The China Challenge: The weapons the PLA didn’t show

The Chinese military parade last week that was part of the anti-Japan propaganda campaign coinciding with the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, showed off a number of Beijing’s strategic and conventional weapons, including several never seen or officially acknowledged before.

The Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency closely monitored the parade looking for clues to the secretive Chinese military buildup and the new high-technology arms it is producing.

A Pentagon official said the carefully choreographed military parade through Beijing’s Tiananmen was notable for the weapons that were not shown. They include China’s growing cadre of cyber warfare forces; its ground launched anti-satellite missiles and its new ultra-high-speed maneuvering hypersonic glide vehicle, known as the DF-ZF.

All three programs remain tightly guarded secrets for the Chinese government and details about them are unlikely to be made public any time soon.

Cyber warfare

Chinese military cyber warfare center

Chinese military cyber warfare center

For its cyber warfare capability, the vast majority of China’s cyber espionage and cyber reconnaissance activities are secret and unacknowledged activities carried out by the PLA’s Technical Department 3PLA, formally the 3rd Department of the People’s Liberation Army General Staff Department, a kind of Chinese version of the US National Security Agency.

A recent NSA briefing slide disclosed by NBC News in July identified Chinese cyber exploitation and attack units as under the Central Military Commission, and the military’s General Staff Department. They include 28 separate 3PLA hacking units, the military intelligence service known as 2PLA and another military group called 4PLA that responsible for electronic countermeasures and radar. The civilian Ministry of State Security also carries out cyber attacks with an estimate 28 units.

The 3PLA is in charge of the Shanghai-based Unit 61398 that was targeted by the Justice Department’s 2014 indictment of five PLA hackers charged with cyber attacks on US companies.

“Groups operating from PRC territory are believed to be waging a coordinated cyber espionage campaign targeting US government, industrial, and think tank computer networks,” Mark Stokes, a former Pentagon official, stated in a report on PLA hacking.

Equally significant in terms of strategic military capabilities that were not showcased last week are China’s two anti-satellite missiles, known within the Pentagon as the low-earth orbit DN-1 and the high-orbit DN-2.

How significant a threat is the satellite killer? A few as a dozen anti-satellite missile attacks against critical space satellites would cripple the US military’s ability to conduct joint operations.

“We are quickly approaching the point where every satellite in every orbit can be threatened,” Air Force Lt. Gen. John “Jay” Raymond, commander of the Joint Functional Component Command for Space told the US Congress in March.

Hypersonic nuke weapon

DF-ZF hypersonic glide vehicle

DF-ZF hypersonic glide vehicle

China’s new DF-ZF hypersonic glide vehicle is a nuclear strike weapon, according to the Pentagon. China has conducted five tests of the DF-ZF since last year, an indication it is a high-priority weapons system. China’s Defense Ministry has confirmed tests of the weapon, saying only it is an experimental system.

The glide vehicle, launched atop a missile, travels along the edge of space at Mach 10, or nearly 8,000 miles an hour. Yet the vehicle is agile enough to overcome the effects of high-speed travel to maneuver – both to avoid missile defenses and for zeroing in on targets.

The DF-ZF can also be armed with a conventional warhead, making it China’s third missile outfitted with precision guidance that is accurate enough to attack ships at sea.

Two other missiles with anti-ship capabilities were showcased at the Beijing parade, including the DF-26, a new intermediate-range ballistic missile only seen earlier in official pictures posted on Chinese military blogs. It was described by the xenophobic Communist Party newspaper Global Times as the “Guam killer” capable of hitting US forces on the strategic western Pacific island.

A Chinese television announcer during the parade described the DF-26 as a dual-capable nuclear and conventional missile that is a “new weapon” for strategic deterrence, as well as capable of long-range attacks on ground targets and large and medium-size ships.

Anti-ship ballistic missile

DT-21D missile diagram

DT-21D missile diagram

The second significant weapon in the PLA program was the medium-range, aircraft-carrier killing DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile. The missile purportedly is capable of the difficult task of flying on a ballistic trajectory through space and returning into the atmosphere at very high speeds but with a sophisticated guidance system that allows it to maneuver precisely toward hitting a moving ship at sea.

Navy aircraft carrier and other warship defenses against DF-21 and DF-26 strikes are uncertain based on the high speeds of the missiles and their maneuvering warheads.

China Central Television described the DF-21D as “an important weapon in China’s asymmetric warfare.”

The military display did not reveal the other significant weapons that make up Chinese asymmetric warfare doctrine also known as “Assassin’s Mace” weaponry. The Chinese term invokes sudden, devastating weapons designed to allow a less capable military to defeat a stronger one.

Chinese supreme leader Xi Jinping in a speech at the military parade said the PLA would never seek hegemony or expansion however powerful it becomes.

But until China fully reveals its most significant military capabilities and provides an honest explanation of its military goals and strategy, the China military threat will continue to grow.

Bill GertzBill Gertz is a journalist and author who has spent decades covering defense and national security affairs. He is the author of six national security books. Contact him on Twitter at @BillGertz

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