'Tin pot' PLA under fire
China's outdated military arsenal is out of step with its global ambitions, writes Doug Nairne
A fire that crippled a Chinese submarine last month was an embarrassing reminder of just how far the People's Liberation Army has to go before it becomes a modern fighting force.
The Ming-class ship involved in the incident was built using an obsolete Soviet design first used in the 1950s. By most accounts, these ships would be more at home in a museum than in a navy that has aspirations of regional, if not global, operations.
The subs are outclassed by those operated by Japan, the US and other western navies to the point that one military expert described them as 'easy targets ... fodder for more advanced attack submarines'.
They are also dangerous to operate. Two years ago, all 70 crew on board another Ming-class submarine died after a mechanical malfunction during a training mission off China's northeast coast. The PLA has not revealed whether there were any casualties in the latest incident, which took place during an exercise in the South China Sea, near Taiwan.
The PLA has spent billions of dollars to modernise its navy in recent years and the Communist Party leadership has demanded that the military shed its historical tactics of favouring quantity over quality.
Despite this, the obsolete Ming-class ships and their even older sister class - the Romeo - still account for about 50 of the 60 or so submarines in the Chinese fleet.
Elsewhere, in the 2.3 million-strong ranks of the PLA, the equipment situation is no better. Even after a decade of reform and heavy spending, the arsenal is still mainly stocked with equipment older than the soldiers using it. For the most part, it would be useless on a modern battlefield.
The People's Liberation Army Air Force, for example, is the third-largest air force in the world, but most of its aircraft are badly ageing Soviet models that date back to the 1950s and 60s. According to Globalsecurity.org, 80 per cent of the air force's estimated 1,250 fighters are outdated. The air force still has 300 J-6 aircraft, an obsolete design based on the Soviet MiG-19, which first flew in 1953. The Soviets removed the aircraft from frontline service 40 years ago.
The army has 5,000 Type 59 tanks, which are copies of a Soviet vehicle developed in 1946. The famed second world war-era T-34 tank was still in the PLA arsenal until a few years ago. Mainland analysts say the PLA's inventory of rusted-out gear means China gets less bang for its defence buck than other powers do. The PLA is so far behind, they say, it will require years of double-digit percentage increases in military spending just to get rid of the archaic equipment and replace it with weapons that western militaries have already been using for decades.
Catching up with the US military, or even Japan's, would require a much greater effort.
'The growth in military strength needs a long-term build-up, but the fact is China's defence expenditure has been running at a very low level for years,' Yan Xuetong, director of Tsinghua University's Institute of International Studies, recently told the Xinhua news agency. 'The double-digit budget growth is not likely to generate substantial progress in China's military modernisation in the short run, considering the low point it started from.'
The central government said it would spend 247.7 billion yuan this year on defence - an increase of almost 13 per cent over last year. But analysts say the actual budget is two or three times as much when calculated the same way as western military budgets. A study released last month by the US-based think-tank Rand Corporation pegged the spending power of Chinese defence expenditure between US$69 billion and US$78 billion. The report said spending could reach US$185 billion by 2025.
'China's defence spending has more than doubled over the past six years, almost catching up with Britain and Japan,' said Keith Crane, the lead author of the study. 'Although the rate of increase has slowed, by 2025 China will be spending more on defence than any [US] allies.'
The rapid increase in defence spending and modernising of the PLA's arsenal has alarmed China's neighbours and provided ammunition for hawks in the US government.
US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld recently said China's efforts to re-arm itself were out of step with the nation's rhetoric on its desire for a peaceful emergence as a world power.
The PLA has countered criticism of its windfall by pleading poverty.
During the recent National People's Congress in Beijing, Communist Party-controlled media carried articles quoting generals bemoaning their lack of funding.
'Compared with other major countries in the world, the military expenditures of our country are still at a fairly low level and still can't fully meet the actual needs of pushing forward military reforms and building an IT-supported army,' Xinhua quoted Major-General Ding Jiye, head of the financial division of the PLA's General Logistics Department, as saying.
But the PLA's problems go beyond the need for money to acquire more weapons. Western and regional analysts say buying modern gear is only the first step. The PLA also needs to develop the tactics and skills to use and maintain it.
China has spent a significant amount of its arms budget in recent years on SU-27 and SU-30 fighter aircraft from Russia. Shocked by the effective use of US airpower in the Gulf wars and the former Yugoslavia, the PLA has tried to upgrade its air force to a level where it would be something more than target practice for Taiwanese or US fighters in the event of a war.
These new aircraft form the elite squadrons of the air force. Yet, even they are plagued by reports of limited training time for pilots, crashes, poor maintenance and difficulty in developing tactics.
According to mainland media reports, two fighters believed to be SU-27s crashed in Shandong province within minutes of each other on March 30 after developing mechanical problems. The pilots of both aircraft survived after ejecting. The magazine Kanwa Defence Review reported another aircraft crashed the same day in Zhejiang province.
'Frequent and vicious flying accidents indicate that the [air force] is still haunted by a variety of troubles in the command of advanced fighter aircraft, training philosophies and the quality of pilots,' the magazine said.
Analysts say the PLA's attitude towards maintenance is still stuck in the 1960s era of most of its equipment - a time when weapons were unsophisticated and did not need expensive and time-consuming preventative repairs.
'The Chinese seem to adopt the attitude of 'if it isn't broken, don't fix it' - which of course is not an approach applicable to high-maintenance platforms,' said David Shambaugh in his book Modernising China's Military: Problems, Progress, and Prospects.
Cases in point are the PLA's problems with its deployment of the advanced Kilo-class submarines purchased from Russia at a cost of around US$250 million per ship. Of the first batch of four subs delivered in the 1990s, at least two were reported to have been returned to Russia with serious electrical problems related to poor maintenance.
China has since purchased eight more Kilos for an estimated US$1.6 billion. Even so, the troubled Ming-class will form the backbone of the PLA's submarine fleet for a long time to come.