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The Vanishing Tail Lights- Widening Gulf in Strategic Technologies between India and China

Finally the breast beating and wailing seem to be dying down in India marking the occasion of 50th anniversary of the Sino – Indian war of 1962 . I always thought that a 50th anniversary is observed of happy events in a nation’s life . I would have preferred not to be reminded of this “golden jubilee” of a traumatic and ignominious period in the nation’s history . From berating the then trio of PM Nehru, Defence minister Krishna Menon and “ heroic “ Genl. Kaul who led the troops from his sick bed in Delhi , to calling the Chinese names for their “perfidy”, the “ China experts “ have come out with all possible theories on why we lost the war. In stark contrast the Chinese were striking a conciliatory note by saying that “ India and China were “partners instead of rivals” with common interests in development . Commenting on the war anniversary , China’s foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei said that the common ground far outweighs disputes and common interests outnumber conflicts and that the world has enough space for the common development of China and India .

China can well afford to be conciliatory as they have the real estate they wanted viz Aksai Chin and don’t see the need to be acrimonious about what happened 50 years ago. Their claim on Arunachal Pradesh is to be viewed more as a bargaining chip in the negotiations. They had put out feelers in this regard in the past.

What is more important for India to contemplate is the fact that China is far ahead of it in economic , military and technological domains . As a former Chief executive of Microsoft India observed in a seminar last year “ the tail lights are receding “.

Witnessing the collapse of the Soviet union towards the end of 1980 s and seeing the remarkable war fought by the U.S. in the gulf ( the first Gulf war with preponderant use of precision weapons ) the Chinese realized the importance of technology in future wars . It decided to modernize their armed forces with emphasis on frontier defence technologies .

For the last decade or so China has started a programme of sweeping military modernization with a view to fight high tech wars. According to the forecast of the U.S. based IHS , China’s defence budget stood at $119.8 billion in 2011 and will rise to $238.2 billion in 2015, marking a combined annual growth rate of 18.75 percent during the period . The focus of China’s strategy is no more limited to Taiwan but a more regional defense posture.

China’s leaders must therefore continue to decide how to prioritize its large but hardly unlimited defense resources. China will in all likelihood focus on improving their strategic capabilities in the three “Near Seas” (the Yellow, East, and South China seas), the area where China faces territorial and maritime disputes with Japan , Vietnam and other south east Asian countries.

There are two areas in which China plans to increase its capabilities . One , its Naval Strength and the other Aerospace .

China has started concentrating on shoring up its naval capabilities , if not for a global role , for a regional role , to start with. This is evident from the statements of many of its leaders. On Oct 20 , Former Chinese president Jiang Zemin , still considered an influential figure within China’s ruling party, meeting leaders of the Shanghai Ocean University in Beijing, told those present that “the 21st century is the century of the sea” and that “as a country with scarce natural resources, China must attach great importance to marine development” .

As a long term strategic plan China may aim for a rudimentary, limited power projection by building few carrier groups and expanding its nuclear-powered submarine force. This could help China highly visible influence in East and Southeast Asia, the Western Pacific, and the Indian Ocean’s strategic sea lanes. A more capable nuclear submarine force, can enable China to indulge in coercive diplomacy , if need be.

One advantage China has is that it can produce large weapons and equipment at very competitive costs. For example, Chinese shipyards are said to be able to produce Type 071 amphibious warfare vessels (LPDs) for about one-third what it costs to build a San Antonio-class LPD in a U.S. yard, meaning that China’s costs are likely around US$565 million per ship.

During the celebration of the 60th anniversary of the founding of the PLA Navy back in April 2012 the first Chinese-made nuclear submarine was exhibited to an audience that included military delegations from 30-odd countries.

China’s first aircraft carrier has been unveiled on Sep 26 2012 though it has to go a long way in populating it with the necessary aircraft and providing the rest of the battle group needed to make it effective and safe. At the commissioning ceremony in the northeastern port of Dalian, Premier Wen Jiabao called the carrier’s launch a “milestone” in Chinese military history and weapons development. Yang Yi, a rear admiral in China’s navy, said in a commentary in state-run media that the carrier moves the country closer to fulfilling a national destiny to “not only be a land power but also a sea power”. Though the aircraft carrier may have psychological impact in the region , it is unlikely at the moment to act as a game changer. But what is more important to note is the Chinese determination to move into carrier based strategy and ambition to eventually graduate to a blue water navy . Geographically, the near seas are of more concern to China as it views them as core zones of national interests where credible access denial and combat capabilities are needed regardless of budget constraints.

The other area in which they are boosting their capability is the Aerospace technology. Apart from military advantages of this area , it also stands to reason that development of aviation sector would benefit the economy since the country is characterized by vast distances , widely separated cities and towns and obstacles in the form of mountains and gorges which make land travel slow and difficult.

In 2011 , China announced its twelfth five year plan which included spending of one fourth of a trillion dollars on its aero space industry . A subsidiary of AVIC state owned aviation corporation had already bought two American companies one , Cirrus Aviation maker of small propeller planes and the second , Teledyne Continental which produced the engines for cirrus and other smaller aircraft.

It is interesting to note that two thirds of the new airports under construction today in the world are being built in China .The airlines in China are expected to increase their fleet size 3 times over the next decade or so.

There is of course a down side to this modernization of Naval and Aero space capabilities. Possessing the world’s second largest defense budget will allow China to indulge in increased spending to develop an increasingly capable military. However structural and economic compulsions in future could slow down this military spending .The strength of China’s armed forces will thus be directly dependent upon China’s economic compulsions.

China has developed an Anti Ship Ballistic Missile (ASBM) capable of attacking U.S. carriers in the pacific. The ASBM based on DF 21 missile has both over the horizon radar (OTH) technology to locate the carriers in the sea , coupled with cluster of satellites to get the exact position and then use the terminal guidance for the missile to home on to a carrier. To achieve an effective and reliable ASBM capability Chinese have to ensure that an ASBM can defeat American missile defenses; second, equip a ballistic-missile weapon system to track and hit a moving target in its terminal phase; and last, provide accurate, real-time geo-location tracking and targeting data—particularly using space-based assets—to the missile system prior to launch. A study by the International Strategic Studies Group of the National Institute of Advanced Studies , showed that such a system is feasible. The ASBM would help the Chinese in their policy of Access and Area Denial policies which is dictated by Chinese concern over the US dominance of the Pacific and the latter’s v recent policy initiative to turn their strategic sights to this region.

Space Programmes

China is pursuing an ambitious and well-funded space program. 2011 was a note worthy year for Chinese space accomplishments. It conducted 19 non-test space launches, one more than the U.S. On 29 September 2011, China launched its first space laboratory module, Tiangong-1 (“Heavenly Palace 1”). On 18 June 2012, the three-person Shenzhou-9 mission—which included China’s first female astronaut, Liu Yang docked with Tiangong-1 in the Chinese space program’s first piloted rendezvous. On 24 June, in another Chinese first, Shenzhou-9 undocked and re docked manually with Tiangong-1 . The eventual aim is to master docking capabilities to assemble a space station .

China also appears to be building a smaller version of the American Shuttles called “Shenlong” with less than a third of latter’s cargo capacity . The aim is to validate many of space plane technologies . Chinese-language media claimed that on 8 January 2011, China completed a “test flight” of the Shenlong (Divine Dragon) space plane . The 4 ton winged space plane was rocketed into a 100 km. high suborbital trajectory for test of reentry systems starting at Mach 15. Continued successful development of the space plane could give the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) an operational military space plane comparable to the U. S. Air Force X-37B currently flying its second orbital mission. Comparing the parameters of the two , the western experts are of the view that the Shenlong vehicle closely matches the U. S. Air Force X-37B . The military dimension of this programme is deducible from the fact that People’s Liberation Army is in charge of the “Shenlong” space plane project.

China’s space plane program could eventually develop into military hypersonic vehicle program. Chinese seem to be of the view that a space plane could perform certain military missions better than a space station, such as anti-satellite and reconnaissance, and thus enhance China’s “deterrence.”

China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation is developing an advanced version of Long March 5 rocket’s 120-ton-thrust liquid oxygen (LOX) and kerosene engine. The engine is said to be more powerful than the 75-ton-thrust engines of the rockets used for launching China’s piloted Shenzou space craft. The engine is non-toxic, pollution-free and according to CMSE the engine makes China the second country in the world, after Russia, to grasp the core technologies for a LOX/kerosene high-pressure staged combustion cycle rocket engine . The new version of Long March 5 will more than triple Chinese rockets’ carrying capacity by lofting a maximum of 25 tons to low Earth-orbit and 14 tons to geosynchronous orbit . The increased lift is critical to China’s ambition to build a space station by 2020 and to the third phase of the nation’s moon mission , which aims to bring lunar rock samples — collected by a robotic rover — back to China for analysis .

According to a November 2009 article Jiang Feng a member of the China Strategy Institute stated the “next step’ of the Chinese Air Force is to “focus” on “developing” laser interceptor satellites . There are also reports that China’s air force is currently working hard to develop a new model orbital bomber .

The eight satellites China plans to launch into space to monitor ocean waters surrounding the country could , eventually be useful for an intelligence role too. With three maritime satellites already in orbit, adding eight more , according to John Walker of the Nottingham Trent University , was “a very significant investment just to monitor water.” Development of new jet fighters.

On 31st October China successfully completed a test flight of its new fifth-generation J-31 jet fighter . China is the third country in the world – after the United States and Russia – to have developed a stealth fifth-generation fighter aircraft. The J-31 is a mid-sized combat jet with two Russian-made engines in its prototype development phase. The Chinese news paper Huanqiu Shibao said that production models will have Chinese WS-13 engines .

The Chinese are also developing the J-20 fighter jet with stealth technology and first flight tested in January 2011 . J-20 may become operational by 2020.

An image of a Chinese jet fighter with strong resemblance to American F-22 Raptor fighter and F-35 lightning 2 appeared on the web on Sept 15. with looks similar to a stealth aircraft. There is however no confirmation of its existence.. The new aircraft , according to some aviation experts ,could be a fourth-generation fighter with less sophisticated avionics than those of F-22 or F-35.

The aircraft model Shen Fei is described by an aviation expert Robert Hewson as an “F-35-sized F-22”, Some argue that the Shen Fei is a result of some Chinese cyber espionage . It is believed that the American Defence Secy. Panetta , during his recent visit to China , may have taken up the issue of cyber intrusions with the Chinese defense minister on Sep 18 , as a “ growing threat posed to both economic and security interests of the U.S. It is possible that Panetta had the Shen Fei in mind when he discussed the cyber intrusions.

Introduction of Drones

China is moving into use of drones in a big way . It is setting up the first two drone military bases in Liaoning province to monitor the situation in the coastal areas. North East region of China witnesses very high military activity with 10 military exercises involving the Navy and the Air Force of the USA, Japan and South Korea conducted in the region. China which views the region as strategically important has now decided to protect it by drones as well. They will be deployed to collect video information about the neighbors’ military exercises and help in coordinating the activities of China’s Air Force and the Navy in the waters of the Yellow Sea and the East China Sea.. Currently China is believed to hold 30 drones with various modifications .

The drones are also used to monitor the Diaoyu Islands which is with Japan . In a possible conflict between the two countries in those disputed waters the flights of China’s drones at low altitudes could be a bone of contention .

Chinese have obviously made a breakthrough to announce setting up of 11 drone bases by 2015 . It is not yet clear whether China would arm its drones . It however needs to be accepted that it would do so if they see the need to enter an armed conflict. For now China will deploy high altitude drones with a long range for intelligence missions and to guide the anti ship ballistic missiles which they have been developing .The Chinese mass media call them “aircraft carrier killers. It is estimated that from the Chinese Shaguang military base where they are located they would be able to hit targets located in 70% of the South China Sea waters with the remaining 30% controlled in the future by the Chinese aircraft carriers.

The value of drones both for offensive and defensive purposes ( monitoring ) is by now accepted as vital ingredients in next generation wars and weapons .

Though China has been reliant on Russian assistance in the development of core systems such as engines and avionics, China’s indigenous aerospace manufacturing base and its capabilities are now increasingly able to supply the PLAAF with aircraft platforms, technologies, and systems required for its modernisation. This is evident from the proportion of fourth-generation aircraft in service with the PLAAF, which has reportedly risen from 23% in 2005 to 33% in 2010, and is expected to reach about 50% by 2015.

Moving into the Arctic

Given its hunger for resources to fuel its galloping economy , China has now set its eyes on the Arctic seas , whose fast melting ice has exposed what is thought to be a treasure trove of minerals and oil. .As a first step towards its claims in the region , a senior PLAN officer said in 2010 that Arctic belongs to people all around the world . and China’s State Oceanic Administration claimed that China is a ‘near Arctic state’ and that the Arctic is an ‘inherited wealth for all humankind.’ China wants a permanent membership on the Arctic Council .Equally important for china is the fact that the opening of the arctic route makes the conventional sea lanes of communication through the Suez quite redundant for China, ending its fears over blockage of Malacca straits by hostile forces and offering it an alternate route to Europe.

China’s intentions are clear when one sees its actions . In September 2012, the Chinese ice breaker Xuelong capable of breaking 1.2 meters thick ice, completed an unprecedented round trip between the Pacific and the Atlantic via the Arctic,. The Polar Research Institute of China, said that the icebreaker performed scientific research operations including systematic geographical surveys, installation of an automatic meteorological station and investigations on oceanic turbulence and methane content in the Arctic area .

Yet another icebreaker, an 8000 ton vessel with an endurance capacity of 20,000 nautical miles, has been commissioned for polar expeditions. It is expected to be operationally ready by 2014 .


On June 15 2012 , a manned Chinese submersible set a new record for the deepest sea dive over 6,000 metres . The “Jiaolong” craft dived over 19,000 feet into the Mariana Trench in the western Pacific Ocean According to Xinhua news agency this is the first in a series of six dives which will plumb depths of 7,000 metres . The submersible, which carried three men, reached around 6,500 metres . Experts say China intends to use the submersible for scientific research, such as collecting samples of undersea life and studying geological structures, as well as future development of mineral resources.

Rare Earth consolidation and building up reserves.

Another indication of China’s plans to increase its strategic strength is in the rare earths field. It is regulating the rare-earth industry and is building up strategic reserve of the minerals. This enables the country to fix the prices and control the supply in the international market.

China is the world’s largest producer, consumer and exporter of rare earths, controlling over 90 per cent of global supplies. China’s rare earth oxides (REO) output has increased rapidly from a little over 1,000 tonnes in 1978 to more than 100,000 tonnes in 2012. Rare earths are a critical component of many defence and weapon technologies.

War under informationalised conditions

The armed forces are getting increasingly networked in communication and command structure. The new doctrine of fighting is termed “Local War Under Informationalized Conditions,” which will coordinate military operations on land, in air, at sea, in space and across the electromagnetic spectrum under a networked architecture. Consequently Chinese would like to maintain dominance in the battle space information domain and control adversary’s information. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is developing more comprehensive computer network exploitation (CNE) techniques to support strategic intelligence collection.

The US-China Economic and Security Review Commission Report on the Capability of the People’s Republic of China to conduct cyber warfare and Computer Network Exploitation had the following to say with respect to China’s plans for information warfare : . “The direct result of this ambition is to attack the enemy’s networked information systems, creating “blind spots” that various PLA forces could exploit at predetermined times . Attacks on vital targets such as an adversary’s intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) systems is envisaged by use of increasingly sophisticated jamming systems and anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons. Attack on adversary’s data and networks is part of the plan.”

The PLA is reaching out across the Chinese civilian sector to meet the intensive personnel requirements necessary to support its burgeoning IW capabilities, employing people with specialized skills from all sectors of economy as well as academia . One should not be surprised if they tap into China’s hacker community too . The PLA is training and equipping its force to use a variety of IW tools for intelligence gathering and to establish information dominance over its adversaries during a conflict. PLA campaign doctrine identifies the early establishment of information dominance over an enemy as one of the highest operational priorities in a conflict .”

It is clear from the technological developments mentioned above that China not only intends to be an economic but also a technological and military power equal to the U.S. . India indeed needs to take note of it and try to level up so that the tail lights do not vanish permanently.

(The writer, Mr S.Gopal, is visiting Professor, Sir Ashutosh Mukherjee Chair, National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore, India.Email:

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