Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Jul 29, 2019
China’s defence white paper-2019: Chinese conventional capabilities and implications for India

China’s White Paper of 2019 makes a sweeping assessment of the present state of international politics and China’s place in it. It captures the official stance of Beijing and response to the evolving strategic realities of the Asia-Pacific and beyond dispelling the notion that it is seeking hegemony in Asia. Very pertinently, the Peoples Liberation Army (PLAA) and its associated service arms the Peoples Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) and the People Liberation Air Force (PLAFF) are undergoing intensive modernisation. A close evaluation of the Defence White Paper does confirm the advances made by the Chinese military in the commissioning and deployment of key weapons platforms.

One of the most significant advances made by the PLAA is in the area of armour. The PLAA armoured corps is very large, fielding the largest active tank force in the world. The major Main Battle Tanks the PLAA inventory include the older Type-59, which is on the brink of de-commissioned. The second is the Type 79 and its variant the Type 88, which are deployed in limited numbers in China’s northern and Western regions. It also fields roughly 3,500 type 96 and Type 99 tanks. However, these tanks are much too heavy for deployment along the Sino-Indian border, but the White Paper confirmed the commissioning and the likely deployment of the latest Type 15 light tank, which is purpose built for mountain warfare. The PLAA’s older tank equipment such as the Type 79 and Type 88 are already undergoing a phase-out. As the White Paper mandates the imperative of mobility for the PLAA, this low-weight Chinese tank meets precisely this requirement. Weighing 35 tonnes with an engine of 1000 horsepower the tank is equipped with a 105mm gun, armour-piercing rounds, gun launched missiles and a firing range of 3,000 meters. Due to the lightness, manoeuvrability and superior protection capability of the tank, deployment on the Sino-Indian border will likely become easier if crises or conflict break out. In addition to the development of the Type 15 battle tank, the White Paper confirms the induction of new surface vessels to into the navy.

The Type 052D Luyang Class Destroyers as well as its marginally older variant the Type 052C vessels will form the backbone of China’s surface fleet. The PLAN already fields eleven of the Type 052D with nine additional vessels undergoing sea trials and equipment fitting. The Type 052D is 154 meters long with a displacement of 7500 tonnes. These surface combatants are equipped with the most advanced Electronically Scanned Arrays Systems (AESA) and 64 Vertical Launched Systems (VLS). The VLS will provide, at least partially, a dedicated air defence capability. Further, the Type 052D has a potent radar capability, which provides it substantial defence against interference from noise and greater capacity to command different electronic systems. In addition, to the Type 052D induction into the Chinese navy, the PLAAF has started to field the J-20.

The J-20 is the most advanced jet in the PLAAF. It is China’s answer to the United States Air Force (USAF)’ F-22 Raptor. It is unclear how many these jets are airworthy and combat ready, but most indications are few dozen are already in service and the White Paper does confirm its induction. The J-20 has a length of 20.3 meters with a wing of 12.9 meters and a maximum speed of Mach 2. The jet is made of very advanced metal alloys, which provides it with stealth cover and has an empty weight of 19,000 kilograms (Kgs). With full weapons and fuel load, the J-20 touches 32,000 kilograms with a maximum altitude ceiling of 20 kilometres (Km). It has a maximum combat range of 1,100 Km. The J-20’ weapons are carried in internal bays which include long range missiles and the LS-6 precision guided bomb. However, the aircraft’ greatest weakness was its engine. Initially tested in 2011, the first batch of planes started to be inducted into PLAAF in 2017. Nevertheless, a crucial challenge had to be overcome, the development of its turbofan engines was time consuming known as the WS-10B or its Russian designed AL-31FM2/3 engine imposed significant manoeuvrability constraints and diminished the J-20’ stealth capabilities when it hit supersonic speeds. Now it appears evidently from the White Paper following a period of struggle to build a sufficiently powerful engine for the aircraft, the J-20’s manufacturer the Chengdu Aerospace Corporation has managed to overcome the engine’s weaknesses by developing a more powerful version called the WS-15.

China’s latest White Paper confirms important advances in key conventional weapons system. From an Indian standpoint, these developments present a worrying challenge. Closing the gap with China will take years. The Indian government will have to think clearly about its choices and options in redressing the growing conventional military imbalance between India and China.

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Kartik Bommakanti

Kartik Bommakanti

Kartik Bommakanti is a Senior Fellow with the Strategic Studies Programme. Kartik specialises in space military issues and his research is primarily centred on the ...

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