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Are We Underestimating China's Military?


This past March, Brian Weeden, a formerU.S. Air Force space analyst published a report demonstratingthat China is the first country in the world with a weapon capable ofdestroying satellites in geostationary orbit. The report detailed how Chinatested in May 2013 amobile, direct ascent anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon system capable of targetingsatellites in medium earth orbit, highly elliptical orbit, or geostationaryorbit. The new capability complements China’s arsenal of kinetic andnon-kinetic ASATs, and signals every U.S. satellite is now vulnerable todestruction in time of war.


Mr. Weeden’s report follows on the heels ofrevelationsin January that China had tested the WU-14 hypersonic glide vehicle, anexperimental weapon capable of evading missile defenses. With the Army testing its own AdvancedHypersonic Weapon in November 2011, many observers had regarded hypersonics asan area of cutting-edge development where the United States held a significanttechnological lead. China’s January test shattered that assumption and conveyedthe Chinese were at most a few years behind.


In Congress, Frank Kendall, the Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology,and Logistics recently testified that “theU.S. military’s technological superiority is being ‘challenged in ways that Ihave not seen for decades, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region’,”by China. He further added: "Technological superiority is not assured.This is not a future problem. This is a here-now problem." China’smilitary developments are rapidly outpacing their coverage in the press andacademia, and there is a lagging but growing realization that China’s militarycapabilities in numerous areas of military competition are rapidly approaching,if not exceeding, those of the United States.

国防部采购、技术与物流部副部长Frank Kendall在国会上作证说“美国军事技术的领先在多方面遭到了挑战,这是几十年来我所没有见过的,尤其是在亚太地区,主要是受到中国的挑战”。他又说:“目前美国的技术优势已经没有保障,这不是未来的问题,而是当下美国所面临的问题。”中国的军事技术发展其实已经超越了媒体和学术界的报道,人们越来越认识到中国在很多领域的军事实力即使没有超越美国也正在追赶美国了。

Avoiding Analytical Mistakes


Faced with the impressive scope and scaleof China’s military modernization, analysts must avoid some of the mistakesassessors of the Asia-Pacific military balance have made over the past decade.While not comprehensive, the following are a few for consideration.


The first common error is to count thetotality of U.S., or U.S. and Allied forces and measure them against China's,believing if the United States has more forces, then it maintains superiority.Unfortunately, the United States does not fight on a chessboard. What reallymatters is the localized correlation of forces, and that may be a strongerfactor toward deterrence in the region.


The second error relates to how China’sdoctrinal and capability innovations, such as ballistic missiles, oftentimeslook very different from U.S. power-projection capabilities. But just becausetheir missiles do not look like aircraft carriers, does not mean they cannot beas capable as or more capable than U.S. systems and their ability to projectpower for desired scenarios.


Third, while the U.S. has very capableallies and ones that share its values and interests in many ways, they onlymatter if they grant the United States access, and if they agree to fight.These are conditions the United States cannot take for granted.


Fourth, the United States should evaluatesome of the Cold War biases and analytical prisms that are now mistakenly usedto analyze the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). After learning in the 1990s thatintelligence estimates of the Soviet Union sometimes exaggerated Sovietcapabilities and capacity, the pendulum swung the other way, with Chinaanalysts consistently underestimating Chinese capabilities. During the 1990s,observers lambasted Chinese forces and predicted they would largely remainworse than they appeared. It was passé for some observers to talk of the“million man swim” well into the early 2000s, never expecting the Chinese tobuild a formidable navy. In the mid-2000s, criticism focused on deficiencies intechnical systems, such as Anti-Air Warfare capabilities. Currently, as Chinesehardware has improved, criticism has shifted to training and joint operations.For instance, discussions of the Chinese aircraft-carrier program are dominatedby the view that it will take the PLAN a long period of time to mastercapabilities, or at least as long as U.S. forces, seldom expecting they mightgain adequate proficiency at a faster rate.


Time for Change


Former U.S. Pacific Command Commander,Admiral Robert Willard, statedin 2009: “in the past decade or so, China has exceeded most of ourintelligence estimates of their military capability and capacity every year.” Thatis to say, every year, U.S. intelligence estimates of what and how much Chinacan do have been wrong.


In order to avoid underestimating China’smilitary capability and capacity, analysts can start by recognizing theaforementioned errors, and whenever uncertain whether or not Chinese forceswill grow, improve, or achieve a goal, give them the benefit of the doubt.


Timothy A. Walton is a consultant of theAlios Consulting Group, a defense and business strategy firm located inWashington, DC. He specializes in Asia-Pacific security dynamics.

Timothy A是一家位于华盛顿的防卫与商业策略公司的顾问。主要关注亚太安全。

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