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10 Takeaways from the Pentagon's 2023 China Report
500+ Nukes, 370+ Ships, 3000+ missiles. Oh my.
Today, the Department of Defense released its annual report to Congress on Chinese military power. This report has been around for more than two decades and is always an interesting read, but I don’t think I’m alone when I say this year’s report was more detailed and more responsive to evolving threats than in previous years. I really enjoyed reading it and if you have the time, you should read it in full, especially if you’re trying to just get up to China 101 speed. (I also have a whole reading list here to help). The report is a lean 212 pages this year, and covers everything from national strategy to critical minerals. I thought I’d take a minute discuss what I thought were the 10 biggest takeaways, so you can tell your bosses tomorrow what they should be worried about. Without further ado, here’s the top 10 takeaways from the 2023 China Military Power Report:
500 Nukes and Counting
EXSUM: Compared to the US and Russia, 500 doesn’t seem like a lot. But there are some things to consider:
+ the PLA has nearly doubled its total active stockpile in just a couple years,
+ their fast breeder reactors are spitting out plutonium for more warheads at remarkable rates,
+ DoD expects the PLA to hit 1000 active warheads by 2030,
+ the PLA goal seems to be to reach nuclear parity with the US by 2035,
+ the PLA wants to reduce the yield of its warheads in order to manage escalation
+We still don’t know a whole lot about modern PLA nuclear escalation and deterrent thought relative to the Russians and others.
370+ Ships and Counting
The PLA has had the largest navy in the world by ship count for some years. It’s still growing and becoming even more well-armed and technologically advanced. Consider the following:
+This isn’t just the largest navy in the world, it’s the largest force at sea in the Western Pacific by quite a large measure. We can expect around 435 ships by 2030, at a time where the US Navy will probably still be at or below 300 by end of decade.
+By continuing to build more large surface combatant vessels and subs, the PLAN is rapidly closing the at-sea firepower gap, which it previously offset with large numbers of land-based missiles. They are going for overmatch.
+PLA subs are getting more land-attack capabilities, which will make them even more potent for conventional first strikes on US and Allied facilities on Guam and Hawaii
+The PRC’s shipbuilding industry is essentially self-sufficient at this point, and is only growing. They can replace what they lose in a fight much, much faster than we can.
3000 Conventional Missiles and Counting
This is a mix of ground-launched cruise missiles, ballistic, air-launched, and hypersonic missiles capable of punching out anywhere from a few hundred kilometers to more than 5000 km from the PRC mainland. Right now, they can hold everything west of Hawaii at risk with the right targeting capabilities. As the PRC hunts for overseas basing, you can expect those ranges to begin to threaten US and Allied operations in ways that become harder to predict. Keep your eyes on the Solomon Islands over the next few years. And don’t forget what I said about overmatch, these 3000 missiles aren’t including the firepower that all those cruisers and frigates are rolling with on the high seas.
Yep, space lasers. According to the DoD, the PRC wants to put lasers in-orbit capable of not simply blinding US optical satellites, but lasers with enough wattage to do physical damage to all satellites. And they want this by end of decade. As I’ve written about before, the PLA believes if it can blind US forces (destroy our satellites and seize the orbital high ground) then they stand a much better chance at defeating us in battle. Lasers aren’t the only method here, as the report details continued development of on-orbit and ground-based anti-satellite weapons, including new jammers for synthetic aperture radar satellites.
Cognitive Domain Warfare
Another variation of this PLA doctrinal term is “mind dominance.” As if the CCP didn’t make themselves out to sound like supervillains enough already. The important takeaway here is a continued PLA focus on using information operations to not only shape public opinion of the CCP on and off the battlefield, but to do harm to other societies through the use of cyber, AI, and traditional IO, thereby disrupting their decision-making and ability to respond in crisis. If that sounds familiar, it’s because it’s the premise of the start of WWIII in my novel, EX SUPRA.
Strategic Support Force Outposts around the Globe
The Strategic Support Force of the PLA does a lot, and this little tidbit got only a couple mentions but I think it’s worth noting. The PLA has space operations support bases around the globe from Kenya to Argentina. You don’t have to wait until the 2030s for a war with China to be global. Beyond the China expert space, not a lot of folks think about PLA presence beyond China, but it’s growing every day.
Limited vs Minimum Deterrence
So, apparently the PLA doesn’t actually use the phrase “minimum deterrence” to describe its nuclear arsenal. In its words, it uses the term “limited” which means something much different and gives the PLA a lot of flexibility (and deniability) in terms of how large its arsenal can be to achieve its strategic objectives without signaling a shift in policy. To keep it simple, minimum means just that: the absolute minimum required for nuclear deterrence. Maximum deterrence essentially means nuclear overmatch. Limited means literally anything in between. The PLA really does not want to be nailed down on how it intends to manage its nukes. That make it a lot harder to understand intentions and manage arms races.
PLA Joint Training Improving
The PLA has built a lot of shiny, capable toys. But an army is only as good as its soldiers. Over the last few years, the PLA Ground Forces has made great strides in overhauling its training processes for combined arms operations up to the brigade level, and for joint operations between the services. They still have some way to go, and they admit this, before they can be on par with US joint and combined arms operational talent. For operations specific to taking Taiwan and creating a modern, capable soldier, the PLA has been actively improving its nighttime training, training under intensive weather conditions (the Taiwan Strait can be hellish), and simultaneous multi-domain operations. The PLA is racing to be ready for war, you shouldn’t take that lightly. And you shouldn’t get stuck thinking the PLA can’t evolve and improve simply because it doesn’t mirror US force structure.
Chinese SOF Modernization Lagging
Someone at DOD really wanted to take PLA special operations forces to task judging by this report, and I get why. Just look at the public photos shared by CCP propagandists of their SOF training, it often looks very silly and theatrical to the trained eye. BUT, the SOF are improving in their training along with the rest of the force. PLA SOF ability to infiltrate and strike at political and infrastructure targets during a Taiwan conflict could make or break the PLA’s ability to conduct a speedy and effective invasion. In this report, DOD highlights a couple big issues for PLA SOF:
+Their command structure doesn’t really work for joint coordination.
+They are primarily focused on internal operations, but are capable of conducting missions abroad.
+ The Peoples’ Armed Police, which houses some of the PRC’s best SOF but who run domestic operations, do not answer to PLA theater commanders, which makes training and coordination incredibly difficult.
The PLA Rocket Force wants Non-Nuclear ICBMs capable of hitting the US
We wanted this a while back, we called it conventional prompt strike. It got shot down because conventionally-armed ICBMs are not easy (but not impossible) to distinguish between an incoming nuclear strike. As the report notes, this would become incredibly destabilizing to the US-China nuclear dynamic. Part of escalation management (keeping wars non-nuclear) depends upon being able to identify which forces have which warheads on which systems and where they can launch from. Again, it’s not impossible to manage this threat, but man it’s gotta make a lot of folks nervous in the Pentagon if the PLARF goes through with this. The other takeaway here is an affirmation that the PRC really wants to be able to strike the Continental United States in order to both deter a US response during a Taiwan crisis, and to hold US infrastructure and units at risk stateside just as we hold their units on the mainland at risk. Why nuke a city when you can drop a few thousand pounds of high explosives on the Raytheon production facility in the American Southwest in a matter of minutes? As I wrote earlier this year, the war is coming to you, whether you like it or not.
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