The DF-41 for its range and multiple warheads, the medium-range DF-17 that launches a maneuvering hypersonic glide vehicle precisely developed to overcome missile defense, the submarine-launched JL-2 displayed for the first time (even as the JL-3 is known to currently being developed): all signal China’s determination to maintain an assured retaliation capacity. Yet, they also reflect unavoidable doubts in Beijing regarding the future of the offense-defense balance in the nuclear domain.
China’s current structural inferiority limits the range of its options in East Asian hotspots like Taiwan and the South China Sea. It is important to keep in mind that China’s assertive maritime policies under Xi Jinping and the intimidation of Taiwan are conducted from a position of strategic vulnerability vis-à-vis the United States. This inferiority also extends to the conventional domain. This raises the question of how China would behave in a situation of parity or superiority.
Can China overturn this unfavorable military balance? This depends a lot on the capacity of the country’s arms industry to achieve "disruptive innovation" (颠覆性创新). The People’s Liberation Army Daily defines as disruptive "technologies that can fundamentally change the balance of military power quickly, so that the opponent loses its combat capability, thereby forming an unconventional or asymmetric operational advantage". Military analysts from National Defense University quoted in another PLA Daily piece place particular emphasis on "robotics, new materials, hypersonic weapons, directed energy weapons, quantum information, and synthetic biology breakthroughs", but also on the possible game-changing applications of artificial intelligence and deep-learning in the areas of reconnaissance and situational awareness, including through the use of unmanned combat platforms.
The equipment reviewed by the Chinese leadership on Tian’anmen square only partly reflects this quest for disruption. A lot depends on fundamental research. Unmanned platforms have indeed been showcased, but questions are yet to be answered regarding their true capacities. For example, the DR-8 supersonic reconnaissance drone has been displayed for the first time. Its role is to penetrate air defense systems to collect intelligence, to support target acquisition for missile strikes or to assess the damage. The DR-8 could support strikes against enemy aircraft-carrier battle groups as part of China’s access-denial strategy, but there is nothing disruptive about the use of drones for tactical reconnaissance. Lockheed produced a supersonic reconnaissance drone in the 1960s. The Chinese drone’s technological level depends on its actual capacities in terms of detection evasion, target acquisition, communication, and integration with space intelligence assets at the level of command and control. The Sharp Sword drone has also attracted attention as a stealthy Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle to be launched from aircraft-carriers. Its development raises tactical questions regarding how China plans future carrier operations. Can armed drones replace multirole combat aircraft? So far, the PLA Navy is at an early stage of conception of its future carrier battle groups, even though it has achieved impressive progress since the acquisition of the Varyag from Ukraine.
This Chinese obsession for strategic disruption points to a persisting transparency issue that the parade does nothing to solve. How much does China really spend on military R&D? Its announced military budget is US$175 billion in 2019, and the country officially spent US$293 billion in R&D in 2018. But China’s defense budget does not include R&D spending, leaving analysts with the difficult task of producing estimates.