Is China Too Scared to Risk Its Navy in Combat?

By the time the First World War erupted in 1914, Imperial Germany had spent a fortune building a potent fleet of battleships to challenge the Royal Navy.

And what did these battleships do for most of the war? Nothing, because Kaiser Wilhelm II feared the humiliation of losing his battlefleet.

Will today’s China also hesitate to risk its vaunted new aircraft carriers?

In recent years, Beijing has invested much in its navy. Not just money, but also prestige as Chinese propaganda has crafted an image of a high-tech armada that can challenge the U.S., Japan and other nations for naval primacy in the Western Pacific.

Like the Kaiser’s battleships, the most visible symbol of this transformation is the PLAN’s growing fleet of aircraft carriers, which now comprises an old ex-Soviet carrier, plus the newly commissioned Shandong – China’s first domestically-built carrier. Beijing reportedly has plans to build additional carriers, backed by new cruisers, destroyers and submarines, that has some Western experts warning that China’s naval power will overtake America’s by 2035.

“Beijing’s naval prowess has buoyed its confidence, a mindset that had been absent in previous discourse,” according to a new study of the China-Japan naval rivalry by the U.S-based Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

“China is increasingly convinced that it possesses the means and skills at sea to bend Japan to its will. Such confidence will increase the likelihood that Beijing would act on its threat of violence. The convergence of China’s hardening national will and growing naval power thus bodes ill for the future stability of the Indo-Pacific.”

Yet Chinese leaders are also haunted by the painful defeats of China’s recent naval history. During the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895, China’s antiquated navy was smashed by a Japanese fleet that had built to resemble Western navies. The war “arguably deprived China of a capable navy for over a century,” CSBA noted. “The naval defeat also exposed the Qing government’s incompetence and delivered a major psychological blow against the regime. It set in motion massive social turmoil, such as the Boxer Rebellion, that would grip China and eventually bring down Manchu rule. A naval loss of similar magnitude today could thus do unspeakable harm to the personal reputations of Chinese leaders and the Party’s credibility.”

As Winston Churchill said, “Dictators ride to and fro upon tigers from which they dare not dismount.” Military defeat in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905, and the Falklands War of 1982, resulted in revolution and the eventual overthrow of the government.

“Chinese strategists, who study the past closely, know this history well and see this correlation,” Toshi Yoshihara, who co-authored the CSBA study, told Uncommon Defense. “I suspect Chinese leaders, obsessed as they are about staying in power, would be alert to this correlation.”

CSBA argues that the U.S. and Japan can exploit this sensitivity. “The United States and Japan must possess the capacity and capability to inflict crippling losses on China’s entire naval fleet in a war at sea. A credible posture that can deliver on the promise of fleet destruction— to reprise the fate that befell the Beiyang Fleet in 1894—could go far to influence Chinese calculations and to deter Beijing.”

On the other hand, there is a danger in mirror-imaging: just because the U.S. fears humiliation if a high-value target like an aircraft carrier is sunk, doesn’t mean China is equally sensitive.

“The task before us is to better understand how the Chinese Communist Party and the PLA [People’s Liberation Army] understand and evaluate risk at sea,” Yoshihara said. “Is the Party and the PLA more or less risk averse when it comes to the fleet? Under what circumstances would the Party leadership risk the fleet or not?”

— Michael Peck

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Image credit: Wikipedia

Think Drone Swarms Are Scary? The Newest Weapon May Be “Drone Meshes”

One potentially fearsome new weapon is the drone swarm, a flock of hundreds of small unmanned aerial vehicles working together like a hive mind to overwhelm a target.

But U.S. thinktank RAND has another idea: a “targeting mesh” of small, unarmed drones that would saturate a target area with sensors that would identify high-value targets for stand-off anti-ship missiles.

The low-cost attritable aircraft technology (L-CAAT) concept envisions small 600-pound drones equipped with short-range electro-optical cameras, synthetic aperture radars and electronic intelligence collectors. These small L-CAAT drones, naturally dubbed “kittens,” would tote a tiny 60-pound payload.

“They would only carry a sensor and a radio,” RAND researcher David Ochmanek told Uncommon Defense.

Each drone in the targeting mesh would scan a narrow slice of territory. The RAND study cites an example where 500 UAVs fly at 30,000 feet over a coverage area in the Taiwan Strait that measures 100 by 100 kilometers (62 by 62 miles).

Their drones would be equipped with cheap, off-the-shelf cameras and synthetic aperture radars, which means the probability of an individual kitten’s sensors identifying a target is fairly low. But as Stalin said, quantity has a quality all its own. In the Taiwan scenario, RAND calculates that any given target in the coverage zone – such as a Chinese warship – would be under observation by 15 different drones, thus vastly increasing the probability of success.

In turn, the kittens would provide targeting data to 3-ton “missile truck” drones, armed with a 1,200-pound payload of stand-off anti-ship missiles that would enable them to stay out of range of enemy defenses. These larger drones would be similar to the Kratos XQ-58A, an experimental UAV that resembles a scaled-down F-35 stealth fighter. Or, the kittens could cue in missiles launched by manned aircraft, ships or land-based coastal defense batteries used by nations like Taiwan.

The kittens would be controlled by human operators, though they would have sufficient on-board AI to function if communications were jammed or interrupted. But while the kittens work loosely together, they are not a drone swarm, “This is not a ‘swarm’ in the sense of a group of objects coordinating their tactical movement,” explains the RAND study. “The UAVs are spreading out to cover the required area. They are continuously communicating with one another to ensure that they are not all concentrated in one area, but they are not otherwise attempting to coordinate their behavior.”

Significantly, the goal here isn’t target detection but rather identification. RAND reckons that a massive operation such as a Chinese amphibious invasion of Taiwan, or a Russian invasion of the Baltic States, would be detected by spy satellites or other surveillance platforms. But with a limited stockpile of expensive smart munitions to draw upon, the trick is figuring out which targets are worth a missile, and which should be ignored. Is that blip on the radar screen a high-value aircraft carrier or troop transport, or a small minesweeper that should be ignored?

“It’s separating the wheat from the chaff,” says Ochmanek.

Unfortunately, a flock of non-stealth drones flying at 30,000 feet will probably be easy prey for anti-aircraft missiles. “You could imagine losing several hundred air vehicles in a rather short period of time,” Ochmanek says. “If you wanted to sustain a mesh of 500 UAVs, you might have to launch 700, 800, 900 over a period of several hours.”

But flying at high altitude would keep the drones safe from anti-aircraft guns, which means the enemy would have to target them with surface-to-air missiles (SAM). Yet putting hundreds of UAVs over the target area that force the enemy to either ignore them, or expend their SAM stockpile and leave themselves vulnerable to attack by other aircraft. It’s the same problem faced by missile defense systems such as Iron Dome, where Israel found itself launching $100,000 interceptor rockets at homemade Hamas rockets that were little more than metal tubes filled with explosives.

“If the kittens can be produced at a price point of something like $300,000 to $500,000, and if we can keep them flying at high altitudes, then we don’t see a cheap way to kill them,” Ochmanek says.

— Michael Peck

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Image credit: U.S. Army

Why Did China Put Its New Howitzer on Wheels Instead of Tracks?

Artillery pieces were once towed by horses – until the truck was invented. Then the big guns were pulled by trucks – but the guns needed time to set up, and the trucks couldn’t keep up with the tanks in rough terrain.

Then in World War II, howitzers were put on a tank chassis to create tracked self-propelled howitzers, which had the mobility and armor protection to keep pace with tanks. The problem is that a tank-like howitzer comes with all the problems of tanks, such as a heftier price tag and more maintenance, as well as extra weight that chew up roads and precludes crossing many bridges.

But in recent years, wheeled howitzers have become an option. Placing a big gun on what is essentially  a heavy truck aims to create an artillery piece that combines affordability and mobility.

That’s why China has mounted its new howitzer on wheels. The PCL-181 is a 155-mm howitzer mounted on a 6-wheel off-road truck chassis. It is aimed at replacing the People’s Liberation Army’s  towed PL-66 152-mm and Type 59-1 130-mm howitzers.

“The PCL-181 features ‘fastness’ as its most prominent technical advantage — to be specific, its ‘fastness’ in response, marching, and aiming,” declared the official China Military Online site. “Within three minutes, the PL-66 152-mm towed gun-howitzer can only complete the transition from marching state to combat state; while thanks to its integrated wheeled chassis and highly automated electromechanical hydraulic servo system, the PCL-181 can realize the whole process from parking to combat state, then to launching six projectiles, and finally to withdrawing and transferring.”

“This means a qualitative leap for the tactics of the PLA Army artillery troops,” said.

The PCL-181 also features a computerized fire control system rather than the manual controls of the older towed howitzers. Interestingly, the Chinamil announcement suggested the self-propelled weapon is less prone to traffic accidents than the towed models, “with no need to worry about the rollover accident caused by overspeed, which is hardly possible for the PL-66 152-mm towed gun-howitzer.”

Interestingly, Chinese military media made a point of noting that the Chinese army already has a self-propelled howitzer, the PZL-05 155-mm weapon. So why opt for a wheeled howitzer?

The biggest reason seems to be mobility. At 25 tons, the PCL-181 is half the weight of the tank-like PZL-05. It can use roads, bridges and railway cars that can’t support the PZL-05, and it can fit inside a Y-9 cargo plane.

Indeed, the PLA seems very concerned about building mobile artillery that can operate across the vast geographical size and diversity of China, which encompasses deserts, jungles and mountains. “The total mileage of China’s expressway network has exceeded 100,000 kilometers [62,000 miles] at present,” according to “Therefore, the PCL-181 can quickly reach designated areas by using its wheeled chassis of long-distance rapid maneuverability in North China, East China, and South China where the expressway network is relatively dense. In addition, the PCL-181 is also superior to the PLZ-05 in terms of maneuverability and operational flexibility in mountainous areas, deserts, Gobi deserts, and plateaus.”

China isn’t the only nation embracing wheeled howitzers. For example, France has its CAESAR 155-millimeter gun, Israel has the 155-mm ATMOS and Russia is developing a truck-mounted 152-mm weapon. Even the U.S., concerned that its artillery is outgunned by Russia’s big guns, is exploring truck-mounted howitzers to meet its future artillery requirements.

But are wheeled howitzers really better than tracked guns? There are pros and cons to either approach, according to a 2017 study by U.S. think tank RAND Corp. Wheeled vehicles are cheaper, easier to maintain, and have better mobility when operating on roads. Tracked vehicles are superior in maneuvering off-road, and a tracked chassis can bear more weight and more armor protection than a wheeled chassis.

— Michael Peck

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Image credit: China Military Online

Think China Could Defeat India In a War? Think Again

India fears that it is militarily inferior to China.

But are those fears overblown? A new study argues that if another Sino-Indian conflict erupts, India is much stronger than it appears.

“We assess that India has key under-appreciated conventional advantages that reduce its vulnerability to Chinese threats and attacks,” write scholars Frank O’Donnell and Alex Bollfrass in a report for Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

That assessment comes even as China and India engage in yet another military faceoff along their disputed border, where China seized territory during a brief war in 1962. Indian planners fear that China has military superiority along the border.

“For example, one Indian expert has observed that ‘India’s ground force posture and strength is not really comparable to that of China in their border regions,’” the Belfer report notes. “China has better military infrastructure, capabilities, and logistics.’”

But this underestimates Indian strengths. For starters, China has a larger military, with about 2 million active-duty personnel versus 1.4 million for India. But the Belfer report estimates that China and India have roughly equivalent forces in the border region, with 200,000 to 230,000 troops apiece in the military commands responsible for the area. In the air, India actually has numerical superiority, with almost 350 Indian fighters and ground attack aircraft facing 157 Chinese fighters backed by about 50 armed drones, according to the study.

These numbers also mask more subtle Indian advantages. For example, some of those Chinese troops and aircraft in border commands will be tasked with keeping an eye on Russia, or keeping a lid on insurrection in Tibet and Xinjiang, the report argues. “In the event of a major standoff or conflict with India, it [China] would have to rely upon mobilization primarily from Xinjiang and secondarily from the Western Theater Command forces deeper in China’s interior. By contrast, Indian forces are already largely in position.”

“While an opportunistic Russian attack upon China in this areas is unlikely, a significant proportion of these Chinese forces will remain unavailable for India contingencies and still be directed to guard against this eventuality,” O’Donnell told Uncommon Defense.

Chinese airpower in the region operates from four major airbases, which can be neutralized by Indian bombardment. And while holding the high ground is normally a good thing, that’s not true for Chinese pilots operating from mountainous Tibet. “The high altitude of Chinese air bases in Tibet and Xinjiang, plus the generally difficult geographic and weather conditions of the region, means that Chinese fighters are limited to carrying around half their design payload and fuel. In-flight refueling would be required for PLAAF [People’s Liberation Army Air Force] forces to maximize their strike capacity,” the report says. “Against these underpowered fighters, IAF [Indian Air Force] forces will launch from bases and airfields unaffected by these geographic conditions, with maximum payload and fuel capabilities.”

The Belfer study also points to a geographic reality: the Himalayas are a long way from the centers of Chinese power. “China could surge air and ground forces from its interior toward the border. However, what our analysis suggests is that the IAF’s superiority would mean that critical logistical routes—such as air bases and military road and rail links—could be cut by bombing or standoff missile strikes, limiting the extent to which China’s position could be reinforced. Such a Chinese surge would also attract attention from the United States, which would alert India and enable it to counter-mobilize its own additional forces from its interior.”

Then there is the nuclear balance between China and India. The Belfer study estimates that 104 nuclear-capable Chinese missiles are within range of all or parts of India, versus 18 Indian Agni II and III missiles that can reach all or parts of China. India has also three squadrons of nuclear-capable Mirage 2000H and Jaguar fighters that can reach China – assuming they can penetrate Chinese air defenses.

“China believes it has mutual nuclear deterrence against India, but Indian assumptions tend to be more pessimistic, and instead assume that effective nuclear deterrence will only be generated against China once India has fielded an Agni-V missile force, able to reach Beijing, Shanghai and other east coast targets, and a full nuclear-armed submarine fleet,” O’Donnell, co-author of “India and Nuclear Asia: Forces, Doctrine, and Dangers,” told Uncommon Defense.

Yet in an article for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, O’Donnell and Bollfrass argue that instead of developing new nuclear missiles and submarines, India would be better off improving the survivability of its existing nuclear platforms while advocating global nuclear arms control. This would also free up funding to beef up conventional forces.

What’s interesting is that the Belfer report isn’t the first American study to conclude that India has a fighting chance to defeat China. An analysis earlier this year by the Center for New American Security argued that India could use China’s own tactics from the Korean War to offset Chinese numerical superiority.

India’s military still has problems to overcome, including a corrupt and inefficient system for designing and procuring weapons. Nonetheless, All of which suggests that despite all the buzz over China’s impressive growth in high-tech military capabilities, Indian military power should not be underestimated.

— Michael Peck

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Image credit: Wikipedia