Murphy's Law: China and the Illusion of Power

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April 17, 2006: China has drawn a great deal of attention over the years, often as a potential threat. But is this threat as big as it seems, of is it more a case of hype? One thing about China's military that is most impressive is its sheer size. Even today, it has large numbers of jet fighters, ships, and submarines. In many cases, these numbers vastly exceed the forces available to United States Pacific Command, and China is building more modern ships. But is China really a threat to its neighbors?

The Chinese Navy (PLAN) and Chinese Air Force (PLAAF) are both examples of this modernization in progress. Both forces are modernizing leaps and bounds. The PLAN has been adding modern domestic-built destroyers like the Luyang and Luzhou-class, and supplementing them with Sovremenny-class destroyers from Russia. The Chinese are also adding a new frigate class as well, the Jiangkai-class, with the Jiangwei I, Jiangwei II, and Jiangwei III classes of frigates also entering service. This would give the Chinese Navy 14 modern destroyers and 26 modern frigates by 2015.

But at the same time, look at one of China's neighbors, Japan. Japan's Maritime self-defense force has a total of 40 destroyers. The oldest vessels (Asagiri-class destroyers) are still a solid match for the newer Chinese destroyers. Japan is also building at least two new "helicopter-carrying destroyers", which are 13,500 tons each. These are vessels more in line with the "Harrier carriers" in present service in several European nations as opposed to the previous classes of helicopter-carrying destroyers in Japanese service. In fact, one of the concept designs for these vessels looks like an aircraft carrier (complete with an offset island).

In terms of submarines, China deploys a lot of diesel-electric submarines. Most of these submarines are the older Romeo and Ming-class submarines. These are state-of-the art vessels - for 1960. China has been acquiring modern Kilo-class submarines and building the Song-class submarine (and its variant, the Yuan). They are, in some aspects, similar to the French Agosta-class submarines, which entered service in the 1970s. Japan, on the other hand, will have 20 modern diesel-electric submarines by 2010 - the oldest of which entered service in 1985 (from a class that is being retired). China's new SSN, the Type 93, or Shang-class, is comparable to the Victor III (albeit not a copy). The Victors were also late 1970s designs. Against m modern nuclear-powered attack submarines like the Virginia-class and the 688I, this submarine is toast.

China's not looking so tough now, does it? Between the forward-deployed carrier battle group, the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force, and Taiwan's naval forces, the PLAN is largely bottled up.

The same can largely be said for the PLAAF. Even now, their purchase of Su-27 Flankers has been touted as a major advance. Even as late as 2015, the bulk of the PLAAF will consist of J-7 Fishbed (a copy of the MiG-21) and J-8 Finback (a twin-engine variant of the MiG-21). These are planes that do not have the ability to match up with the F-16s currently in Taiwanese service of the F-15Js and F-2s in Japanese service, much less the F-22s and F-35s that will be in American service by that year. The PLAN's naval aviation arm has it even worse - the backbone of that force will be a clone of the MiG-19. Aviation enthusiasts will be well-advised to think of Chinese fighters as baby seals - it will be easier to deal with the turkey shoot that will happen if China does decide to go to war.

The fact is, a lot of the concern about China is based more on hype than on real capabilities - particularly when one compares that with the likely coalition that would line up against any Chinese attempt to resolve the Taiwan issue by force. China is forever playing catch-up - it is not going to be a serious threat any time soon. - Harold C. Hutchison (haroldc.hutchison@gmail.com)

 


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