What’s in the U.S. 2021 Chinese Communist Party Military Power Report

On June 4, the U.S. Department of Defense submitted its latest assessment of the Chinese Communist Party’s military to Congress (China’s Military: The People’s Liberation Army). The report concluded that the Chinese Communist military continues to use the United States as a hypothetical enemy, accelerating the modernization process of the military, increasing its projection capabilities, and improving its capabilities in all areas of combat, eroding the U.S. military advantage in certain areas.

The report also identifies a number of weaknesses in the CCP military, including lack of combat experience, inadequate field training, limited joint warfighting capabilities, untested new organizational structures, and reliance on foreign suppliers for certain military equipment and materials.

The SS and the Communist Party Leaders’ Private Armies

The report opens by revealing that the priority of the CCP’s military is the defense of the Party, followed by the defense of territorial and overseas interests, as well as interests in space and cyberspace.

The report describes the growing ambitions of the CCP leadership as Xi Jinping continues to make military modernization a priority, further strengthening his control over the military. The CCP’s control over the military is absolute, and the “Party Army” serves the Party, not the state. The report quotes analysts as saying that “unlike the national army, which is dedicated to defending the country and its people,” the CCP’s military “creates political power for the Party.

The report specifically cites the June 4, 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre as the most vivid example of the CCP’s military defending the Party. The report also commented that the Ministry of Defense does not manage the military, but only interacts with foreign militaries, and that the CCP’s Military Commission, chaired by Xi Jinping, is the center of power.

It appears that the U.S. Department of Defense’s China Working Group has done a much more in-depth study that describes the attributes of the CCP’s military and largely counts as a strict distinction between the CCP and China. Such an assessment should be beneficial to the Chinese people, and if the U.S. and China do go to war, the U.S. military should do its best to protect civilians, including even the lowest ranking officers and soldiers of the Chinese Communist Party.

Evaluation of Xi Jinping’s “Dream of a Stronger Military

The report describes the Communist Party’s military efforts to shift from an infantry-based, low-tech military to a high-tech, networked force that increasingly emphasizes joint warfare and naval and air power projection.

In late 2017, Xi Jinping carried out military reform and restructuring, and recently proposed to basically modernize the army by 2035 and build a world-class army by the middle of the 21st century, which is Xi Jinping’s “dream of a strong army. The military reform gives the chairman of the Central Military Commission more control, reduces the influence of the army, elevates the missile force to a rocket force, establishes the Strategic Support Force and the Joint Logistics Support Force, transforms seven military regions into five combat zones, and reorganizes divisions and regiments into brigades.

The report assesses that the military reform, originally scheduled to end in 2020, will actually last until 2021-2022, and that long-standing bureaucracy, adapting to radical change and institutionalization, may take longer.

The report concludes that Xi appears to have made significant progress in controlling the military and ensuring loyalty by extending his anti-corruption campaign to the military, marginalizing political opponents, and strengthening his personal control over the military; the CCP’s naval and armed police, both of which are under the control of the military commission. There are indications, however, that Xi still doubts the loyalty of some military officers.

The report assesses that Xi’s focus on political loyalty may undermine other elements of the military’s modernization process and quotes analysts as saying, “From an operational perspective, the emphasis on political loyalty robs military generals of their creativity and turns their attention inward.”

The U.S. military has a thorough grasp of the biggest weaknesses in the CCP military’s organization. What the report fails to mention is that if war does break out, the CCP’s top brass will likely be afraid to delegate authority to subordinates to respond in a timely manner to front-line decisions about command.

Assessment of the Communist Party Army’s Battle Strength

The report describes the Chinese Communist Party’s military as having about 2 million people in active service and predicts that by 2035, it may attempt to compete with the United States and allies across the Indo-Pacific region in all areas of conflict, including ground, air, sea, space, cyberspace and the electromagnetic environment.

The report cites Chinese Communist Party comments that the CCP is preparing for “a larger, relatively high-intensity local war at sea,” most likely a relatively small-scale conflict over disputed maritime claims in the South China Sea or East China Sea, and a larger conflict in the Taiwan Strait with U.S. involvement. Space and cyber are the “new high points” of strategic competition.

Deterrence Nuclear Capabilities

The report describes the CCP’s post-Cold War nuclear strategy as primarily directed at the United States. The Communist Party’s current nuclear arsenal is much smaller than that of the United States or Russia, but it is producing a much larger nuclear force; it has an estimated inventory of 350 nuclear warheads, including about 240 land-based ballistic missiles, 48 missiles on four nuclear submarines, and 20 air-delivered bombs carried by bombers. The CCP has made progress in the direction of the nuclear trinity, but the CCP remains concerned that U.S. missile defense and long-range precision conventional weapons could undermine the CCP’s nuclear forces.

  1. Conventional Missiles

The report argues that the CCP is improving its long-range precision strike capabilities, including against U.S. and allied bases in the Indo-Pacific region. The report estimates that the CCP has about 600 or more short-range ballistic missiles with ranges of 300-1,000 kilometers; more than 150 short- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles with ranges of 1,000-3,000 kilometers; more than 200 intermediate-range ballistic missiles with ranges of 3,000-5,500 kilometers; and about 100 intercontinental ballistic missiles with ranges of more than 5,500 kilometers. Some of these missiles pose a threat to U.S. military bases in the Indo-Pacific, including Guam.

  1. Chinese Communist Air Force

The report argues that the Chinese Communist Air Force is shifting from its traditional role of territorial air defense to one that can conduct offensive and defensive operations far from its borders, primarily in the southeast. The modernization of the CCP Air Force is eroding the long-standing U.S. military advantage. The CCP has about eight hundred fourth-generation fighters, including the J-10, J-11 and and J-16, and the fifth-generation J-20 stealth fighter is also in service. The CCP also has about 450 bombers or attack aircraft, including the Boom H-6K, which can carry six ground-launching cruise missiles.

The CCP is also developing early warning aircraft, including the Air Marshal-2000, Air Marshal-200, and Air Marshal-500; as well as the Transport-20 transport aircraft and IL-78 refueling aircraft imported from Russia, and large unmanned aircraft.

The report reveals that the CCP has procured an unspecified number of S-400 surface-to-air missiles from Russia that may intercept some short-range ballistic missiles; the Red Flag-19 air defense missile, which the CCP is copying, may be able to intercept ballistic missiles with a range of 3,000 km.

  1. Chinese Communist Navy

The report describes the CCP Navy as having approximately 350 warships, including two aircraft carriers, the latest Type 075 amphibious ships, six nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines, six nuclear-powered attack submarines, and 46 diesel-powered attack submarines; as well as Type 052D destroyers and Type 054A frigates, capable of area air defense and anti-ship operations, and other smaller combat ships such as Type 056 frigates, which operate only in the coastal other smaller combat ships, such as the Type 056 frigate, only operate near the coast.

The report concluded that the Chinese navy “has little ability to conduct missions beyond the first island chain, but will continue to grow in capability as it gains more experience in distant sea operations and acquires larger, more advanced platforms.

The CCP’s Marine Corps, which is primarily oriented toward the islands of southern China and is the most capable amphibious force among the South China Sea claimants, could invade some of the islands under Taiwan’s control, but a full-scale amphibious assault on Taiwan would involve significant geopolitical and military risks.

The report mentions that the CCP’s maritime police and maritime militia, using “gray area” coercion tactics, could deny taking orders from the CCP’s military and shift the blame for escalating conflicts to other countries, most of which are far from having strong coast guards or navies.

  1. Strategic Support Forces

The report reveals that the CCP’s space operations and information operations (including cyber, electronic, and psychological warfare) are aimed primarily at the United States. The CCP seeks to use offensive cyber operations to disrupt, degrade, or destroy hostile systems, including critical infrastructure; it also includes cyber espionage against military, civilian, or commercial targets, theft of military know-how, intellectual property, etc.

The CCP is developing counterspace capabilities such as anti-satellite missiles, land-based lasers, and co-orbital space weapons. in July 2020, the CCP completed the Beidou satellite navigation system, reducing its reliance on the U.S. Global Positioning System (GPS). The CCP operates or owns about 14 percent of the known satellites in orbit, more than any other country outside the United States.

  1. Chinese Communist Army

According to the report, the CCP’s Army is the world’s largest ground force, primarily to ensure political stability in the CCP. Communist leaders have called for the Army to transform into a networked force that can flexibly use advanced technology and capabilities, move faster, and have the ability to strike farther and faster, including long-range multiple rockets, artillery, tanks, attack helicopters, special teams, electronic warfare, and possibly cyber weapons. The report vaguely mentions that the Chinese Communist Party’s land forces are under-equipped.

Weaknesses of the Chinese Communist Party’s Army

The report argues that the CCP is attempting to attack Taiwan and also to resolve territorial disputes in its neighborhood by force, as well as to counter U.S. capabilities in East Asia, but its ability to carry out its mission remains problematic and uncertain.

The report analyzes the CCP military’s lack of recent combat experience, the last time it fought was in 1979. Communist army officials frequently cite a “peace sickness” never before seen in the force.

The CCP military lacks training and exercise programs that are close to the real world; there are relatively few joint exercises, and the 2020 epidemic has led to the suspension of some joint exercises and training; and a large number of new weapons are replacing traditional equipment, making it difficult to train personnel to operate them. Xi Jinping has repeatedly emphasized improving “win-win” capabilities, but troops are undergoing restructuring and may be unprepared for conflict.

Other areas where the CCP military continues to be weak include: advanced anti-submarine warfare and projection capabilities; carrier fleet operations; long-range intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and targeting; sea-based air defense; over-water air operations; and long-range logistics and air refueling.

Russia still accounts for about 75 percent of the CCP’s weapons imports and is often the technology platform that the CCP imitates and copies. The CCP’s push for civil-military integration and espionage to acquire foreign technology to bridge the gap does not appear to be sufficient to achieve its goals.

The report also argues that political and economic issues may also constrain the CCP’s military, with significantly increased domestic unrest, public health threats and natural disasters posing security risks that could lead CCP leaders to devote more military resources to managing these issues. In addition, low levels of economic growth may constrain growth in the defense budget. The CCP military has nearly doubled its budget since 2009, with a budget of 1.355 trillion yuan (about $209 billion) in 2021, while the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute estimates the actual budget at $240 billion.

The latest report from the U.S. Department of Defense is a continuing reminder of the growing military threat from the Chinese Communist Party and a precise stab at the soft underbelly of the Chinese military. The U.S. military is still following the principle of deterrence by strength, seeking to deter miscalculation by the CCP’s top brass and reduce the risk of military conflict, and the U.S. military’s assessment should also serve as another warning to the CCP.