The Chinese military has been boosting its capability dramatically since Chairman Xi Jinping came into power in 2012 and is notably expanding its rocket forces, said the commander of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command.
“They’re creating very advanced platforms — and weapons systems to go with those platforms — in the naval or maritime sphere, with their air forces [and] with their rocket forces,” said Adm. Philip Davidson. “China will test more missiles — conventional and nuclear associated missiles — this year than every other nation added together on the planet.”
There is an “incredible asymmetry” in the region due to the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force and what it’s capable of doing both in terms of capability and quantity, he said during a pre-recorded interview at the Halifax International Security Forum, which this year is being hosted both in person in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and virtually due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
“That presents a threat not only to its key security concerns along the border, but certainly along the whole First Island chain,” he said, referring to major archipelagoes out from the East Asian continental mainland coast. “It’s one of the reasons that I’ve been a key advocate for integrated air-and-missile defense.”
Both Guam and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands need to have such a capability to be protected, he said.
“It’s an important statement for the United States … to have an integrated air-and-missile defense capability station right there in Guam,” he said.
Davidson noted that China earlier this year tested two new anti-ship ballistic missiles — the DF-26 and DF-21D — against a moving vessel. The missiles have been called “carrier-killers” by some, but Davidson pushed back on the term.
“We’ve known for years that they were in pursuit of a capability that could attack moving targets,” he said. “I don’t use the term ‘carrier-killer,’ and I don’t think others should because it indicates that the Chinese are targeting a specific asset. Trust me, they’re targeting everything.”
However, the United States can counter that threat, he said.
“I’m quite confident that the tactics, techniques, procedures and the counters that our forces out here — not just the maritime forces — but all of our forces, including cyberspace forces, are pursuing will help counter such threats and be able to deliver the offensive fires that we need to be able to deliver … to prevent Chinese objectives and impose costs where necessary,” he said.
Besides capability development, Beijing is increasing its military modernization in three other crucial areas including training, joint structure and combat support, Davidson said.
Since the summer, Beijing has been involved in what Davidson called a “deep multi-theater exercise” which is expected to continue for a few more weeks.
During these “exercises they’re getting after the third thing that they’re advancing, which is a joint structure, and we’re seeing a much deeper joint integration across all those domain forces, cyberspace and the terrestrial ones — air, maritime and land forces and rocket forces as well,” he said.
The fourth area of modernization is combat support which includes logistics, munitions, sustainment and command and control, he noted.
“It is a severe challenge with not only one of those areas, but absolutely in all four of those areas for our allies and partners in the region, as well as the United States,” he said.
Secretary of the Navy Kenneth Braithwaite, who also spoke at the Halifax Forum, said China has over the past decade pivoted to the seas and has had what he calls “an awakening.”
The People’s Republic of China “has seen that all great powers of the world have always been maritime nations,” he said. “Prior to that they had been pretty much a land-centric military. Well, they no longer are land centric. As we speak today, they have more ships than any nation in the world.”
The Chinese military has 355 ships, he noted. Meanwhile, the United States has fewer than 300 battle force ships in its inventory, though former Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said in October that the nation needs a fleet of more than 500 manned and unmanned ships by 2045, including 355 manned ships prior to 2035. Esper dubbed his vision for the future fleet “Battle Force 2045.”
“Quality matters, but sometimes quantity has a quality all of its own,” Braithwaite said. “Our ships are the most technologically advanced in the world, but you can’t hang your hat on that and … say, ‘OK, well, we’ve got this problem solved.’ You know, we need to continue to be vigilant. We need to continue to be oriented towards the sea. We are a maritime nation.”
To counter China, Braithwaite has recently called for the creation of a new numbered fleet closer to the border of the Indian and Pacific Oceans called 1st Fleet.
“The Indo-Pacific region is very vast and today we maintain a presence out of Japan under the auspices of the 7th Fleet,” he said. “As I think to the future and I look at what the potential threats are — as well as to reassure our allies and partners — I think it would be very wise to position a new numbered fleet somewhere towards the western southern borders of the Pacific Ocean, where we could also pivot to the Indian Ocean.”
Braithwaite said he envisions it as being an expeditionary numbered fleet.
“Historically, the United States Navy has operated its numbered fleets at sea under the command of a seagoing flag officer,” he said. “We still maintain some of that capability. We have a command ship in Japan that is actually the flagship of the 7th fleet. And I think to be relevant in that part of the world, … having that kind of mobility would be very important.”
The Navy is examining several different options as to how it could position itself in that part of the world, he said.
The move is absolutely being considered because of China’s aggressive behavior, Braithwaite said.
“There’s no ifs, ands or buts about it,” he said. “The United States is not looking for any type of confrontation. We are freedom loving people. But we want to make sure that those nations that align with our beliefs recognize that we are willing to protect their interests as well as our own, and that is through a freedom of navigation.”