China takes aim

PUBLISHED : Friday, 21 April, 1995, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 21 April, 1995, 12:00am

IN just 15 years' time China's nuclear forces will have the power to strike across Asia, western Russia and even the east coast of the United States.

It will have aircraft carriers and its navy will be a force to be reckoned with in the region, quite capable of cutting its way across the South China Sea. The implications for disputes like the Spratlys are obvious.

Its growing submarine force will push India into a beneath-the-waves arms race in quality of weaponry, quiet running and detectability.

Those are some of the conclusions in a report from one of the world's leading military intelligence study organisations, the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

It was put together by Professor Paul Dibb, head of Strategic and Defence Studies at the Australian National University and formerly deputy secretary of the Joint Intelligence Organisation in Canberra. And it presents a view of Asian forces markedly different from today, of high technology armies, air forces and navies capable of wielding influence outside their current domain.

But China's new naval might will be countered by Japan which will continue to produce one or two submarines a year. 'They will be the region's most capable submarine force and the hardest to detect,' it says. Japan will be unlikely to have developed nuclear weapons, but will have deliberately cut down the research and development times needed to acquire them quickly.

It will probably also have a missile defence system capable of handling limited nuclear attack by tactical and theatre ballistic missiles from countries such as China, Russia or North Korea. Even though the Chinese leadership has always denied that it would use its own power across the region or wider, the analysis of Chinese nuclear growth is startling.

By 2010 China will have a more capable strategic nuclear force with between 50 and 70 multiple warhead, solid-fuel intercontinental ballistic missiles compared to 14 now. Each will have a range of 8,000 to 12,000 kilometres, all on mobile launchers and in silos. There is little sign that international pressure will induce Beijing to curb the programme.

China will also develop three or four second-generation nuclear missile submarines, equipped with missiles with a range of up to 8,000 km providing it with a second strike capability.

'According to one source, China will eventually build six ballistic missile submarines,' Professor Dibb adds. 'They will also be capable of targeting all of Asia from submerged positions close to China.' The country will have a large number of surface-to-surface missiles with ranges of up to 900 km, equipped with nuclear and chemical warheads.

The report Towards a New Power base in Asia is an analysis of military hardware developments. It adds: 'China's nuclear-capable, medium-range H-6 bombers are all of 1950s and 1960s technology and although the PRC flight tested the Hong 7 - which is its only relatively modern bomber - in 1988, China seems unlikely to develop a capable modern bomber force unless it acquires the Russian Tu-22m 'Backfire'.' Nonetheless it warns that if China's economic growth is sustained it will not only improve its capacity to pay for high technology imports but will also advance the country's industrial base so that it will be able to make 'quite significant' leaps in areas such as cruise missile technology.

The report says that in the next 15 years the PLA will concentrate on modern forces that are more mobile, with weapons systems of greater accuracy and with greater emphasis on joint operations.

The PLA will give priority to more modern tanks and other priorities are likely to include more attack helicopters, and ground-based radars.

In particular China seems set to establish 'rapid reaction units' for emergencies around the region. The report warns: 'Countries that share land borders with China will be concerned about its numerical superiority in land forces and its increased emphasis on rapid reaction troops and training for combined arms operations.' The Chinese navy will have aircraft carriers by 2010. 'They will be capable of extended operations,' it adds. 'Nevertheless, it will be a long time before China possesses an aircraft carrier force capable of major power projection, although on regional standards it will be a force to be reckoned with. China's capability to project force will still be limited by 2010 but it will be more capable in this regard compared with any medium powers in the region.' The regional power rivalry may well be between China and India. The report warns that the prospect of a Chinese aircraft carrier force would also prompt India into producing aircraft carriers of its own along with a more capable submarine force.

India will also have developed a small number of intercontinental nuclear missiles designed to deter China. But Japan's navy will be best in both quality and quantity.

Its air force will continue to purchase the most advanced US-manufactured fighters and a locally Japanese-built version of the F-16 known as the FSX will be flying by 2000.

'Japan is determined to develop the technology for advanced supersonic aircraft independently of the United States,' it says.

If the Korean peninsula is unified and US forces withdraw from South Korea this will accelerate Japan's need for more capable defence forces. Nonetheless the only foreseeable circumstance in which Japan would opt to acquire what defence specialists call 'power-projection forces' such as aircraft carriers capable of operating a long way from home would be if it had a total loss of confidence in any alliance with the United States.

'Japan's highly advanced technological base by 2010 will mean that it could expand its military capabilities very rapidly indeed, and with little warning, if it perceived that its strategic circumstances were deteriorating. It could double most of its conventional forces within three or five years of a political decisions to do so.' The report paints a picture of Russia continuing to run down its forces in the Pacific region in number, in state of readiness, morale and technological edge.

Even now its forces along the border with China are only at between 25 and 33 per cent of their manning capabilities and equipment is being reduced rapidly. 'If relations with China continue to improve, it is conceivable that the Russian army along the border could contract to its pre-Sino-Soviet conflict level of 15 divisions.' Its air force in the region could be cut to half its present size.

Although the Pentagon predicts that US forces in the Pacific will stay at present levels, Professor Dibb believes they will in fact contract considerably, especially if North and South Korea unify. This might also lead to US force reductions in Japan.

Nonetheless he predicts that the US will maintain a presence in Diego Garcia, Guam, Singapore and elsewhere.

'The USA will continue to have far flung strategic responsibilities and interests in the Pacific and Indian Oceans which cannot satisfactorily be covered from US Third Fleet bases in the continental USA or from mid-Pacific bases in Hawaii and Guam.

'This will be particularly the case as China becomes more powerful, India becomes a more important factor in the Indian Ocean and the Gulf continues to be strategically unstable.' US nuclear forces in the Pacific will be reduced and, depending on trends in the Chinese and Russian navies, so will its aircraft carriers.

Professor Dibb sees South Korea, Taiwan and some of the ASEAN powers acquiring the latest developments in stealth technology, cruise missiles and the most advanced communications with the transfer of advanced weapons and equipment from European, North American and Russian suppliers. But regional arms industries will develop fast with countries in the region collaborating on projects.

'Just as Asian countries have proved an ability to compete in the world's civilian market, they will be increasingly able to sustain a modern defence industry,' he says.



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China takes aim

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