China military watch

Welcome to ‘China military watch’, a new monthly feature in The Strategist from ASPI’s defence analysts examining developments in Chinese military affairs.

‘Mighty Dragon’ enters mass production

China has announced the beginning of mass production of the J-20B ‘Mighty Dragon’ fifth-generation fighter. The J-20B is an upgrade of the J-20A and adds vectored thrust-engine technology for increased manoeuvrability during air combat within visual range, which is intriguing because it implies that the PLA Air Force still sees ‘dogfighting’ as important.

Although many Western air forces are emphasising stealth technology and beyond-visual-range air-to-air missile engagements over short-range air combat, there’s still a need to be able to dogfight. The addition of vectored thrust will make the J-20B more deadly, especially if a force of J-20Bs can overwhelm an opponent with sheer numbers and force them into a close-in engagement.

A challenge for the J-20B is that it still uses WS-10C engines, since the development of China’s much more powerful indigenous WS-15 engine is still behind schedule. The addition of the WS-15 would mark the final maturation of the J-20 platform. The WS-15 will enable China to end its dependence on Russian aircraft engine technology and potentially to develop new types of combat aircraft.

Taiwan, missile defence and amphibious warfare

Wu Qian (吴谦), a spokesperson from China’s Ministry of National Defence, issued a statement opposing a US$620 million upgrade to Taiwan’s Patriot advanced capability (PAC-3) missile air defence system. The statement, republished in the People’s Liberation Army Daily, said, ‘China strongly demands that America immediately stop supplying weapons to Taiwan.’ Wu’s remarks then took a predictable ethno-nationalist turn, claiming that ‘any plot to split China will always receive firm opposition from all sons and daughters of the Chinese nation, including overseas Chinese’. That’s a bold threat for a few PAC-3 missiles.

Despite the bluster, recent coverage in state media suggests that the PLA has taken a sober view of potential conflict in the Taiwan Strait. On 1 May, CCTV’s channel devoted to affairs in the PLA broadcast an episode on amphibious warfare for its television series National Defence Science and Industry (国防科工). The episode took a close look at the amphibious operations conducted by the US Marine Corps in the Battle of Iwo Jima (February–March 1945) during the Pacific War.

The presenter claimed that US amphibious forces believed ‘there wouldn’t be much resistance along the volcanic ash deposits of Iwo Jima’s sandy beach’, yet Japan fought admirably, ‘deliver[ing] a full-frontal assault with around 7,000 American soldiers perishing and 20,000 soldiers suffering injuries’. The episode’s message was clear: amphibious assaults are a tricky business and the PLA ought to expect significant casualties if it ever decides to try annexing Taiwan that way.

The link between logistics and literacy

The PLA is working hard to become an ‘informationised’ force that uses autonomous systems to improve decision-making and battlefield effectiveness. Nowhere is the task of ‘informationisation’ (信息化) more important than in the PLA’s ‘support’ (保障) activities on land, on water and in the air. On 2 July, the People’s Liberation Army Daily took a close look at the sort of equipment and technology the PLA will need to support high-intensity combat operations in an information-dense environment.

The article called for ‘research and development into intelligentised, autonomous supply platform technology, [while] strengthen[ing] the development of intelligent, efficient and easy-to-protect unmanned land supply bases, unmanned supply ships, unmanned underwater vessels and unmanned aerial tankers’. The vision put forward was of a PLA that can deploy autonomous systems as crucial logistical enablers.

However, the PLA’s vision might prove hard to realise with current staffing. Subsequent articles in state media made clear that the PLA is facing systemic challenges relating to the quality of its personnel.

One article published on 15 July raised a pressing illiteracy crisis across the PLA. The problem, known in Chinese as ‘lifting a pen and forgetting the character’ (提笔忘字), arises because people have forgotten how to write certain words with a pen and paper after years of writing only on a smartphone or computer.

A soldier from the 78th Group Army stressed in the article that ‘Chinese characters are not only a tool for expressing the written word, but they are also an important medium for indicating the state of military affairs and transmitting military information.’ The author warned that this form of illiteracy might affect the PLA’s combat power, but nevertheless thought the problem could be overcome, claiming that ‘the phenomenon of forgetting how to write during training also happens from time to time’, especially ‘in the wake of our military’s rapid development of informationisation’.

Just how confident the PLA is in its ability to deal with these challenges while transforming into a high-tech force remains to be seen.

Political commissars and decision-making in the PLA Navy

Cold War dramatisations of nuclear tensions between the Soviet Union and the US often had someone in the role of the zampolit, or ‘political commissar’. These officers were generally portrayed as rigid ideologues who monitored their colleagues for possible treachery. The PLA also has political commissars, and a fascinating report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies examines their role at sea and explains the unique ‘dual-command authority’ in which the commissar and military commander make administrative and operational decisions together.

The report suggests that political commissars have more influence over Chinese naval operations than military commanders. The commissar acts as secretary of the ‘party standing committee’ aboard the ship, and the military commander serves as deputy secretary. The report notes that the collective approach to decision-making by a ship’s party standing committee—spread across five or six officers including a political commissar and two deputy political commissars—may result in delayed response times in critical situations. Other possible issues with the dual-command system include a lack of flexibility to adapt to senior leaders’ contrasting viewpoints, increased miscommunication, and poor crew initiative.