‘China already has its 3,000 km range DF-17 manoeuvrable hypersonic missile to take out India’s S-400s’

Alexandria, Virginia: A few days ago, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) celebrated its 100th anniversary. In this edition of “Indo-Pacific: Behind the Headlines” we speak with Richard D. Fisher, Jr., a world expert on China’s military modernization and expansion. He is senior fellow with the International Assessment and Strategy Center and the author of China’s Military Modernization: Building for Regional and Global Reach.

Mr Fisher publishes regularly in the academic and popular press, has worked on Asian security matters for decades in a range of critical positions, and testified before the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the House Armed Services Committee, and the US China Security Commission on the modernization of China’s military, among others.

Q: Is military expenditure a good way to gauge Chinese military development? If not, why not?

A: No. Never.

Annual Chinese military budget figures revealed at their annual People’s Consultative Congress (itself an oxymoron) are all fiction. The CCP and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) do not want us to understand the enormity of their budget, so they lie profusely. Both government and private academic guesses are simply unreliable due to longstanding policies of civil-military integration, meaning anything civil can be appropriated by the military. A village wanting to build a bridge knows it can split the cost with the local PLA unit, a process that happens thousands of times a year.

Or consider that all civilian airliners, paid for by budgets of the airlines, are organized into militia formations to support the invasion of Taiwan. A preponderance of the Ministry of Education budget supports PLA research and development. Many costs simply don’t appear, such as those of the rapidly expanding nuclear program. Substantial R&D costs are buried, and much is offset by military and industrial espionage, as in US rocket and airframe designs, and the theft of Western intellectual property. The latter for the US alone amounts to over $6 tr in the past decade, according to the FBI, whose director says it opens a new Chinese theft case every 10 hours. Finally, payroll costs for the Party’s 2m+ Army are much lower than those in the West.

Q: What can be learned about the PRC’s strategic goals by looking at its priority areas of military expansion and modernization?

A: Looking as closely as possible at what the PLA is building, along with correlations of voluminous “grey literature” that highlights directions of military research—although also heavily censored to hide truly useful details—offers a far more dependable means to discern Chinese military modernization trends. It’s possible to list PLA’s modernization priorities: nuclear weapons; hypersonic glide vehicles to extend the range of missiles being developed to carry nuclear weapons; energy and hypersonic weapons; artificial intelligence, especially to enable joint-armies of unmanned weapons; the navies, air forces and armies needed for global power projection; and the space capabilities needed to control the Moon and the Earth-Moon System required for military dominance on Earth—all in the ambit of “unrestricted warfare.”

Q: China has deployed S-400s on the border with India. What does that mean for Indian defences, and for the viability of India’s own plans for the S-400?

A: As India understands the capability of the S-400 it will be deterred from sending aircraft and slow missiles into its kill zone. India and China will be racing each other to find and exploit the vulnerabilities of the S-400, meaning the money they gave the Russians will soon be wasted for naught. It also means that India will have to invest in long-range hypersonic and manoeuvrable ballistic missile systems to take out S-400 emplacements. China already has its 3,000 km range DF-17 manoeuvrable hypersonic missile to take out India’s S-400s.

Q: What are China’s goals for space? If it achieves what it wants to achieve, what will be the situation in a decade?

A: For the CCP, hegemony on Earth cannot proceed without hegemony in space. Control of the Moon is necessary to ensure dominance of Cis-Lunar space, the next necessity for dominating Low Earth Orbit, key to military and economic dominance on Earth. The leap to Mars means there will be a race to control the Earth-Moon Lagrangian Points, areas of equal gravitational force that are best for stationing military-civil platforms, becoming the “toll booths” of the Earth-Moon-Mars economy.

Chinese academic space engineering literature reflects a sophisticated understanding of the geopolitics of space and the systems necessary for establishing early dominance. In late November 2020, the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) told China Daily that China will require 60 of its 50+ ton to the Moon Long March-9 space launchers between 2030 and 2035. About 40 of those could lift what is required for 10 Moon Bases, indicating how quickly China wants to dominate the Moon.

Q: What is the trajectory of Sino-Russian cooperation in military developments/space?

A: Russian strategy toward China has one overriding goal: they eat us last. The Russian ruling elite thinks that by increasing commerce with China and selling it a new generation of weapons that it can still fund the next generation weapons. The main result is that Russia sustains false pride while becoming more dependent economically and technologically, and increasingly subordinated to CCP goals and structures of hegemony.

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization is already dominated by China, and Russia goes along. As Chinese hegemony spreads in Asia, the Indian Ocean, Middle East, and Africa, Russia will profit to the degree it obeys, which eventually will include surrendering major portions of Siberia.

Space will become another early test for Russia’s willingness to accept subordination to Chinese priorities and plans. Can Russia really fund the super heavy space launch vehicle, nuclear powered space shuttles, Moon base architecture, Mars base architecture, military-capable space station, and range of low earth orbit space weapons needed to keep the CCP honest?

Any slide into reliance on Chinese systems means the CCP controls Russia access to the potentially vast riches of the space economy. So far India has decided to rely on Russian space technology for many key programs, but at some point China is going to pressure Russia to limit that access if India too does not agree to subordination.

Q: What are some of the ways the Quad could work together to bolster regional defences?

A: The future of the Quad as a life-saving informal security mechanism will be determined in Delhi. India does not have formal military alliances with Japan and Australia as the United States does. The constantly increasing Chinese threat helps overcome decisional obstacles of trilateral military cooperation.

India would benefit immensely from Quad-wide intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance (ISR) sharing network. Japan-US-Taiwan radar, electronic intelligence, and space assets could warn if PLA Taiwan theatre units were transiting to the West, while Indian assets could similarly warn Taiwan. There is amazing potential for the Quad to reinforce Indian security if Delhi wants it. When will Russia lift a finger to oppose a Chinese military strike against India?

Q: Is US military readiness an issue? For example, some of the US military plans for the Indo-Pacific such as the force redesign of the Marines, involve increased amphibious activity. However, the Marines are currently using Assault Amphibious Vehicles from the early 1970s, many of which are in rough shape, including the one that went down in July 2020, killing 8 Marines and a Sailor in a training accident. From a technical perspective, how do current and planned American amphibious capabilities compare to Chinese ones?

A: Since the mid-2000s, PLA Ground Force units and those of the PLA Marine Corps have had the world’s best amphibious armoured assault vehicles in the tracked NORINCO ZBD-04/05 family. The ZBD-05 is armed with a 105mm cannon that can fire gun-launched anti-tank missiles, making it the most powerful armoured amphibious assault vehicle in the world. It is only capable of a speed of about 15 knots in calm water, but informal sources indicate NORINCO is developing a much faster armoured amphibious assault vehicle, perhaps similar to the failed/abandoned 24 knot, tracked US Marine Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle (EFV).

The EFV’s speed requirement and resulting complexity was its downfall, so now the US Marines are buying the much simpler wheeled Amphibious Combat Vehicle (ACV) to replace the AAVP7A1 Assault Amphibious Vehicle (AAV). However, like the AAV, the ACV only has a speed of 8 knots in the water.