China’s Rising Military Not Ready to Win Wars, U.S. Report Says

Chinese armored vehicles attend the Sino-Russian 'Peace Mission 2009' joint military exercise on July 26, 2009.

Photographer: Zhang Lei/ChinaFotoPress via Getty Images

China’s military isn’t ready to win wars despite spending heavily to modernize, according to a report commissioned by a U.S. congressional committee.

The People’s Liberation Army suffers from “potentially serious weaknesses” that could limit its ability to conduct the operations required to fight and win future conflicts, the report by Rand Corp. a Santa Monica, California-based research group said.

“Although the PLA’s capabilities have increased dramatically, its remaining weaknesses increase the risk of failure to successfully perform the missions the Chinese Communist Party leaders may task it to perform,” the report said. It cited Taiwan contingencies, maritime claim missions, protecting sea lines of communications and some non-war military operations.

China has been modernizing its army as its economic expansion accelerated in the early to mid-1990s, with double digit spending increases on the armed forces in most years. President Xi Jinping, also chairman of the Central Military Commission, has ordered the PLA to prepare itself to win local wars supported by modern technology and by rooting out corruption.

China has the second-biggest military budget in the world after the U.S., which spent about four times more on defense than China last year. Its budget for this year is expected to be published next month at the meeting of the National People’s Congress. The Rand paper was commissioned to support the deliberations of the U.S.-China Economics and Security Review Commission, which reports to the U.S. Congress.

Lacking Quality

The PLA’s shortcomings fall into two broad categories, the report said. It’s hampered by an outdated command structure, the poor quality of its personnel, a lack of professionalism, and corruption. Its other weakness is combat capability, which covers logistical weaknesses, insufficient strategic airlift capabilities, limited numbers of special-mission aircraft and deficiencies in fleet air defense and antisubmarine warfare.

Still, China is using its growing military muscle to aggressively assert its territorial claims in neighboring seas and is embroiled in disputes with Vietnam and the Philippines in the South China Sea that have led to confrontations. In November 2013, China declared an Air Defense Identification Zone over a stretch of sea that overlaps with Japanese and South Korean zones.

‘Large Gap’

The Rand report said the PLA’s leaders were aware of its shortcomings, with military analysts referring to the “two incompatibles” reflecting their assessment that the PLA was still unable to cope with the demands of winning a war under “informationized” conditions and successfully carrying out the PLA’s other missions.

These shortcomings contribute to a “large gap” between China and the militaries of developed countries, especially the U.S., the report said.

The paper highlighted the challenges faced by the PLA Navy, whose new surface vessels and submarines “boast impressive capabilities comparable with those of a modern world-class navy.” The navy remains challenged when it comes to integrating such complex modern weapons and equipment platforms, and its personnel aren’t fully equipped to operate and maintain them, it said.

The air force faces similar problems: coping with multiple generations of aircraft, a shortage of key special-mission aircraft and “unrealistic” training.

A further challenge comes from China’s defense industry, which, while having made “tremendous progress,” suffers from corruption, lack of competition, entrenched monopolies, delays and cost overruns, quality control problems, bureaucratic fragmentation, an outdated acquisition system, and restricted access to external sources of technology and expertise.

The report concludes that U.S. military planners need to improve their understanding of the PLA’s shortcomings so that they can ensure the U.S. and its allies are able to prevent China from using force to achieve its policy objectives.

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