China developing long-range strategic bombers to deliver nukes: Pentagon

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The Pentagon revealed on Thursday that the Chinese air force “has been reassigned a nuclear mission”, and is developing long-range strategic bombers to deliver nuclear weapons. 

 “The deployment and integration of nuclear capable bombers would, for the first time, provide China with a nuclear ‘triad’ of delivery systems dispersed across land, sea, and air,” it said.

 The US Congress-mandated “Annual Report on Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China” is a Pentagon summary of Chinese military developments over the preceding year.

 The People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) already fields the nuclear capable Xian H-6K bomber, with a range of 3,500 kilometres — enough to strike targets in India with the cruise missiles it carries. But now, says the Petagon, China is developing a “stealthy, long-range strategic bomber with a nuclear delivery capability that could be operational within the next 10 years.” 

India claims to have a “nuclear triad”, but its air-delivered capability is makeshift, based on tactical fighter aircraft like the Jaguar and Mirage-2000 that are jury-rigged to deliver nuclear weapons.

India neither has, nor is developing or buying, long-range strategic bombers of the kind that China is developing. The Indian nuclear deterrent is primarily based on Agni-series ballistic missiles, with a usable submarine-launched missile capability still some distance away.
 The report takes note of last year’s 73-day standoff at Doklam when “India halted China’s efforts to extend a road in territory disputed with Bhutan near the India border.” While that was resolved with a mutual troop withdrawal in August, “both countries maintain a heightened military presence in the surrounding region.”

 Interestingly, the Pentagon believes that China’s response at Doklam was commanded from one of the five new theatre commands that the PLA switched to in 2016. “Theater commands appear to have assumed more operational control from the services, and probably commanded the PLA’s responses to North Korea, India, and activities in the South China Sea,” says the report.

 The report noted: “India halted another Chinese road construction effort in disputed territory in Arunachal Pradesh in December 2017.”

 Acknowledging the PLA Navy’s growing presence in the Indian Ocean, the Pentagon noted the deployment of four counter-piracy task forces to the Gulf of Aden. This means the PLAN has rotated 28 task forces since 2008, when it began these missions.

 The Pentagon underlined the continued deployment of PLAN submarines to the Indian Ocean region. “Chinese attack submarines conducted port calls in Seppangar, Malaysia and Karachi, Pakistan, but they were denied a port call in Colombo by Sri Lanka. These submarine patrols demonstrate the PLAN’s emerging capability both to interdict key sea lines of communication (SLOC) and to increase China’s power projection into the Indian Ocean,” the report stated.

 As part of this, China’s first overseas base in Djibouti, which was operationalised last July, and its controversial acquisition of Sri Lanka’s Hambantota port, would be followed by more Chinese bases. The Pentagon says Beijing “will seek to establish additional military bases in countries with which it has a longstanding friendly relationship and similar strategic interests, such as Pakistan, and in which there is a precedent for hosting foreign militaries.”
After changing from seven geographical commands to five theatre commands, the PLA Army (PLAA) is focusing on “flattening” the command hierarchies, while still retaining most combat units. First the PLAA reorganised its 18 group armies into 13 (renamed) group armies. The combat echelons in the five dissolved group armies were retained as brigades, without the overarching headquarters of divisions, corps and group armies. These brigades, which are largely self-sufficient in combat power, can be switched between theatres quickly, depending on the requirement.

This brigade structure is being extended to the PLAAF and PLAN. “The PLAAF is also converting its fighter and ground attack [aircraft] divisions into brigades subordinate to air bases, and the PLAN is creating brigade-level frigate flotillas. The PLA probably expects that a more consistent brigade structure across the force will improve joint combat capabilities,” says the report.

All of this is resulting in manpower cuts, with the PLAA having reduced its numbers by 300,000 in 2017. In contrast, India is making heavy weather with much smaller cuts. “The first phase of the (manpower) reforms involves redeployment and restructuring of approximately 57,000 posts,” said Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman in her Independence Day broadcase on Wednesday.

The Pentagon report also highlights the manpower shift between China’s army, navy and airforce. This involves “increasing the relative size of the PLAN and PLAAF and reducing PLAA personnel to less than half of the PLA,” it says.

Taking Guard

  • The Pentagon said the Chinese air force is developing long-range strategic bombers to deliver nuclear       weapons
  • China already fields the nuclear capable Xian H-6K bomber, enough to strike India
  • India is not developing strategic bombers of the Chinese kind
  • The US report takes note of last year’s 73-day standoff at Doklam between India and China

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