Pentagon Report Finds China Tops U.S. in Ships, Missiles and Air Defense

A new Pentagon report on Chinese military power has shown the People's Liberation Army (PLA) has surpassed the U.S. military in terms of navy size, land-based missiles and advanced air defense systems.

The Office of the Defense Secretary issued today its annual Military and Security Developments Involving the People's Republic of China (PRC) report, detailing how a country identified as the United States' top strategic competitor has advanced.

The document begins by reflecting on how the Pentagon's millennial report two decades ago largely dismissed the PLA's rise, yet it is now on track to become what President Xi Jinping described as a "world-class military" before the middle of this century.

The Pentagon takes this to mean "that Beijing will seek to develop a military by mid-century that is equal to—or in some cases superior to—the U.S. military, or that of any other great power that the PRC views as a threat."

"[T]he PRC has marshalled the resources, technology, and political will over the past two decades to strengthen and modernize the PLA in nearly every respect," the report assessed.

In fact, it found that "China is already ahead of the United States in certain areas" such as shipbuilding, land-based conventional ballistic and cruise missiles, and integrated air defense systems.

china, aircraft, carrier, navy, parade
Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning is accompanied by other warships and warplanes as it participates in the country's largest naval parade, April 13, 2018. The display of might symbolized how far the once-ragtag guerrilla forced had come on its path to becoming a "world-class" military by 2049. Chinese People's Liberation Army

When it comes to ships, China has managed to amass the world's largest navy with some 350 ships and submarines, including more than 130 major surface combatants, according to the report. The U.S. Navy, in comparison, has about 293 vessels in its battle force.

At a press conference that preempted the report's release, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Chad Sbragia told reporters on Monday that the People's Liberation Army Navy was forecast to have an additional 10 ships by the end of the year. He noted, however, "there is certainly more to naval power than ship counts."

"I would also draw your attention to weapons systems and it's important to highlight the Chinese shipbuilding advantages in terms of its size of fleet, is both in context of the broader modernization ambitions, virtual class military," he explained.

"This is a long-term challenge and it's not only demarcated by a single variable, which would be total number of vessels, tonnage capacity, capabilities, location, posture, activities, and then other aspects," he added.

On the topic of missile strength, Sbragia said China feels it has "an asymmetric advantage" over regional powers "not least of which is the United States, and the development and expansion of those have been significant."

China also has more than 1,250 ground-launched ballistic missiles (GLBMs) and ground-launched cruise missiles (GLCMs) with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers, or roughly 310 and 3,420 miles, according to the report. The U.S. was restricted from producing such weapons through its 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty with Russia, leaving the Pentagon with just one fielded GLBM and no GLCMs.

Since leaving the INF in August of last year, the U.S. has tested mid-range one GLCM and one GLBM each in developments that drew criticism from both China and Russia.

In addition to offense, China has also invested in defense, establishing what the Pentagon report called "one of the world's largest forces of advanced long-range surface-to-air systems." These include state-of-the-art Russian S-400s, S-300s and domestically-produced systems "that constitute part of its robust and redundant integrated air defense system architecture."

For the first time, the Pentagon released this year an estimate of China's nuclear stockpile, which it estimated was in "the low-200s." However, the report said that this number "is projected to at least double in size" over the next decade.

The figure was dwarfed by the estimated 5,800 warheads in U.S. hands, but the report also observed that China has managed to "increase the peacetime readiness of its nuclear forces by moving to a launch-on-warning (LOW) posture with an expanded silo-based force." Unlike the U.S., though, China has pledged a "no first use" policy.

uss, mustin, south, china, sea, fire
The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Mustin fires a mark 45 5 inch gun during a live-fire exercise while operating with the 7th Fleet in the South China Sea. The warship was recently sailed near disputed islands, resulting in what the Chinese People's Liberation Army said was the deployment of air and sea forces to expel it. Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Cody Beam/Destroyer Squadron 15/U.S. Navy

China has argued that the massive discrepancy in its arsenal as compared to those of Russia and the U.S. meant there was no need for it to join existing bilateral arms control pacts between Moscow and Washington in spite of a desire by President Donald Trump's administration to contain newfound Chinese capabilities. Trump and his top officials have set out to counter China's military, political and economic rise, accusing Beijing of security, humanitarian and trade abuses.

Worsening frictions between the two amid the backdrop of the novel coronavirus pandemic has led to heightened geopolitical tensions over the status of Hong Kong, Taiwan and the South China Sea, all of which Beijing largely claims. Chinese officials have accused the U.S. of meddling in the country's internal affairs.

"No one should underestimate China's firm determination to safeguard national sovereignty and territorial integrity," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying earlier told a press conference in Beijing.

While China has made major strides in power projection, its two aircraft carriers face a fleet of 20 operated by the U.S. Two of are currently sailing not far from Taiwan in the East China Sea and the South China Sea, where U.S. Pacific Fleet spokesperson Navy Lieutenant James Adams recently told Newsweek that "the United States will never bow in intimidation or be coerced into accepting illegitimate maritime claims, such as those made by the People's Republic of China."

worlds, most, powerful, militaries, index, list
A graphic ranks the world's top 20 most powerful militaries based on 55 data points calculated by Global Firepower's 2019 Power Index. Statista

This article has been updated to include a graphic provided to Newsweek by Statista.