The Dragon Breathes Fire: Chinese Power Projection

Publication: China Brief Volume: 5 Issue: 16

Despite the sheer size of China’s military forces, the country’s power projection capability is currently quite small for operations outside its land borders. It is quite capable of launching land based attacks on its periphery, but its naval and sea assets, despite their size, do not allow it to perform anything more than a perfunctory sea control mission. However, the PLA can strike its neighbors on its periphery with ease, and could perform a successful sea denial mission in the South China Sea. It has powerful armored and mechanized infantry divisions and has invested heavily in logistics and Command, Control, Communications, Computers and Intelligence (C4I). If called upon, the PLA could strike deep into Mongolia or the Central Asian Republics.

Current Out of Area Capability

The People’s Liberation Army Navy’s (PLAN) submarine force gives it a powerful sea denial capability, but its surface fleet, other than its two Russian Sovremenny class and one Guangzhou destroyers, cannot provide support to an amphibious force outside the range of land based airpower. The PLAN lacks sufficient sophisticated area air defense ships to defend the fleet against aircraft and anti-ship missiles. The British experience in the Falklands War showed the need for seaborne air power in power projection. The only recent use of the PLAN’s power projection was the 1988 sinking of a Vietnamese transport ship, a landing craft and the damaging of another, by three frigates. Although lauded as a major naval victory, it does not demonstrate whether the PLAN can confront a more sophisticated navy.

The PLAN needs to provide naval gunfire support to its troops ashore in an opposed amphibious assault, and naval gunfire support (NGS) is a difficult task to master and keep current. The PLA has modified a small number of Jianghu frigates with twin 100 mm automatic guns and four 122 mm multiple rocket launchers to provide dedicated naval gunfire support vessels. [1] These replace the Type 59-1 tanks, 130 mm artillery guns and multiple rocket launchers on freighters that had to provide an ersatz NGS capability if required. During the Vietnam War the U.S. Navy used twelve Inshore Fire Support Vessels to provide this type of naval fire support along the South Vietnamese coast. [2] Designed to provide the intimate fire support required by troops during an amphibious landing as they hit the beach, they are no longer used because they are vulnerable to infantry weapons like anti-tank guided missiles and recoilless rifles, as well as tank guns, and like its land-based counterpart, the armored train, have been relegated to the pages of history. The Jianghu frigates lack any amour, close-in-weapons systems or short-range surface-to-air missiles and are considered similarly vulnerable.

The Sovremenny class destroyers, the only vessels in the PLAN capable of providing air defense for an amphibious landing, are each equipped with two twin 130 mm guns and two single rail SA-N-7 area surface-to-air missile launchers, and by far are the best NGS ships the PLAN possesses. [3] They are also the only ships equipped with SS-N-22 anti-ship missiles, the only long-range supersonic anti-ship missiles capable of striking U.S. carrier battle groups, and thus it is unlikely they would be put into a position where they could be hit by shore-based defenses.

Hardened coastal defenses are extremely hard to destroy, and amphibious assaults are the hardest type of military operation to conduct. The PLAN has at best a limited naval gunfire support capability, and coastal defenses can extract a fearful toll of an aggressor (as the German Navy found with Norway in 1940, or the U.S. Army at Omaha Beach on D-Day, which was defended by only one platoon of thirty German soldiers). Clearly, landing craft by their nature are vulnerable to shore defenses, as the U.S. Navy experience in the Pacific showed.

The Taiwan Straits

The People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) cannot guarantee air supremacy over the Taiwanese coast, and the PLAN cannot provide even temporary air superiority. So what of a pre-emptive ballistic and cruise missile attack? A pre-emptive strike could conceivably damage many of Taiwan’s fixed assets, but would be incapable of destroying enough land assets to stop an amphibious or airborne assault. By way of example, the PLAAF at present can in no way be compared to the capability of the NATO aircraft that attacked Kosovo and Serbia in 1999 during Operation ‘Allied Force’. Despite having over 800 combat aircraft available, it still took NATO 78 days to force Serbia to accede to its demands. Even then Serbian ground and mobile air defense assets were substantially intact. NATO flew approximately 3,000 sorties over Kosovo, yet only 26 tanks could be confirmed as catastrophic kills and Serbian military forces were still firing surface-to-air missiles on the last day of Operation Allied Force. [4]

Moreover, the Taiwanese military is aware of the beaches that are suitable for landing craft and have measures and plans in place, including fortified coastal defenses comprising 155mm and 203mm artillery, mobile anti-shipping missiles, and armored forces. [5] Nothing defeats an amphibious landing quicker than an armored counter-attack. Since PLAN warships are unarmored, Taiwanese coastal defenses as well as the Taiwanese Air Force could cause extensive damage. The Chinese military has not solved the twin problems of how to soften up these Taiwanese coastal defenses and provide fire support to its troops once ashore in an opposed amphibious assault.

The Taiwanese Air Force practices dispersal and the hardened aircraft shelters and command and control network would see air assets survive as well as the land-based defenses and mobile air defense systems in the event of a preemptive ballistic or cruise missile attack. Taiwan’s coastal defenses are fortified and the ability of the PLAAF to hit them with ammunition capable of penetrating steel reinforced concrete is minimal at best. The PLAAF would expect the Chinese mainland and facilities to be attacked by Taiwanese aircraft in retaliation, thus the PLAAF could not commit its full forces.

South China Sea

China lays claim to the entire South China Sea and the present PLAN could conduct a very effective sea denial campaign using its submarine force. It has bases in Hainan, the Parcel Islands, and on Mischief Reef off the coast of the Philippines. The countries bordering the South China Sea, other than China, have no modern fixed wing maritime surveillance or anti-submarine aircraft. Two Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) AP-3C Orion aircraft flying out of Butterworth, Malaysia currently provide this capability. Regional naval assets are similarly dependent on the support the Royal Australian Navy could provide with its area surface-to-air missile capability and sophisticated helicopters like the Seahawk and Super Seasprite anti-submarine/ surface strike helicopters. If the Australian government was reluctant to provide naval assistance, the PLAN could quickly deny its use. This scenario is unlikely, as the United States would intervene, as would most likely Japan and possibly South Korea, due the interference of oil supplies to Northeast and Southeast Asia.

PLAN surface vessels would not be as effective in a conflict where they would depend on PLAAF and PLAN air assets to protect them from regional surface and air assets, which would be considerable if they were to be combined against them. This does not take into consideration the Royal Australian Air Force, which has over one-hundred combat aircraft capable of carrying Harpoon anti-ship missiles, or the Royal Australian Navy which has 12 surface ships and six submarines equipped to carry Harpoons as well.

The Future

The PLAN is not just undergoing modernization of its surface and submarine fleet, it is also increasing its numbers of blue water vessels. Furthermore, China is building new conventional and nuclear attack submarines. Although not very effective for supporting an amphibious operation, they give an edge even the largest navies in the region would be hard pressed to match. No other navies bordering the South China Sea are expanding or modernizing their fleets, although the other two regional countries with a significant and long standing interest in the South China Sea, Australia and Singapore, certainly are. The PLAN has two more Sovremenny destroyers on order and recently launched three different types of large destroyers and one new class of frigates. [6] It has a wing of Russian Sukhoi SU-30MK multi-role fighters on order and is developing airborne warning and control aircraft and the J-10 multi-role fighter. [7] By 2010 these forces would be able to project power well into the South China Sea without outside intervention. This would be at the expense of forces facing Taiwan – the PLAN in the foreseeable future could not fight a two front conflict.

China is also building its amphibious warfare fleet but its planned vessels do not allow for a seaborne air power capability like Australia’s two planned LHDs. It will however have a substantial area surface-to-air and anti-ship missile capability that would give it the potential to defend a fleet against air strikes. However, the differing types of hulls, engines, weapons and electronics will cause logistics problems which could be overcome by dedicating certain units to certain fleets to allow for as much commonality as possible. The PLAN marines are receiving an up-gunned version of the veteran Type 63 amphibious tanks with 105mm guns, which reportedly have been tested with a version of the Russian semi-active laser guided Bastion anti-tank missile. [8] Since the tanks have not been up-armored, they remains vulnerable to heavy machine gun fire. The PLAN is reported to be looking at hovercraft for high-speed amphibious transport, but again, these are vulnerable especially when discharging their cargo. [9]

Chinese military forces for the next ten years will become formidable by regional standards and capable of a sea control role in the South China Sea. They could be used against Taiwan to isolate the island, as would China’s expanding conventional and nuclear attack submarine fleet, but are still vulnerable to coastal defenses, and as there are no aircraft carriers, air strikes as well. Some form of seaborne airpower can be expected to arrive on Beijing’s shopping list, but the capability, as the experience of the Soviet Navy showed, is not as easy as acquiring the platform. Furthermore, they require escorts, which means fewer ships available to support an amphibious landing or other operations.

An aircraft carrier battle group requires escorts and underway replenishment ships. Thus, if China were to suddenly increase its production of surface escorts, this would portend the acquisition of an aircraft carrier, most likely a form of LHA or LHD. The PLAN would need to learn how to operate fixed-wing aircraft at sea, for long periods away from shore, before it could use them operationally. The problem here is that only the United States and Britain produce aircraft that do not require catapults or arrestor wires to launch and recover, and countries that operate aircraft carriers are unlikely to let PLAN personnel train on them. If the EU were to lift its embargo on weapons sales to China, the French could provide these but this is not guaranteed. Russia could provide modified SU-27s or MiG-29s, but may not allow PLAN pilots to land and take off on its only aircraft carrier. Without some form of fixed wing seaborne airpower, the PLAN will continue to be vulnerable if it wishes to project its power beyond the range of its land based airpower.


1. ‘Advancing Capabilities’, Jane’s Sentinel Security Assessment for China and Northeast Asia, June 15, 2005.

2. Moore, John & Polmar, Norman (eds). Jane’s Fighting Ships 1973-74, Sampson, Low, Marston & Co, London, 1973, p. 462.

3. ‘Eluosi xiandaiji quzhuiande bianhua’, Jianzhuan Zhishi, 200 0Niandi, 4Oi, Zhongdi 247 Oi, pp. 19 – 21.

4. ‘Yugoslavian air-defence system withdrawn from Kosovo, Jane’s Missiles and Rockets, Vol. 3, No. 7, 1 July 1999.

5. For an excellent description of Taiwanese coastal defences see ‘Taiwan jinmen diqu zhufang guankui’, Jianzhuan Zhishi, 2000 Niandi, 4Oi, Zhongdi 247 Oi, pp. 38 – 40.

6. Goldstein, Lyle and Murray, William. ‘China emerges as a maritime power’, Jane’s Intelligence Review, October 01, 2004.

7. “Advancing capabilities’, Jane’s Sentinel Security Assessment for China and

Northeast Asia, June 15, 2005. See also Kenneth Allen’s article ‘Reforms in the PLA Air Force’ in the July 05, 2005 issue of China Brief.

8. ‘PRC Deploys Bastion Missile to Field, Cooperates with Belarus on 1K13’, Hong Kong Kanwa Defence Review, March 01, 2005

9. ‘Logistics and Naval Air Forces’, Jane’s Sentinel Security Assessment for China and Northeast Asia, June 15, 2005.