A snippet from the current issue of Proceedings published by the U.S. Naval Institute:
China’s military modernization program began two decades ago, after Chinese officials witnessed the technical proficiency displayed by U.S. and allied forces in the 1991 Desert Storm campaign. In addition, the March 1996 Taiwan Strait crisis exposed how little capacity China possessed at that time to counter the two aircraft carrier strike groups the United States sent to the region during the crisis. Since then, China’s modernization program has made careful use of its continental position, the revolution in precision missile and sensor technology, and the fact that China’s land-based missile forces are not constrained (as are the United States’) by the 1987 Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. China has thus been able to develop an effective cost-imposing strategy on the United States. This has forced U.S. military planners into expensive and questionably effective concepts and programs in response to relatively modest investments by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
One of China’s most significant and enduring competitive advantages is its continental position. It can project air power over the Western Pacific from dozens of hardened bases on and near its coast. These bases are protected by what the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) terms “one of the largest forces of advanced [surface-to-air missile] systems in the world.”
China has made a substantial investment in variants of the Su-27/30 Flanker strike fighter, roughly equivalent to the U.S. Air Force F-15E Strike Eagle. China’s Flanker variants have a combat radius of nearly 1,000 miles, exceeding the close to 700-mile unrefueled combat radius of the U.S. Navy’s F-35C and F/A-18 E/F strike-fighters. China has produced the J-11B, an indigenous version of the Flanker, and the PLA’s inventory of Flanker variants could number over 400 aircraft by the next decade. These and other strike aircraft (in 2014 the DoD estimated China’s total air defense and strike aircraft inventory at 2,100) will be armed with a variety of land-attack and antiship cruise missiles, some with supersonic speed and ranges up to 250 miles. By the end of this decade China is expected to begin forming squadrons of the J-20 strike-fighter, a stealthy aircraft with a possible combat radius of up to 1,200 miles.
According to the DoD, China has up to 1,800 theater-range land-based ballistic and cruise missiles, most of which are mounted on road-mobile transporter-erector-launchers and are thus capable of hiding and relocating in China’s complex terrain. The revolution in missile and sensor technology has greatly increased the accuracy of ballistic and cruise missiles and lowered the relative cost of these munitions. Finally, China is assembling a multidimensional sensor, command, and communications network that in the next decade should allow it to effectively employ the platforms and munitions in its inventory. It is unsurprising that China is exploiting its continental position and the missile and sensor revolution to craft a cost-imposing strategy on the United States in the Western Pacific.
In contrast to China’s continental position and its wide-ranging missile forces, the United States faces the burden of operating largely as an expeditionary power, which increases its costs and thus makes it harder to compete with the expansion of China’s forces. Further, the INF treaty prohibits the United States from matching China’s comparatively economical land-based theater missile strategy.