result, China has developed the first anti-ship ballistic missile, the DF-21D, capable of sinking US aircraft carriers during the next crisis. As of 2010 China had demonstrated capabilities to kill satellites with kinetic attack by rockets launched from the ground, to “dazzle” spy satellites with laser beams, to jam satellites, and to launch small constellations of microsatellites that could disrupt or degrade US satellites.
Wortzel writes that, “astonishingly,” PLA officers do not seem to be discussing how the US might react to blinding or attacking the US Defense Support Program (DSP) of early warning satellites, which are intended to monitor foreign ballistic missile launches. The result could precipitate a preemptive strike against Chinese ballistic missile bases in response to China’s attacking the DSP system. “Such thinking in the Second Artillery without considering the reaction that such an attack might bring can lead to serious nuclear instability.”
In employing the range of command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (C4ISR) systems available, the PLA has gained better situational awareness, facilitated the routine projection of military forces out of the region, and managed to strengthen a regional defensive perimeter that extends 2,000 kilometers from China’s coast into the western Pacific.
In some ways, particularly in its strategic nuclear warfare capabilities, China is still an enigma for Wortzel and others in the field.
There is some “controversy” over the size of China’s nuclear force. The US Defense Department maintains that China has about 55 to 65 intercontinental ballistic missiles and about 200 nuclear warheads. Estimates out of Taiwan and the London-based International Institute of Strategic Studies are twice as high, and the former chief of staff of Russia’s strategic missile forces Col. Gen. Viktor Esin estimates that China may have as many as 1,600 to 1,800 warheads and bombs.
“The differences in the estimates of the size of China’s arsenal are significant because they affect US deterrent policy, decisions on ballistic missile defense, and arms control discussions, especially with Russia.”
However, Wortzel points out that China will not allow inspectors or agree to strategic nuclear limitation talks with the US or Russia. Additionally, Chinese military open-source literature makes regular references to the need to “mass fires” using non-nuclear conventionally armed missiles against critical targets. There are fears the US might mistake a Chinese ballistic missile strike, with conventional warhead, on Hawaii or Guam as a nuclear strike resulting in a US nuclear retaliatory strike.
This doctrine on the employment of concentrated ballistic missile fires clearly informs the PLA’s strategy against Taiwan. The PLA has deployed about 1,400 DF-11/DF-15 short-range ballistic missiles against the island.
With respect to Japan, PLA planners think that since there are US bases and forces there, and because Japan has maritime and air forces of its own, “Chinese missile force planners must maintain enough of an arsenal, with missiles of adequate range, to hold those bases and forces at risk.”
If China’s military planners hold true to their own doctrine, the US and Japan will probably see an expansion of the numbers of medium-range and intermediate range ballistic missiles that can target Japan, especially as missile defenses develop, which is evident with the expansion of radars and Patriot PAC-3 missile defense systems in Japan and Okinawa.
China could also respond to a crisis with the US by using economic blackmail. China’s total foreign exchange reserves are $3.232 trillion, the largest in the world, and about 80 percent of that is invested in US debt securities. Wortzel suggests that in the event of a conflict with the US, those foreign reserves could be frozen.
China could also use cyber warfare to confuse and delay US responses to a crisis, particularly if hackers attacked the unclassified Internet systems used by the US military.
Wortzel writes that the most likely target would be the Non-secure Internet Protocol Router Network (NIPRNET), which “carries sensitive, but unclassified information.” Vital logistical, personnel, and unit movement data are all carried on the nonsecure NIPRNET, “and this network likely already has been mapped and penetrated by the PLA.”