China's military has become one of the world's most powerful, but the US still has one big advantage

People's Liberation Army's Honor Guard Battalion soldiers at attention in front of photo of Chinese President Xi Jinping at their barracks in Beijing, May 20, 2020.Kevin Frayer/Getty Images
  • China has spent decades upgrading and modernizing its military, adding new, more sophisticated gear and expanding training.
  • Despite that work and investment, China's armed forces still lag behind the US in terms of actually putting that equipment and training to use in combat.

February 1979 was the last time China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) was engaged in a large-scale war. In that conflict, a month-long invasion of Vietnam, the PLA suffered such high casualties, despite having a numerical advantage, that its overall performance is considered rather lackluster.

While the true number of casualties from both sides may never be definitively known (some Western estimates put Chinese losses as high as 26,000 killed and over 30,000 wounded), it was clear that the PLA was at a very low level of sophistication.

Since that war, PLA modernization has been a top priority for every Chinese leader, especially current President Xi Jinping. More than 40 years later, those modernization efforts are bearing fruit; the PLA is now recognized as one of the strongest militaries in the world.Advertisement

Reorganization and investment

Chinese Type 96 (ZTZ-96) tanks at the Vostok 2018 military exercise held by Russia and China, September 13, 2018.Vadim Savitsky\TASS via Getty Images

The first reforms were organizational. PLA troop levels were reduced from almost 6 million in 1979 to its current size of roughly 2.5 million. This allows for a higher-quality army, as more training and resources can be devoted to each soldier.

China's 11 military regions were restructured into five, the ballistic-missile force became its own branch of the armed forces, and the PLA marine corps, which had been disbanded in 1957, was reestablished.
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Xi also created the PLA's Strategic Support Force to support the PLA's cyber warfare, space warfare, and electronic warfare operations, and the Joint Staff Department, which acts as a command organ between all branches of the PLA and the Central Military Commission.

Xi has increased the PLA's budget in an effort to create a world-class military by the year 2050. China is now the second biggest spender on defense in the world, behind the US, and the largest in Asia.

New aircraft and armor

Chinese PLA Z-10 and Z-19 helicopters at the China Helicopter Exposition in Tianjin, September 9, 2015.REUTERS/China Daily
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The greatest indication of the PLA's growing strength is its equipment.

In 1979, it had no dedicated attack helicopters. It now has two: the Z-19 and Z-10. Both can carry anti-air and guided anti-tank missiles, and the Z-19 doubles as a reconnaissance helicopter.

For transport helicopters, the PLA operates licensed and unlicensed versions of existing French, Russian, and US models. This includes the Z-8, the Mil Mi-17, and the Z-20, which was recently unveiled and looks to be a copy of the UH-60 Black Hawk.Advertisement

The Chinese air force now boasts modern fighter and multirole combat aircraft, including the Russian-built Su-27 (and its licensed Chinese version, the J-11), the Su-30 MKK (a version of the Su-30 made just for China), and the Su-35.

China has also built its own indigenous fighters and fighter-bombers. These include the J-10 (seen as a competitor to the F-16) the J-11, JH-7, and the J-16. Then there is China's stealth fighter, the J-20. Both the J-10 and J-20 were allegedly built with stolen US designs.

The PLA's armored force has also been reborn. Old Soviet-style armored vehicles have been replaced with an entire new set of tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, amphibious fighting vehicles, and even airborne infantry fighting vehicles.Advertisement

Finally, the PLA now has its own domestically designed and built infantry weapons

A rapdily growing navy

Officers and soldiers of the Chinese naval fleet for escort mission line up on the deck at a port in Zhoushan, east China's Zhejiang Province, April 28, 2020.Xinhua/Jiang Shan via Getty Images

But perhaps most impressive of all is the incredible growth of the PLA Navy (PLAN).Advertisement

In 1979, the PLAN's fleet of was considered a "green-water" force mostly confined to coastal areas. The vast majority of its ships were also at least a generation behind their foreign counterparts, if not more.

Today, the PLAN is the largest navy in the world, with 33 destroyers, 54 frigates, 42 corvettes, 37 landing ships/amphibious transport docks, 60 submarines and, perhaps most importantly, two aircraft carriers and two amphibious assault ships. The majority of those are modern missile-carrying warships, and their range has increased to the point that there is debate over whether the PLAN has achieved "blue-water" status.Advertisement

China's submarine fleet includes 10 nuclear-powered attack and ballistic-missile subs, with plans to increase that number to 21 by 2030. Armed with the JL-2 ICBM, the PLAN's ballistic-missile subs can hit targets more than 5,500 miles away with one or multiple nuclear warheads.

A Chinese sub launches a missile during a China-Russia joint military exercise off eastern China's Shandong peninsula, August 23, 2005.REUTERS/China Newsphoto

The PLAN also plans to build two additional types of nuclear attack and ballistic-missile subs. The newer ballistic-missile sub, the Type 096, is expected to carry 24 ICBMs — double the payload of the current Type 094-class.Advertisement

Whereas all US Navy submarines are nuclear powered, the PLAN has 50 diesel-powered subs from four different classes, with plans to increase that to 55 by 2030.

Nuclear-powered subs are generally faster and can remain underwater longer than diesel-powered subs, though Chinese nuclear-powered subs aren't as advanced. But diesel-powered subs are also improving, including ones fielded by China that likely concern the US and its partners in the region.

China is building more ships, and at a much faster rate, than the US or any of its counterparts in Asia. It also plans to increase the size of its marine corps from 20,000 personnel to 100,000.Advertisement

An unrestrained Rocket Force

Chinese military vehicles carrying DF-17 missiles in a parade for the 70th anniversary of the founding of Communist China in Beijing, Oct. 1, 2019.AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein

The PLA Rocket Force (PLARF) has become one of the most intimidating missile forces in the world. China never signed the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) and was never subject to its limits, so it has been free to invest heavily in ballistic missiles.

"The US defense community has actually had a hard time coming up with ways to counter weapons like anti-ship ballistic missiles and intermediate range ballistic missiles, and the Chinese have made very good ones," Timothy Heath, a senior international and defense researcher at the Rand Corporation think tank, told Insider.Advertisement

Missiles that put US officials on edge are the DF-21, the DF-26 (dubbed the "Guam Killer" for its reported ability to strike targets as far as Guam), and the DF-41, which can carry 10 independent warheads and is purportedly able to reach the continental US in 30 minutes.

There are also the DF-17 and DF-100, the first hypersonic missiles officially in service with any military. The PLARF is reported to have the largest and most diverse land-based missile arsenal in the world — about 95% of which would violate the INF if were China a signatory.Advertisement

Experience is a big factor

Chinese soldiers patrol the border of Khunjerab Pass in Kashgar in China's western Xinjiang region, November 21, 2019.STR/AFP via Getty Images

Despite this meteoric rise in capability, China still lacks one thing the US and many of its NATO allies have: experience.

Whereas China has not fought a major war since 1979, the US has been fighting conflicts in multiple countries since 2001. Although those conflicts have largely been against technologically inferior enemies, the decades of experience have given the US an institutional advantage.Advertisement

The US has "more familiarity with the whole issue of operating under combat, more practical experience with all the problems and issues you have to deal with, and a lot of veterans who have actually operated in combat abroad," Heath said.

"Years of combat experience for the US has built an organization that has been tested and has institutionally developed a lot more practical experience and comfort with operating in a combat footing that is completely absent to the PLA," Heath added.

A Chinese army cadet adjusts dancing humanoid robots at the PLA's Armored Forces Engineering Academy in Beijing, July 22, 2014.GREG BAKER/AFP via Getty Images
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Moreover, the US has more experience working with allies and in combined-arms warfare, whereas the PLA has only started learning how to do so in the last two decades.

"There is a lot of practical experience, experience working as a joint force, and a lot of testing relationships and innovating on the fly to deal with practical combat problems that is totally foreign to the PLA," Heath said.

One area where this is the case is arguably the most important part of a modern naval force: operating aircraft carriers. Unlike the US, which has had almost eight decades of experience with carrier operations, China has no mature doctrine or dedicated carrier task forces.Advertisement

Additionally, its carrier aircraft, the J-15, is plagued with problems — so much so that China may be speeding up development of a stealth fighter replacement.

China also faces a number of other defense-related challenges, such as its struggles to build efficient jet engines, the negative ramifications of its one-child policy, and issues with corruption within the PLA.

A different ambition and an uncertain future

Jason Lee/Reuters
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That said, it is important to bear in mind that China does not seek to challenge the US in a military conflict across the entire world or to become the same type of globally-based military as the US.

Rather, it seeks to assert its authority in its home territory and waters.

China has a massive advantage in that most of the likely conflict scenarios it faces would take place very close to its territory. This means China may not need the same level of competence as the US, as it will be able to bring more troops, ships and aircraft, and weapons to bear in a fight without facing the challenges of operating over distance.Advertisement

As its modernization continues, the PLA will get stronger. Once its equipment issues are fully resolved, it may not take long to develop mature doctrines.

"They've got a different ambition," Heath said, "and we've got to judge them by that."

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