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China Modernizes Its Air, Sea and Land Military Capabilities

By Sgt. 1st Class Doug Sample
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Aug. 15, 2003 – When the People's Republic of China announced a 17.5 percent or $3 billion increase in spending for defense modernization in March of 2002, it brought the publicly reported total to $20 billion according to a Pentagon report.

However, Pentagon officials estimate that total spending for the county's military modernization ranges from $45 billion to $65 billion. And they say that China's annual military spending could increase "four-fold" by 2020.

The Pentagon's 2003 Annual Report on the Military Power of the People's Republic of China states much of that spending will go toward better equipment, from aircraft and ships to more missiles and better weapon technology. The report also provides a breakdown of where the military components of the People's Liberation Army are heading in modernization efforts.

The PLA air force has about 3,200 combat-capable aircraft, of which only 150 are considered modern, fourth-generation fighters. Most of China's air force and navy aircraft are old Soviet design, but by the end of the decade the country is expected to have a more robust fleet of fighters augmented with modern missiles and electronic countermeasures.

Both the country's air force and navy have acquired more Su-30MKK fighters from Russia, the latest version of the multi-use fighter. The naval version of that fighter is capable of launching anti-ship cruise missiles. Meanwhile, the older Su-27s and Su-30s have been upgraded with advanced air-launched munitions.

In addition, Beijing is pursuing the FB-7 fighter-bomber, an all-weather, supersonic, medium-range fighter-bomber that will include better radar, night attack avionics and weapons. China is also upgrading its F-7 and F-8 aircraft as well as developing an advanced F-10 fighter expected to become operational in the next few years.

According to the report, China has actively pursued an advanced AWACS since the early 1990s.

Other modernization efforts include development of unmanned aerial vehicles. The country has a number of short-range and medium-range UAVs that can be used for reconnaissance, surveillance and electronic warfare. China is pursuing technology for an unmanned combat aerial vehicle as well.

At sea, the Chinese navy has streamlined and modernized its forces by eliminating large numbers of older ships and replacing them with fewer, more modern units and outfitting them with more capable air defense weapons and more lethal anti-ship cruise missiles.

The navy has about 290,000 personnel, with roughly 60 destroyers and frigates, along with some 40 amphibious landing ships. China also has a large merchant fleet of fishing boats, trawlers and barges that could augment its navy by supporting amphibious assault operations. China has purchased two Russian-made SOVREMENNYY-class guided missile destroyers and has signed a contract with Moscow for two more, according the report.

Beijing purchased four Russian KILO SS subs, considered the quietest in the world.

There are only about 50 diesel and six nuclear-class submarines in the PLA navy. It recently added the diesel-electric SONG submarine, the first Chinese sub designed to carry an anti-ship cruise missile capable of being launched while the ship is submerged, to its fleet.

Although the navy's air assets total more than 500 fixed-wing aircraft and 60 helicopters, one thing the China has yet planned to buy or build is an aircraft carrier. The report says the Chinese appear to have set aside indefinitely plans to acquire such a ship, but adds they are still considering the possibility.

On the ground, PLA's forces and training have been modernized with important improvements in training and equipment upgrades over the past year, the report reveals. Training exercises have focused on maritime and amphibious assaults while integrating conventional ground force units with marines, airborne, special operation forces and border-defense troops. Training has also targeted improving the PLA's ability to deploy and sustain forces in a multi-service environment.

China retains the largest army in the world, despite completing a 500,000-man force reduction in 2000. The report says another "large-scale" force reduction may be expected to allow more funding for high-priority units and equipment purchases. Since the 1990s the army has shrunk from about 100 divisions to 40 in order to create a "more mobile," combat-ready force," the report states.

The PLA has three airborne divisions and two marine brigades. Its ground forces are divided among about 20 group armies with several divisions and brigades designated as "rapid reaction" units.

To provide artillery firepower for its ground forces, the PLA has upgraded the main gun on its mainstay Type 59 tanks, equipping 1,000 of them with the 105 mm gun. In addition, several new or updated armored tanks are being bought for PLA ground forces, to include a light tank, an amphibious tank and an amphibious armored personnel carrier. The PLA will continue to manufacture the Type 96 tank, with 1,500 to be ready by 2005.

Other artillery developments and acquisitions will center on an advanced multiple-rocket launcher and a self-propelled amphibious howitzer cannon, the report states.

Ground forces will also get air support from 40 Russian made Mi-171V5s medium- attack helicopters that China purchased last year. The country hopes to add to its arsenal another Russian made attack helicopter, the Mi17-1V6, later this year.

Other areas of military modernization and spending include missile defense, information operations, laser and radiofrequency, and kinetic-energy weapons, as well as electronic and space warfare.

The report summarizes that Beijing's expanded arsenal of increasingly accurate and lethal ballistic missiles and long-range strike aircraft are ready for use should the PLA be called to conduct war before its modernization aspirations are fully in place.

However, the report also stresses that the success of China's force modernization, which is heavily reliant upon assistance from Russia and other former Soviet Union states, will depend on the country's ability to overcome a number of technical, logistical and training obstacles.

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