China has taken a quantum leap in hypersonic technology by mounting DF-ZF hypersonic glide vehicle on DF17 MRBM, making it difficult to detect, thus exposing a vulnerability of global air defence systems.
In the post Second World War era, arms race was identified by the advances and innovations in conventional and nuclear weapons, with US and USSR leading the trend. After acquiring sufficient destructive force for Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), some common sense prevailed in the face of WMDs, and treaties such as the NPT, CTBT, INF and START, to mention a few, were signed by world powers. In the meantime, China continued to develop its comprehensive national power (CNP), which included significant advances in military modernisation and technology, using every possible means. China’s recent developments in hypersonic weapons, combined with AI, cyber, and biological warfare instruments, have alerted the world to some previously unknown vulnerabilities, triggering a new arms race with its wild, but loud announcement of the multidimensional threat it poses to its potential adversaries.
DRIVERS OF GLOBAL ARMS RACE
There are many drivers in the global arms race. In today’s world, every country aims to win, preferably without fighting, for which it needs to posture strong military power to deter the adversary with state-of-the-art arsenal, which triggers the arms race. The Chinese political aim is to displace US as the lone superpower, whereas the US would like to maintain its edge. Russia also wants to be counted as a world power with all the levers of power intact, but for its poor economy. China, on the other hand, has increased its CNP by improving its economy and defining its military objectives, such as modernising the PLA by 2035 and developing a world-class military capable of winning wars by 2049.
The threat to the country is the other driver in muti-domain warfare of today, which has elements of kinetic and non kinetic, contact and non-contact warfare elements, often exercised in the ambit of Grey Zone Warfare. China finds its large coastline, other navies in its backyard near the eastern seaboard as a threat, with its greatest vulnerability being the long sea lines of communication (SLOC). This explains the logic behind the rapid expansion of the PLA Navy. Russia’s threat is its economy, also western expansion; hence, as countermeasures, nearness to China, strong posturing in Ukraine, annexation of Crimea are the outcomes. The US has limited the conventional threat except from missiles, space assets and non-contact warfare elements like cyberwarfare.
The geography of a country is a constant in its CNP, where China is at a disadvantage. It is grossly short of energy, water, agriculture land; needs to defend large borders and coastline, with its eastern seaboard hemmed in by two island chains, from where maximum invasions took place in the past. The lack of warm water access for western China is also a handicap. The US on the other hand has enough security in energy, water, food, and faces no land border threat. Therefore, to checkmate the US, China has to develop its arsenal to pose an aerial threat including space, while threatening it by non-contact warfare elements like cyber, info warfare, economy etc. Russia is self-sufficient in energy, industry, technology, military, nuclear and space, but can be targeted economically.
China recognises that the US’ defence budget has been three to four times higher for decades, and it has vast superiority in conventional, nuclear, ballistic missiles, heavier naval craft, and aircraft that is difficult to match. As a result, China has attempted to gain supremacy in areas that could make the USA vulnerable, such as hypersonic glide vehicles, space, cyber, AI, robotics, and 6G networking, as well as the arsenal related to these technologies.
Arms race is a process with no permanent winner, because for every offensive innovation, new countermeasures are invented by the adversary. Arms race is also a vehicle on which many economies ride, which suits the arms dealers.
LATEST TRENDS IN ARMS RACE TRIGGERED BY CHINA
HYPERSONIC WEAPONS: China has taken a quantum jump in hypersonic technology by mounting DF-ZF hypersonic glide vehicle on DF17 MRBM, making it difficult to detect, thus exposing a vulnerability of global air defence systems. The test involving Hypersonic glide vehicle space re-entry fractional orbital bombardment systems (FOBS) flying in low orbit, before accelerating towards a target, has put the US and other world powers on notice to start working on the counter technology, before it’s too late. China made use of provisions of UN Treaties and Principles of Outer Space, wherein WMD deployment in space is prohibited, but is silent on hypersonic re-entry. It has also put Russia on notice, which has such weapon systems, but is apprehensive that its technology might have been proliferated. The race is to bring the detection point as close to the target as possible, to minimise reaction time. The countermeasures will also see innovations through laser shield, enhanced detection capabilities in space or other technologies. It may not be a game changer, but it certainly threatens certain targets like aircraft carriers crucial to US striking power.
NUCLEAR ARSENAL: China is mindful of the vast gap it has in nuclear arsenal in comparison to the US and Russia. It developed a comprehensive missile programme, remaining out of some of the arms control treaties. China has set a target of having at least 700 nuclear warheads by 2027 and 1,000 warheads by 2030. It has also miniaturised nukes for tactical use in localised conflicts. Although it’s a signatory of NPT but the suspicion of proliferating nuclear and missile technology to Pakistan and North Korea remains. The US and Russia may not be keen to pursue a nuclear arms race, but China is certainly accelerating it.
PLA NAVY: China, in a short span of time, has considerably increased the numbers of combat assets of its Navy to become the largest Navy in the world, with 348 combat ships surpassing 296 of the US. Qualitatively, the US continues to have an upper edge in terms of 11 aircraft carriers, more nuclear submarines, cruisers, destroyers or large ships. China is expected to be increasing its Navy by 40% in the future, as it finds it grossly inadequate to protect its SLOC and global investments.
TECHNOLOGICAL LEAP: China has also made rapid strides in unmanned vehicles and robotics. Drone warfare will see a major arms race in innovations, as it has been a major game changer in the recent Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict. The West is also developing area denial or anti access anti area weapon systems (A2AD), laser shields and direct energy weapons, to name a few innovations.
NON-KINETIC, NON-CONTACT WARFARE
BIOLOGICAL WARFARE: For various reasons there is no evidence in the open domain that coronavirus was a biological weapon unleashed by China, but there is no evidence to the contrary as well. The involvement of Wuhan Institute of Virology, its alleged connection with the PLA, combined with circumstantial evidence point the needle of suspicion that it could well be a biological weapon, causing devastation never seen before. If these apprehensions are correct, China could have violated the Biological Weapons Convention.
ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE: China is using state of the art artificial intelligence incorporated in a variety of military arsenal like robotics, missile guidance systems, and unmanned aerial vehicles including naval vessels.
CYBER WARFARE: Many countries and blocs like the UK, US and EU have been accusing China of launching large-scale cyber-attacks. China has put in place an exhaustive cyber as well as information warfare machinery, which others need to catch up to, to defend not only their military and civil systems, but also some of their essential services. Needless to say, the race will see similar capabilities being generated by others. China is thus looking to utilise disruptive technology to accelerate the arms race.
CHINA AS ARMS EXPORTER
In the last decade, China has made significant strides in the arms industry to emerge as the third largest exporter of military equipment in the world. However, its equipment is still untested in a war and most of its purchasers are countries highly indebted to it or having some compulsions other than quality and reliability, to buy its hardware. It’s estimated that 60% of Pakistani hardware is of Chinese origin and 35% of hardware produced by China is purchased by its captive buyer, Pakistan.
CHINA TRIGGERS REGIONAL ARMS RACE
Regionally, China wants a “China-centric Asia”, and has expedited the capacity-building of neighbours like India, which sees China as a threat because of its irresponsible aggressiveness in Ladakh and other areas along the LAC. Its overdrive to boost Pakistan’s military capacity, in order to strengthen the hybrid war against India, including the deployment of naval combat assets in the Arabian Sea, the transfer of technology to manufacture aircraft, and the suspected/alleged proliferation of nuclear and missile technology, are just a few examples to accelerate the arms race in South Asia. Should its plans of “winning without fighting” fail, China appears to be considering posing a two-and-a-half front threat in coordination with Pakistan, as well as an “informatised local conflict” if necessary.
Major General S.B. Asthana is a retired Army veteran. The views expressed are that of the author, who retains the copyright.