- The US Defense Department’s latest China Military Power Report details Beijing’s expansion of its armed forces, describing their growing reach.
- Below, you can see some of the maps included in the report and what they illustrate about China’s increasingly powerful military.
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Last week, the Pentagon released its annual China Military Power Report, which detailed the ongoing transformation of China’s military, officially known as the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), into a modern force.
The report contains facts that will unnerve US policymakers and defense officials: China now has the world’s largest navy, is expanding its already massive and advanced missile arsenal, and has the capability to seize Taiwan’s outlying islands.
China has “marshaled the resources, technology, and political will over the past two decades to strengthen and modernize the PLA in nearly every respect,” the report states, adding that “China is already ahead of the United States in certain areas.”
This point is made clear in six maps showing the positioning of PLA forces and ranges of its missiles.
People’s Liberation Army ground forces
The first map shows the locations of the headquarters of the PLA Ground Forces (identified in the report as the PLA Army or PLAA), as well as the general positions of their group armies.
The map shows their placement within the PLA’s five theater commands: Northern, Central, Eastern, Southern, and Western. There are also two more military commands in China’s outlying provinces, Xinjiang and Tibet.
The report claims the PLAA is the world’s largest standing ground force, with 915,000 active-duty personnel in 13 group armies, one of which is roughly the size of a US Army Corps — 20,000 to 45,000 troops.
A group army is made up of 78 combined-arms brigades, each of which can have as many as 5,000 soldiers.
The brigades are organized into three categories: heavy (tanks and tracked armored vehicles), medium (wheeled armored vehicles), and light (infantry, air assault, mountain, and motorized).
Interestingly, the map includes the PLA’s Airborne Corps, which is actually part of China’s air force. The Corps is made up of six airborne combined-arms brigades, at least one of which is mechanized with an air-droppable armored infantry fighting vehicle, the ZBD-03.
People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN)
The next map focuses on the China’s Navy, the PLAN.
It is the largest navy in the world with 350 vessels, and is “largely composed of modern multi-role platforms featuring advanced anti-ship, anti-air, and anti-submarine weapons and sensors.”
The vessels are part of three fleets based in the PLA’s Northern, Eastern, and Southern theaters.
The map shows the makeup of all fleets, with the Eastern and Southern Fleets having the most vessels. The PLAN also includes six marine corps brigades and a small but growing air force.
Though the PLAN shows clear signs of global ambitions, its main focus is to dominate the areas along the First Island Chain, stretching from Kyushu to the waters around Vietnam. A major flashpoint along this route is Taiwan, which Beijing sees as a breakaway province.
It is believed that in the event of war with Taiwan, the ships of the Eastern and Southern theaters will be directly involved around the island, while Northern Theater ships will protect sea approaches to China.
People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF)
According the report, the PLAAF, combined with the PLAN’s air wing, is the largest air force in the region and the third largest in the world.
“The PLAAF is rapidly catching up to Western air forces across a broad range of capabilities and competencies,” the report notes.
More than 800 of China’s 1,500 fighter jets are considered fourth-generation, on par with fighters in Western inventories. The PLAAF also has a stealth fighter in service and a stealth bomber in development.
The map shows the approximate locations of each of the PLAAF’s/PLAN Aviation theater headquarters as well as multiple air bases. Importantly, it also shows which bases house the PLAAF’s bomber and transport division HQs.
Last October, China unveiled the H-6N bomber, its first nuclear-capable bomber able to conduct aerial refueling. This marks the return of the airborne leg of China’s nuclear triad.
With development of an air-launched nuclear ballistic missile possibly underway, China could soon have a complete and viable nuclear triad for the first time.
The map also notes special mission aircraft, which handle electronic warfare and aerial refueling. They are important force-multipliers and are essential for a modern and dominant air force.
Most of China’s airbases are in the country’s south and east. Its airbases in the west are considerably far from India, limiting PLAAF capabilities in the tense region.
Chinese missile ranges
Three maps show the devastating potential of what may be the PLA’s most important weapons: ballistic and cruise missiles. China has one of the world’s largest and most diverse missile arsenals.
The first missile map shows the range of China’s conventional missiles, almost all capable of reaching the Second Island Chain over 2,000 km away.
Particularly worrying are the DF-26 and DF-21. Both are mobile ground-launched intermediate-range ballistic missiles that are expected to target US carriers and their escort ships. The DF-26, which can carry conventional and nuclear warheads, is known as the “Guam killer” because of its ability to reach US bases in Guam.
H-6J bombers from the PLAAF, capable of carrying six YJ-12 anti-ship missiles, extend the PLA’s anti-ship capabilities even further.
The second missile map, depicting China’s ICBM ranges, is more daunting. It shows that China’s ICBMs can reach 1,750 km to 13,000 km.
The CSS-4 Mod 2/Mod 3 (also known as the DF-5) and the DF-41 are especially feared. Both can reach almost all of the continental US, and the DF-41, unveiled for the first time last October, can carry up to 10 multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles — 10 warheads, each capable of hitting different targets, that are released when the missile reaches its apex.
China is increasing its investment in missile technology. The report says that, in 2019, the PLA Rocket Force (PLARF) “launched more ballistic missiles for testing and training than the rest of the world combined.”
The final map shows the range of China’s anti-air, anti-ship, and short-range ballistic missiles as they relate to Taiwan. Nearly all of the island is covered from the mainland, and PLAN ships are more than capable of filling in any gaps.
There are still important differences in the quality and capabilities of Chinese troops and weapons in comparison to the US.
The US military has much more combat experience than the PLA (which hasn’t fought a major war since 1979) as well as powerful assets like dedicated carrier task groups. The US also has a number of allies in the region that it has worked with extensively.
But the maps drive home the point of the report: China’s military is a massive and modern force that is only getting stronger.
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