A new unclassified report by the Defense Intelligence Agency is warning of technological gains against the U.S. military that include pulling ahead of the Pentagon in the development of key weapons systems, particularly China.
“China is building a robust, lethal force with capabilities spanning the air, maritime, space and information domains which will enable China to impose its will in the region,” wrote DIA Director Lt. Gen. Robert Ashley, in a preface to the report.
In a briefing to reporters at the Defense Department on Tuesday, a senior Pentagon official said that in terms of ballistic and cruise missile technology,” I would say they [the Chinese] are with the most modern militaries in the world.”
In particular, the official noted, China is leading in hypersonic missile development. Beijing has been testing for years and is close to deploying a maneuverable hypersonic glide vehicle that will sit atop its ballistic missiles.
Also, China has a major advantage over all other military forces around the world with its massive arsenal of 1,200 sophisticated short-range ballistic missiles.
“For a variety of reasons they’re out ahead of the world in medium-and intermediate-range precision strike systems, partly because the United States and Russia that limited them,” the official said, referencing the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.
That agreement bans the U.S. and Russia from developing and deploying land-based or ballistic or cruise missiles that have ranges between 500 and 5,500 km (310 – 3,417 miles).
China’s distinct advantage in precision strike capability is another reason why the Trump administration is set to withdraw from the Cold War-era treaty — that, and the fact that Russia is violating the treaty anyway by developing and deploying a land-based cruise missile system.
China, meanwhile, has never been a signatory to the INF agreement and has used it to take full advantage of the restrictions on U.S. and Russian forces.
“From the Chinese perspective, they would hope that it would cause a great threat to U.S. warships,” the DIA official said. “They certainly have developed anti-ship capabilities in a variety of different ways to deal with concerns that they’ve had a couple of decades about the potential for U.S. Navy and other allied navies operating in the region.”
China’s continued, rapid military development is a departure from previous decades when Beijing sought only to defend itself. Now, China seeks to be assertive globally.
“Chinese leaders characterize China’s long-term military modernization program as essential to achieving great power status,” Ashley noted.
“As it continues to grow in strength and confidence, our nation’s leaders will face a China insistent on having a greater voice in global interactions, which at times may be antithetical to U.S. interests,” he wrote.
The South China Sea is already a major point of contention, the DIA official noted. The Chinese built three large islands between 2014-2015 and have since developed and fortified them.
“They have three large airfields on these artificial islands that they created down there where they can base all types of military capabilities down there. They can have a lot of sensors down there. They can support naval operations, and in the future, air operations much further away from China,” the official said.
“They’re able to be present in a more persistent manner than they might have been before, if they had to come all the way down from the mainland or from Hainan Island up nearer the mainland, to get into some sort of a conflict with a regional claimant or with the U.S. or allied forces.”
For Chinese President Xi Jinping, resolve the ‘Taiwan issue’ remains a priority, the official said, adding that he “has made it clear that resolving or making progress, at least, on resolving, from his perspective, the Taiwan situation is a very top priority for him.”
As for whether China will attack Taiwan, the DIA assesses that action is not imminent nor likely in the near-term. The official said China could always launch a suprise attack using is massive arsenal of short-range ballistic missiles — which he said appear to have been built specifically to target Taiwan.
The official also noted that overall, the Chinese military is not on par with U.S. forces, noting that China has “not fought a major war in 40 years.”
“When you talk parity … there is more than just technology involved; there’s experience, there’s experience, there is command structure, there is training, there is proficiency … they have a lot that they need to do,” he said.
Over time, however, China will continue to improve its air, sea, and land forces to a point where, internally, a decision will likely be made that Bejing’s forces are capable enough to use military force regionally, Taiwan being the target.