Over the last two decades, as China drops the cover of a peaceful rise to bare its true face, it has also been focussing on building military muscle to mirror its geostrategic ambitions. This has come on the back of the dramatic increase in military spending, from around $ 15 billion in 2000 to $ 178 billion as of 2020, over a 10-fold increase in 20 years. An average annualised increase of 13%. As PLA does not have any significant spending on veteran pensions and benefits, a bulk of this expenditure has been on equipment. According to the Chinese, 40% of their budget is dedicated to equipment purchase.
This has resulted in a dramatic rise in the number of newer platforms that the different wings of its military now possess. They range from tanks for the ground forces to submarines and aircraft carriers for the PLAN and of course the new fighter jets for PLAAF. The CPC takes great pride in showing these off regularly. However, in keeping with the Chinese culture of “face” and “appearances”, it does so in a very staged manner for popular consumption.
These vast sums of monies spent, coupled with reports of a large number of weapon systems now deployed, have over the previous decade and particularly in the last few years created an image of a military behemoth, one capable of challenging the US military with impunity, what to talk of ‘puny’ countries like Russia and India.
While at a broad level the fact that the communist party has been rearming itself is true, the challenge has been to understand what that means in real terms. There are important reasons for a country’s military ability to be reasonably grasped by the world at large. This is primarily needed for stability and usage of military heft without the need for active violence. At one end, it lets its allies and nationals know how much they can expect to push and at the other end it lets the rivals know of the limit to which the country can be pushed without escalation. Playing poker is fine in a Hollywood movie but in a high stakes geopolitical environment where a single misstep can cause millions of deaths and devastation of economies the opacity comes at a high price, as we saw in case of Wuhan virus transmission from China.
Great Chinese Firewall
Unfortunately, beyond indicative budget numbers and propaganda reports of weaponry there is very little in terms of firm details about Chinese abilities. It is in keeping with the overall communist party opacity about all manners of activity in China and is not surprising, but it becomes particularly acute in security affairs which are by their nature secretive even in open and democratic countries.
A key problem that the world has had in terms of understanding Chinese military budget, has been the absolute lack of transparency in their affairs. A breakdown of expenditure off different heads is rarely provided. It is never clear whether a number of state enterprises employed in military activities are covered under the budget or left out. To compensate for it, the external estimates of the Chinese budgets tend to be much higher than official Chinese numbers, but that still does not make us wiser to details. Naturally, this then extends to most of the armaments themselves. While we know that China has fielded several newer machines, we still know very little about their capabilities and have only guesstimates of their numbers.
An average citizen of a free nation rarely realises the amount of information their governments release as a matter of course and how sharply it differs from a totalitarian country like China. In any of our countries, we have publicly submitted records of military expenditure by the executive. The salaries and benefits are published and in open source, the number and records of serving personnel can be cross verified by any entity. Most weapon systems are publicly acquired, often from the private sector who publish their own records. Schematics and performance characteristics are regularly shared and discussed and debated. The political administration is regularly judged by the citizens on how well they are managing the services, and to that end, critical parameters like accidents per number of operating hours are put out. In the middle kingdom, where the casualties in conflicts are not given their final rites or even acknowledged, there isn’t a remote hope of accessing the basic information we take for granted.
While the erstwhile Soviet Union was secretive too, the Chinese case is far worse due to two more important reasons. For one, the Soviet Union had a large export market for its hardware, in diverse countries like India and Egypt in addition to the communist bloc countries. There was therefore significant third-party appraisal of the same. These Soviet imports were used by the counties operating them in both peace time joint operations as well as in full blown wars against a variety of opposing forces. This meant that even the countries which had not operated them, came to observe the hardware at close quarters. In addition, Soviet Union did take part in many arm control treaties, which called for independent audit of their stockpiles, specially in case of strategic assets.
China has none of those factors at play. The main beneficiary of their “exports” is Pakistan, and outside of that client state, their main markets are Bangladesh and Myanmar and such. None of these countries is either a capable appraiser, they are usually given third or at best second tier goods from Chinese stables, nor have they put their Chinese toys to test. Of course, China not being a signatory to weapon control treaties like START, there is no international oversight in the mainland at all.
In current times, apart from the points listed so far, democratic countries participate in international joint operations and war games at a regular interval. For example, the Indian Air Force participates in operation Red Flag with Americans and Indian Navy hosts Malabar exercises. These occasions give the participants a deep insight into the capabilities of men and machine of different forces. That is yet another missing aspect for China. Their participation is limited to tank biathlon and Aviadarts in Russia, which are not so much operational exercises as games, and in those China has not chosen to enter with their own equipment in most cases, but with Russian imports that they have.
All of this has made any reliable information about Chinese hardware very hard to obtain. The Russians being the original source of many of their systems probably have some idea, along with US through its intelligence operations, but they would be limited and secondhand guesstimates. None of the above two sources are available in limited military circulation let alone public domain, the assessments being closely guarded as to not let their sources be exposed. The information that exists publicly for the bulk of policy makers and security operatives is limited and of unknown quality.
Most of the data currently available on China, is either from Wikipedia, or Wikipedia quality, i.e. a collection of rumors and hear says put together haphazardly by random people on the internet, with little or no credible named original source. The party apparatus feeds this circus with “Chinese language” leaks and showboating of questionable contraptions.
In absence of reliable information, critical analysis of available data is needed to develop a well-grounded estimation of where the Chinese really are, rather than taking the same at face value.
Separating the wheat from the chaff, Overseas performance
One of the ways to make an accurate assessment would be to examine the few occasions where the Chinese goods have been made available to other countries for trial and/or use. This are the occasions where the wall does not completely shut out insight and we can get to know what is really happening.
As an example, in the case of Z-9 helicopters, one can not find a single instance of the rotorcraft failing anywhere on Chinese territory. Note that is not to say it wouldn’t have crashed, it’s just that there is absolutely no mention of one. This is completely surreal as no man-made flying object is so perfect that it would not even have a single crash in 30+ years while being used in large numbers. Therefore, to find about Z-9 reliability we must to look for cases when they are used outside political boundary of China. As we know, there are only a handful of cases, but examining them provides for very interesting learnings.
Chinese CH4 UAV
One of China’s more successful exports has been the CH4 UAV, which is believed to be a knock-off from US General Atomics MQ-9 reaper. It is not clear how the Chinese managed to obtain the schematics for MQ-9 to copy into CH4, but a look at media reports during the 2016-2018 time frame would give the impression that China had already won the drone wars. Dramatic propaganda videos backed by cheap prices and no questions asked sales boosted this impression.
As it turned out over a few years, it takes a little more than stolen technology to make successful products. Its most prominent buyer, Jordon put up its entire fleet of six UAVs for disposal through an auction barely 2 years after acquiring them. Although specifics are not available, Jordan admitted it was “not happy with the aircraft’s performance and was looking to retire them.”
Yet another much touted customer Iraq saw its fleet go from over ten birds down to just one mission capable unit. Pakistan, the favorite place for China to dump its goods, has also seen the UAVs in mint condition crash as far back as 2016 while on test sorties. In addition to its various crashes, this UAV is currently participating in Libyan civil war, where it appears to be the favorite to be shot down by enemy as well as its own side. Clearly, there is something deeply rotten in its effectiveness.
Z-9 Helicopter saga
Yet another piece of equipment that China has widely exported is the Harbin Z-9 helicopter, this Chinese helicopter was originally French AS365 Dauphin Eurocopter, bought with license production agreement in the 1990s. In keeping with the now familiar pattern, this understanding was happily violated later in early 2000s when Chinese continued the production after the expiry of the contract. Since then, post the reverse engineering and modifications, it was rebadged as a Chinese creation and saw significant exports.
As early as 2013, a Zambian Z-9 crashed immediately after acquisition killing a major and injuring a lieutenant while participating in youth day celebrations. In another part of the world machines similarly “bought” with Chinese money in 2013, claimed casualties with the year when in 2014 two Cambodian generals were killed in a crash later blamed on “pilot error”. Cameroon purchase 4 of these in the attack variant in 2014 and saw first one crashing within six months in 2015. Another one crashed last year in a routine mission. Mali lost its last flying example in a crash in 2019 and a PLA version too crashed in Hong Kong.
A long list of crashes across the globe, including of mint new pieces with a variety of operators is telling, especially when it was already a well-established safe platform in use for many years before its appropriation by China.
Z-10, when your best is an also-ran
While many of Chinese exports such as the Z-9 and JF-17 position themselves as, “older generation at cheaper cost” solutions not for PLA but for client states, in case of Z-10 its entirely the other way.
Z-10 is an attack helicopter which China prides itself on as the latest and greatest amongst its class and is regularly flagged by Chinese online as being an Apache beater. Having surreptitiously gotten the legendary Russian design bureau Kamov to design best in class package in late 90s, it took over the completed design with a view off passing it off as indigenous development. As always, during the remaining “development” process China acquired multiple technologies from external sources, relying on a combination of beg, borrow and primarily steal to create the patch work quilt like many of their systems are.
Anyway, as it may be, this glorious piece of Chinese supremacy was sought to be endowed on its best friend Pakistan, when it was looking for attack helicopters in 2016 to counter the Indian armor buildup. It trialed against the Turkish T128 Atak Heli, a development of the AgustaWestland A129 CBT. On paper, the two machines matched evenly on their parameters, such as avionics, offensive load out, payload, endurance, operating envelop etc. with Z-10 edging ahead a bit. In spite of the offering from China being significantly cheaper (per unit cost of $17 million vs $40 million) and offered to Pakistan on a platter on easy terms, it still could not make the cut. Reportedly weak performance of Z-10’s WZ-9 engine (yet another knock-off of Turbomeca engine) meant that the helicopter could not lift its stated payload. Further, the efficacy of T129 in hot and high conditions could not be matched by Z-10, which was not able to operate under such exacting situation.
Unlike what would appear based on bland reading of the above, this was not a case of being merely edged out in a comparison of near equals. To have your nearly bankrupt client state turn down a gift horse, in favor of expensive debt funded purchase means that your there were basic shortcomings with it. Pakistan had carried out extensive tests of Z-10, compared to the very short cycle that T 129 had. No doubt they made every effort to try and fit it into their air force but failed.
It says volumes about Chinese engineering if their premier product equipping PLA in large numbers cannot make the cut for Pakistani forces.
IAI Lavi/J 10’s lack of acceptance
Z-10 failing the Pakistani trial is not the only case where front line Chinese equipment failed to pass muster in competition in a client state. The Jian 10, one of China’s mainstay aircrafts, touted as being 4th generation jet failed to impress Myanmar, which chose Mig 29’s over Beijing’s offer to supply its latest J-10 and FC-1 fighters at “quite favorable terms.” This was severe loss of prestige for the Chinese jet, which lost on multiple performance parameters in comparison with the Mig.
The limitations of armaments are not only limited to airborne systems. Kenya had a pressing need for protecting and supporting its troops in land operations against Al-Shabaab terrorists attacking along its Somali borders, and the APCs were meant to provide an upper hand in that fight. To that end, in 2016, Kenya obtained 30 Norinco VN4 armored personnel carriers (APCs) from Beijing with expectations to boost its operations and ensure the safety of paramilitary police forces. In a deal mired in charges of lack of transparency and corruption, 30 units were acquired for $76 million dollars.
These armored personnel carriers though have proved to be singularly ineffective for the purposes they were acquired. On Sept. 10, in the same year they were received, five security personnel died, and 20 others were injured in rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) attack on a police convoy. In 2017, six personnel and a civilian were killed when their vehicle was blown up by an improvised explosive device.
There have been instances of windscreen shattering during operations, leaks from engines and lack of ventilation. Tired of the repeated issues, the police asked for APC to be tested with the Chinese supplier riding in it while Kenyan troops shot at it with small arms. Shockingly the Chinese refused this very basic test, as they knew that the troop carrier wouldn’t be able to protect them.
Kenya is now trying to refurbish its old western APCs to extend their lives, as those have proved to be far more effective, despite being decades old in some cases compared to brand new Chinese purchases.
Separating the wheat from the chaff, Indirect evidences
Examining the cases where Chinese instruments have been used in other countries has certain limitations of course. For one, as discussed only a small range of Chinese war machine has been seen outside, this objection would not be amiss. Further claims can be made, that the exported material has been inferior to that serving in party’s own forces. While the second objection is clearly not true in cases like CH-4 UAV, Z-10 attack helicopter and J-10 fighter jets, its likely to be true for VN4 APC and VT-4/Al-Khalid-1/Type-90-II tank which has not seen active use with PAP/PLA forces.
To develop a fuller understanding, we additionally need to rely on indirect evidences pertaining to the Chinese military industrial complex. This involves knowing of development histories of past and current weaponry and the present standards of technologies available to China. Combining it with direct observations of their output wherever available (like the cases discussed in previous section), we can realistically size up the remaining components that we directly don’t know about.
For all practical purposes, the development of military industrial complex in China only started in mid-90s along with the massive increase in funding in the defense budget. Till the mid-90s, the leading fighter jet was second generation Mig 21. Its leading tank was a T-62 knock off. It had no aircraft carriers and submarine fleet was practically nonexistent with Romeo class copies which could not take to the sea. This changed dramtically in less than 10 years, with China leap frogging from Mig 21s to F -16 derivatives and Su-27s in terms of airpower, with similar jumps seen across other arms as well.
These leaps were made possible by wholesale imports of complete packages to be recreated in toto at home. In most cases none of it was above board and in consonance with international laws and practices. From designs, to the machines manufacturing them, to their armaments down to each nut and bolt were sought to be smuggled into the country and recreated as they were in their original place.
IAI Lavi to Chengdu J-10
A good example of such a jump achieved was the J 10 3rd generation fighter jet project. Initially created as Lavi by Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI), this joint US-Israel follow project meant to follow on from F-16 was shut down in 1987 after US stopped its investments. Having invested $1.5 billion in the project already, America did not want to spend any more money to create platforms competing with ongoing projects at home. During this time, China had been in talks with US for acquisition of F 16s, while also secretly engaging Israel for Lavi.
As the Lavi program collapsed, China picked up over $5 billion worth of military technologies from Israel. The transfer included fully built airframes, technologies for E/LM-2035 doppler radar, licensed production facilities of Python-3 heat-seeking missiles, as well as Israeli contractors working for China. It was carried out secretly despite US concerns around IP loss. Later, US banned technology transfer to Israel for F22 owing to the fear of leakages and forced Israel to stop its collaboration with China in early 2000s.
This F-16 derivative went on to become the J 10 in Chinese colors with its first flight in 1998, a miraculously short development cycle of less than 10 years for a country which had only license assembled Mig 21s so far.
Cannibalisation of the Soviet ecosystem
While the purchase and rebranding of Lavi to J-10 was at least done with Israeli governments involvement, other countries were not so lucky. As USSR fell in 1990s, the erstwhile Soviet states including Russia were staring financial ruin and complete collapse of all governance and social systems. Defense industries and scientists too were swept up in the storm and struggling to survive. Like the case with Lavi, China secured imports for critical defense platforms and technologies which USSR had shut China off from.
However, notwithstanding the desperation Russia was not willing to part with many critical technologies, aware that the Chinese would not restrict the usage under terms of sale. Further, as Russia regained stability under Putin, reluctance to sell to China grew, along with the price tag for their technology.
China simply sidestepped these restrictions by the methods that have worked so well for them. On the sly, entire sets of blueprints were obtained from failing design bureaus. Their staff who were being laid off were hired as contractors. These along with equipment and machinery were smuggled out to China. J-11 was born out of Su-27, and later technologies obtained around 1999-2000 were incorporated to upgrade it to J-16.
Ex-soviet states other than Russia were particularly useful. When Russia refused to sell the Su-33, China purchased the prototype aircraft from Ukraine and set about reverse engineering it as J-15. Ukraine specially has been quite helpful to China, partly out of spite for Russia, and this route has been used to develop many of Chinese arms. The entire tank lines of Type 90-ii/Al-Khalid/VT-4, Type 96 and Type 99, apart from were created through Ukraine assisted re-engineering of T-80/T84, T 72, respectively.
Copies, copies and more copies
Apart from the examples listed so far, the list of copies continues, F-20 was copied from F-22, and J-31 was copied from JSF F-35 through a sustained espionage campaign, exposed in part when the Chinese national named Su Bin was arrested and later sentenced for this crime. Y-20 heavy lift aircraft was copied from C-17 based on stolen designs from Boeing and Rockwell by Dongfan “Greg” Chung. The Javelin anti-tank missile system was stolen to make HJ-12. Pakistani route was used to access complete details of Black Hawk helicopters in operation and this data was combined with civilian version of Black Hawk it had purchased to create the Z-20 helicopter. Even Humvee was not spared in the mad rush.
The HongQi-9/FD-2000 is rebadged S-300 from Russia. The list of copies from Russia is particularly long. The Yakovlev Yak-130 trainer aircraft was copied into L-15. A-12 transport aircraft was copied into Shanxi Y-9. Msta-S self-propelled howitzer was made into PLZ-05. Smerch rocket system were copied as well.
The copying that been done, is not superficial, China has attempted to make clones for sub-system and components in addition to stealing the overall plans. One of the major examples has been the creation of WS-10 series of engines based on CFM-56 aero-engine imported from US in the 1980s for civilian purposes illegitimately copied.
Evolution of Chinese MIC and implications on quality
Combining the evidences, we can see a definite pattern emerge in terms of how the Chinese military industrial complex has evolved, and the capabilities of systems PLA has fielded in each. It shows up in three stages:
The Russian handouts: The period of 1950 to mid-90s is marked by a China subsisting on the doles that USSR had bequeathed it with in its early 1950-1960 honeymoon period before they fell out in 1966. This phase is marked by replicas of early 60s era made by machines imported into China by then, with corresponding quality and functionality
The Shopping Spree: During the time between mid-90s to the middle of next decade, China focused on procuring entire manufacturing chains, as seen by examples like Lavi/J-10 and Su-27/J-11. The bulk of current Chinese inventory is made up of acquisitions made in this period and includes some of their more touted systems. The question is, have they been made improved since?
Brazen Thievery by the Chinese
This is time post-2005 to now, as the world, wary of the large-scale fraudulent appropriation of technologies, started tightening controls, China moved to uninhibited IP theft, in cases like J-31.
What we see is that as we move from one stage to the next, we see a growing variation between the stated claims and their performance on the ground (or at sea or in the air). While the Soviet era replicas were no longer state of the art toward the end of their life, they performed as intended. As we move to the second phase, there is a sudden jump in sophistication, with the new arms being on par with mainstream ones. However, we have seen instances of these do not living up to their billing, such as J-10 failing to compete against Mig 29s or poor performance of Al-Khalid tank resulting in loss of faith from Pakistan for future purchases. The WS-10 engines supposedly power the J-11, but they are not considered reliable enough by Pakistan to power the older J-10 and they continue to underperform.
The mismatch between expectation and delivery becomes most acute by the time we come to the latest and greatest of PLA’s accoutrements which are advertised as being the best in class at a global level. The J-20 aircraft meant to mirror F-22 in stealth was picked up by IAF Su-30s from across the border while flying over Tibet. As seen, the Z-10 helicopters did not meet their basic performance parameters the only time they were seen outside China. CH-4 drones ran into serious operational issues across the globe. Despite the extreme secrecy around it, China has not been able to hide J-15’s extremely poor record, bad enough for them to look at alternatives.
One of the key failing continues to be with respect to engines were the Chinese copies have not been able to come to needed expectations. The more powerful engines WS-15 and WS-19 which are supposed to power the “stealth” J-20/J-31 have a long way to go before being acceptable.
On top of the differences seen, the general issue of production process being not up to mark continues to hold true for every stage and every generation. As seen, there are fundamental quality control issues in every product that has seen service outside China.
Understanding the sources of deviation
If we think of it, the pattern we are seeing, is not unexpected. While China has acquired a significant amount of technology over past two decades by not so fair and rather unfair means, to apply it, a certain critical mass of sophistication is needed in the existing infrastructure. It also needs an engineering team of requisite culture. It is one thing to have the schematics of Black Hawk, it is another thing to know which materials were used. It is yet another thing to be able to manufacture the parts with suitable tools and a sufficiently trained manpower to operate them.
In the cases if all the above was made available magically (read purchase of entire lines) the best that can be obtained is an exact replica of the original. To be able to have even minor modifications, let alone follow on developments, it would need people who really understand the original design, in terms of philosophy, development processes and tradeoffs, and those who can recreate the product from first principles when given final plans.
When China went for wholesale infusion of lines as a part of its modernisation drive, what it could infuse were the people. The contractors came and went in short stints of a few years, too short to prepare homegrown talent. High technology expertise in engineering spaces takes a lifetime for an individual, and many human lifetimes for an organisation, i.e. organisational memories of based on experiences those who have worked on that problem before. The time that’s needed grows multifold if it needs to replace a culture which actively dissuades the creative process.
It is simply unreasonable to expect unitarian China following the principles of absolute obedience to the supreme leader to absorb and develop of decades worth of free-thinking scientific development within a decade. To make matters worse, China moved to the next step of trying to recreate systems without complete knowledge even before it had really succeeded at attempts to master unbroken chains it had acquired. Not surprisingly the last stage sees greater challenges than the second.
An attempt to copy a Raptor based on stolen schematics, when you have barely been able to achieve reasonable import substitution, let alone improvements on hijacked Su-27 platform suggests a posturing born of megalomania rather than credible attempts to equip fighting forces.
The interesting part is that the only news that ever comes out of China is how they have been succeeding. To take one example, the WS-10/13/19 series of engines were successful when launched, then again successful when their version B was launched, then again successful when version C flew with J-11/16/20/31, it was successful in 2001, 2005, 2010, 2015, 2020. Possibly the only offering which has been reimagined and relaunched successfully more times than Rahul Gandhi. None of the failures and deviations that we have been discussing are ever seen in Chinese press, till one of their products gets to be seen by countries outside.
What this strongly indicates, is that the MIC complex has not been able to develop inhouse critical thinking ability. A true R&D organisation puts out both its success and failures, and the history of failures informs the world as much about technological advances so far as much as reports of success do. It understands and celebrates both, and the achievements get built on the very many efforts which don’t work out. There is no other way. A sustained attempt to brush any negative news under the carpet suggests a culture of glossing over shortfalls. This culture only possible when you are still at the level of trotting out known solutions with your only contribution being your name pasted on it.
If the technology absorption had been successful, there would be undeniable traces. There would be successful derivatives of copied designs with significant differences from original. There would also be at least a few platforms which are not copied. Even secretive defense companies show off their successful products in an open environment where others can closely examine many features, such as having pilots from other countries fly their crafts. Then of course there are schematics and design discussions on a regular basis which can be found in international publications. At this time, it’s almost impossible to find even a small example of any of these with respect to Chinese wares.
The Chinese MIC complex seems to be not learning but adding on their mistakes. Each forward step brings a bigger set of problems than sorting out the previous ones. The further we go the greater is the unreliability.
In the end, where does that leave us?
So, what are practical lessons that can be taken by military planners? While it is always a bad idea to underestimate the enemy, it is also a bad idea to prioritize critical resources towards feints while ignoring real dangers.
What our study tells us, is that the biggest threat from Chinese military machines is not going from their “cutting-edge weapons”, but from those which are a generation older. To illustrate, the Su-27s which were directly imported from Russia are built under license production agreements or copies with critical components still from Russian OEM’s are likely to be far more potent than the newer J-11s/16s if any. These are behind the latest technology but still quite capable, and most critically they are available in very large numbers.
The Chinese threat will still be based on the numbers and not technology. It would be a battle of attrition where they would lose a number to overwhelm the enemy.
Which tells us, even as we aim to develop asymmetric advantages for dominating the battlefield, in the end its going to come down to a long hard slog. Boots on the ground are going to be important, as are numbers of ships and planes that can be put out. Technological superiority is all well and good, but with the Chinese the ability to bring numbers to the table is what is going to count.
The top tier of PLA is going to underperform, in fact, they may even never be deployed, but the brute force of its mass of exact copies is where the real challenge will come from.