This is the second in a series of articles (see links below this article) describing the most serious national security threat America faces – China. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) is most certainly a threat to the U.S. since it meets three criteria: The PRC has the capability, the will or motivation, and the opportunity. In several articles, Liberty Nation has portrayed the Communist Chinese Party’s (CCP) behavior as menacing to its neighbors in the Indo-Pacific and the United States’ goals for global civility and peaceful coexistence.
To achieve the U.S. objectives, maintaining the edge in military capability in the many battle domains in which American warfighters find themselves is crucial – not to state the obvious. But how exactly does the U.S. stack up in fighting capability against Beijing’s forces?
During the recent Reagan National Defense Forum, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin stated that “…China presents a challenge. It’s our pacing challenge, but they’re not 10 feet tall.” That could be true at this writing, but that is not to say they aren’t growing taller. For example, the RAND Corporation completed a study of Beijing’s burgeoning military capability and strategy for global dominance. A key conclusion of the RAND work was that, for China, a necessary “complementary defense strategy would aim to constrain Washington’s ability to forestall or prevent its own eclipse by building a superior Chinese military that renders the risks of military conflict intolerably high.” In other words, the PRC wants to establish a situation of reverse deterrence, if you will.
In terms of overall numbers of personnel in the respective fighting forces, China has more. For the total warfighters, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) with 915,000 ground forces is near twice the number the U.S. fields at 486,000. That may be deceiving, though, since the quantities say nothing about the technological levels of the equipment for the forces. Nor do the numbers reveal anything about the quality of training.
Additionally, the last time the PLA was tested in combat in any meaningful way was 40 years ago, according to a RAND Corporation commentary written by senior international defense researcher Timothy R. Heath. Four decades ago, a “seasoned Vietnamese military demolished a bungled Chinese invasion in 1979.” Heath goes on to explain:
“Today, China’s military has an increasingly impressive high-tech arsenal, but its ability to use these weapons and equipment remains unclear. There are reasons to be skeptical. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) struggles under the legacy of an obsolete command system, rampant corruption, and training of debatable realism, among other issues.”
The U.S. military does not suffer from a lack of combat experience. Since August of 1990, when American forces deployed to the Middle East during Operation DESERT SHIELD/DESERT STORM, U.S. combat units have either been in the fight or at least a state of readiness. Furthermore, some of the numbers on the chart look lopsided, favoring the Chinese, but capability is more than just quantities. For example, American nuclear capacity far exceeds the CCP’s, though the PRC is increasing its intercontinental ballistic missiles and its stockpile of nuclear warheads. As Liberty Nation explained, referencing a recent Pentagon report, “Over the next decade, China’s nuclear warhead stockpile – currently estimated to be in the low-200s – is projected to at least double in size as China expands and modernizes its nuclear capabilities.”
In another area, China has surpassed the U.S. in the number of naval vessels, but many are smaller with less firepower. The U.S. Navy has 11 nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, while the PLA Navy (PLAN) has only two operational steam turbine powered flattops with one in construction. In the category of cruisers with significant missile capability, the U.S. has a fleet of 24, while the PLAN has one. Whereas, the CCP may be growing its number of warheads, the U.S. has the means of delivering nuclear destruction. In the categories of ballistic missile submarines, nuclear bombers, and intercontinental ballistic missiles, America’s prowess is unmatched. The PLA does have significantly more main battle tanks, and more may be better. But superiority in tank technology would favor the U.S.
Comparing the two military forces currently, the edge goes to America’s armed forces. However, the threat comes from Beijing’s focus on building its naval, ground, and air capabilities. In the latest analysis of China’s military capability, “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2021,” the Defense Department said, “the accrual of the PRC’s comprehensive national power, including military power, is necessary to set the conditions for Beijing to assert its preferences on a global scale.” The motivation to achieve those “preferences” will be the subject of the next article in this series.
The views expressed are those of the author and not of any other affiliation.
~ Read more from Dave Patterson.