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Military strength eludes China, which looks overseas for arms
The Office of Naval Intelligence said the Jin gives China's navy its first credible second-strike nuclear capability; its missiles have a range of 4,000 miles. But in a report last year, the ONI also noted that the Jin is noisier than nuclear submarines built by the Soviets 30 years ago, leading experts to conclude that it would be detected as soon as it left port.
"There's a tendency to talk about China as a great new military threat that's coming," said Hans M. Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists. But, when it comes to Chinese submarines carrying ballistic missiles, he said, "they could be sitting ducks."
Another problem is that China's submariners don't train very much.
China's entire fleet of 63 subs conducted only a dozen patrols in 2009, according to U.S. Navy data Kristensen obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, about a tenth of the U.S. Navy's pace. In addition, Kristensen said there is no record of a Chinese ballistic-missile sub going out on patrol. "You learn how to use your systems on patrol," he said. "If you don't patrol, how can you fight?"
China's missile technology has always been the pointy edge of its spear, ever since Qian Xuesen, the gifted rocket scientist who was kicked out of the United States during the McCarthy period in the 1950s, returned to China.
U.S. government scientists have been impressed by China's capabilities. On Jan. 11, 2007, a Chinese missile traveling at more than four miles a second hit a satellite that was basically a box with three-foot sides, one U.S. government weapons expert said. Over the past several years, China has put into orbit 11 of what are believed to be its first military-only satellites, called Yaogan, which could provide China with the ability to track targets for its rockets.
China is also trying to fashion an anti-ship ballistic missile by taking a short-range rocket, the DF-21, and turning it into what could become an aircraft-carrier killing weapon.
Even though it has yet to be deployed, the system has already sparked changes in the United States. In September, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said China's "investments in anti-ship weaponry and ballistic missiles could threaten America's primary way to project power and help allies in the Pacific - particularly our forward bases and carrier strike groups." The U.S. Navy in 2008 cut the DDG-1000 destroyer program from eight ships to three because the vessels lack a missile-defense capability.
But the challenge for China is that an anti-ship ballistic missile is extremely hard to make. The Russians worked on one for decades and failed. The United States never tried, preferring to rely on cruise missiles and attack submarines to do the job of threatening an opposing navy.
U.S. satellites would detect an ASBM as soon as it was launched, providing a carrier enough warning to move several miles before the missile could reach its target. To hit a moving carrier, a U.S. government weapons specialist said, China's targeting systems would have to be "better than world-class."
Wu Riqiang, who worked for six years at the China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation as a missile designer, said that while he could not confirm that such a missile existed, he believed weapons such as these were essentially "political chips," the mere mention of which had already achieved the goal of making U.S. warships think twice about operating near China's shores.
"It's an open question how these missiles will do in a conflict situation," said Wu, who is now studying in the United States. "But the threat - that's what's most important about them."
The deployment of a naval task force to the Gulf of Aden last year as part of the international operation against pirates was seen as a huge step forward for China. The implication was that China's military doctrine had shifted from defending China's borders to protecting China's interests, which span the globe. But the expeditionary force has also provided a window into weaknesses of the People's Liberation Army, according to a new report by Christopher Yung, a former Pentagon official now at the National Defense University.
China's lack of foreign military bases - it has insisted that it won't station troops abroad - limits its capacity to maintain its ships on long-term missions. A shortage of helicopters - the workhorses of a naval expeditionary force - makes it hard for the ships to operate with one another. China's tiny fleet of replenishment ships - it has only three - doesn't give it enough capacity to do more than one such operation at a time.
China's navy, according to Yung, also has difficulty maintaining a fresh water supply for its sailors. And poor refrigeration on its ships makes it hard to preserve fruit and vegetables, something that makes for griping on board.
"The sailors during the first deployment had a real morale problem," Yung said, adding that following their mission, they were taken on a beach vacation "to get morale back up."
Empowering local commanders, considered key to a successful fighting force, is something that Beijing clearly has yet to embrace. British Royal Navy Commodore Tim Lowe, who commanded the Gulf of Aden operation for the U.S. 5th Fleet up until May, noted that while other navies would send operations officers to multinational meetings to discuss how to fight pirates, China would dispatch a political officer who often lacked expertise. The concept of sharing intelligence among partner countries was also tough for the Chinese to fathom. To the Chinese, he said, "that was an unusual point."
Tension with the Kremlin
China's military relations with Russia reveal further weaknesses. Between 1992 and 2006, the total value of Russia's arms exports to China was $26 billion - almost half of all the weapons Russia sold abroad.
But tensions arose in 2004 over two issues, Russian experts said. Russia was outraged when it discovered that China, which had licensed to produce the Su-27 fighter jet from Russian kits, had actually copied the plane. China was furious that after it signed a contract for a batch of IL-76 military transport planes it discovered that Russia had no way to make them. After receiving 105 out of a contracted 200 Su-27s, China canceled the deal and weapons negotiations were not held for several years.
Purchases of some items continued - S-300 air defense systems and billions of dollars worth of jet engines. An engine China made for its Su-27 knock-off would routinely conk out after 30 hours whereas the Russian engines would need refurbishing after 400, Russian and Chinese experts said.
"Engine systems are the heart disease of our whole military industry," a Chinese defense publication quoted Wang Tianmin, a military engine designer, as saying in its March issue. "From aircraft production to shipbuilding and the armored vehicles industry, there are no exceptions."
When weapons talks resumed with Russia in 2008, China found the Russians were driving a harder bargain. For one, it wasn't offering to let China produce Russian fighters in China. And in November, the Russians said they would only provide the Su-35 for China's aircraft carrier program if China bought 48 - enough to ensure Russian firms a handsome profit before China's engineers attempted to copy the technology. Russia also announced that the Russian military would buy the S-400 air defense system first and that China could get in line.
"We, too, have learned a few things," said Vladimir Portyakov, a former Russian diplomat twice posted to Beijing.