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China’s Rising Defense Budgets Stoke Regional Concerns
Aviation Week & Space Technology

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by Richard Fisher, Jr.
Published on January 8th, 2015

Spending on China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) can be expected to continue to grow at a double-digit annual pace in 2015, despite a slight economic cooling in 2014 that saw the nation miss its official goal of 7.5% growth in gross domestic product, and expectations that growth could fall to 7% in 2015.

Official defense spending figures announced in March 2014 showed a 12.2% increase over 2013, to 808 billion yuan ($132 billion). Assuming at least 10% growth in 2015 this figure could reach 888 billion yuan—about $145 billion. However, based on previous U.S. Defense Department estimates, actual defense spending for 2015 could exceed $175 billion.

China regularly cites rising personnel and training costs as the reason for its growing defense budget, and the buildup of a professional noncommissioned officer corps is a visible sign of such cost pressures. However, the country is investing in a broad program of advanced weapons development as it ratchets up military activities, in its “near abroad” and globally. Speaking at a PLA conference on Dec. 4, Communist Party and PLA leader Xi Jinping called for accelerated weapon development. State media quoted Xi as saying: “Equipment systems are now in a period of strategic opportunities and at a key point for rapid development.”

At the November 2014 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Beijing, the U.S. and China made agreements to reduce maritime incidents and advance mutual notification of military exercises. But China’s continued refusal to open talks on strategic nuclear systems, and its increasingly aggressive pursuit of territorial claims in the China Sea, continue to spur regional anxiety.

A near explosive pace for China’s weapons development was visible during November’s biennial Zhuhai air show, where much more space was devoted to land warfare systems and electronics than was the case two years ago. The stars of the show were the Shenyang J-31, China’s second stealth fighter, and the Xian Y-20 airlifter—China’s largest-ever indigenous airplane. A large model of the Shenyang FC-31, an upgraded development of the J-31, was displayed, along with a mockup of an advanced cockpit.

Weapons companies Norinco, Poly Technologies, China Aerospace Science and Industry Co. (Casic) and China Aerospace Science and Technology Co. (CASC) unveiled competing reconnaissance-strike complexes of multiple types of tactical missiles and anti-aircraft missiles netted to radar and unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV)-based sensors and central control systems. These will help give China’s customers anti-access/area denial capabilities like China is building in the Western Pacific.

The fourth prototype of the Chengdu J-20 heavy stealth fighter emerged in late November, with initial operating capability expected in 2017-18. Chengdu’s J-10B, a substantially upgraded version of China’s first indigenous modern fighter will be entering initial units. At Shenyang, fighter production is shifting from the J-11B—a clone of the early Russian Sukhoi Su-27—to the two-seat J-16, designed for strike missions, and the J-15 carrier fighter.

The Russian-Chinese industrial tension that followed the appearance of Chinese “bootleg” versions of 1980s Russian systems seems to be easing, with the Russian government and industry being willing to accept China’s emulation of last-generation technology as long as China imports Russia’s latest offerings. Sales of new Russian systems slated to be completed in 2015 may include up to 24 Su-35 fighters and the new Almaz-Antey S-400 surface-to-air missile system.

Chinese power projection systems will also advance, like the Y-20, which may enter service in 2017-18; some Chinese sources suggest that China eventually will require 400 of the type. Asian military sources have told Aviation Week that Xian’s H-20 flying-wing strategic bomber could emerge by 2025. It increasingly seems that China’s second and third aircraft carriers may be built near-simultaneously, as a new large Type 071 landing platform dock and plans for a new landing helicopter dock amphibious assault ships emerge. Also there are reports that in addition to six Type 093 second-generation nuclear attack submarines (SSN) expected by the Defense Department, there may be up to 14 Type 095 third-generation SSNs in the early 2020s

Strategic and space systems will also advance in 2015, as CASC’s new DF-41 mobile multiple-warhead ICBM may begin deployment and Type 094 nuclear ballistic missile submarines begin deterrence patrols. At Zhuhai, Casic unveiled its FT-1 mobile solid-fuel space launch vehicle, plus a family of six small satellites, which could also launch anti-satellite weapons. In a Dec. 7 report in state media, a CASC official explained that the Long March 5 heavy space launch vehicle will be launched in 2015, with the expected super-heavy Long March 9 (130 tons to low Earth orbit) to emerge by 2030, to support Moon and Mars missions.

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