August 24, 2010 | Commentary on China, National Security and Defense

China’s Military Muscling Up

The Pentagon’s just-released report to Congress on Chinese military power is alarming for two reasons: First, Beijing’s military build-up continues; second, the modernization of our armed forces may come up short of what’s needed to meet the China challenge.

There are solid reasons for worry about America’s power and position in the Pacific Ocean. The People’s Liberation Army clearly is developing doctrines and deploying capabilities for throwing its weight around. The Pentagon paper talks of Chinese “power-projection,” “anti-access” and “area-denial” strategies and forces, all aimed at keeping America at bay in Asia, should Beijing decide to do so.

The report notes, for instance: “China has the most active land-based ballistic- and cruise-missile program in the world” and is sending to sea cruise missiles on ships and intercontinental-range missiles aboard subs.

Of particular concern to our Navy is China’s development of an anti-ship ballistic missile with a maneuverable warhead and range of more than 1,000 miles. This DF-21 variant is a “carrier-buster” and a threat our Navy has never faced.

Now, the Defense Department tells us that Beijing could start building its own aircraft carrier by the end of 2010. When that ship hits the water, we’ll no longer be the Pacific’s only flattop navy.

On the aviation front, China is upgrading its bomber fleet, arming it with long-range cruise missiles.

All this muscling-up isn’t likely to end soon. Beijing upped defense spending nearly 8 percent this year, after two decades of double-digit hikes. China’s new position as the world’s second-largest economy will help.

Unfortunately, these dizzying developments come as the U.S. defense establishment debates the future. After nine years of war, some expect demands for a “peace dividend.” Others are pushing for an emphasis on counterterror/insurgency operations - a focus that diverts money from the resources needed for conventional war.

For example, we have 11 aircraft carriers. But due to at-sea rotations and maintenance only seven or eight are ready for duty at a time. (We had 15 carriers during the Reagan years.) We’re also running low on the number of Navy ships and subs.

Overall, the U.S. military has enormous capital-spending needs. Our strategic nuclear forces need modernization; more missile defense is critical, and some worry our defense-oriented tech edge is slipping. Plus, the Army and Marines have to replace fighting vehicles and other equipment being used up in Iraq and Afghanistan.

We need to win the fights we’re in now, but we need to be ready for the possible fights to come. That means having a well-balanced force able to address the contingencies we’ll face in the 21st century, whether that is terrorism, insurgency or the rise of another major power.

Peter Brookes is a Heritage Foundation senior fellow and a former deputy assistant secretary of defense.

About the Author

Peter Brookes Senior Fellow, National Security Affairs
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

First appeared in The Boston Herald