Tuesday, December 28, 2010

China 'can't get grip on military muscle'

Dec 27, 2010

Beijing turns to Moscow for weapons systems, key arms technologies

MOSCOW: The Moscow Machine-Building Enterprise Salyut has put up a massive Soviet-style poster advertising its need for skilled workers.

The New Year's party at the Chernyshev plant featured ballet dancers twirling on the stage of its Soviet-era Palace of Culture.

The reason for the economic and seasonal cheer is that these factories produce fighter-jet engines for a wealthy and voracious customer: China. After years of trying, Chinese engineers still cannot make a reliable engine for a military plane.

The country's demand for weapons systems goes much further. Chinese officials last month told Moscow that they may resume buying major Russian weapons systems after a break of several years.

On their wish list are the Su-35 fighter, for a planned Chinese aircraft carrier; IL-476 military transport planes; IL-478 air refuelling tankers and the S-400 air defence system, according to Russian news reports and weapons experts.

This persistent dependence on Russian arms suppliers demonstrates a central truth about the Chinese military: The bluster about the emergence of a superpower is undermined by national defence industries that cannot produce much of what China needs.

Although the United States is making changes in response to China's growing military power, experts believe it will be years before the country is able to produce a much-feared ballistic missile capable of striking a warship or overcome weaknesses that keep it from projecting power far from its shores.

'They've made remarkable progress in the development of their arms industry, but this progress shouldn't be overstated,' said Mr Vasily Kashin, a Beijing- based expert on China's defence industry. 'They have a long tradition of overestimating their capabilities.'

Mr Ruslan Pukhov, the director of the Centre for Analysis of Strategic Technologies and an adviser to Russia's Ministry of Defence, predicted that China would need a decade to perfect a jet engine, among other key weapons technologies.

'China is still dependent on us and will stay that way for some time to come,' he said.

One area in which China is thought to have made the greatest advances is in its submarines, part of what is now the largest fleet of naval vessels in Asia.

China had earlier tried to buy Russian nuclear submarines but was rebuffed, so it launched a programme to make its own. Over the past two years, it has deployed at least one of a new type of nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine called the Jin class.

But in a report last year, the Office of Naval Intelligence noted that the Jin is noisier than nuclear submarines built by the Soviets 30 years ago, leading experts to conclude that it would be detected as soon as it left port.

In addition, Mr Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, said there is no record of a Chinese ballistic missile sub going out on patrol.

'You learn how to use your systems on patrol,' he said. 'If you don't patrol, how can you fight?'

China is also trying to fashion an anti- ship ballistic missile (ASBM) by taking a short-range rocket, the DF-21, and turning it into what could become an aircraft- carrier killing weapon.

But the challenge for China is that an ASBM is extremely hard to make. The Russians worked on one for decades and failed. The US never tried, preferring to rely on cruise missiles and attack submarines to do the job of threatening an opposing navy.

China's deployment of a naval task force to the Gulf of Aden last year as part of the international operation against pirates also provided a window into weaknesses of the People's Liberation Army, said a report by Mr Christopher Yung, a former Pentagon official.

China's lack of foreign military bases - it has insisted that it will not station troops abroad - limits its capacity to maintain its ships on long-term missions. A shortage of helicopters makes it hard for the ships to operate with one another.

China's navy, the report said, also had poor refrigeration and difficulty maintaining a fresh water supply for its sailors.

'The sailors during the first deployment had a real morale problem,' Mr Yung said, adding they were taken on a beach holiday 'to get morale back up'.

China's military relations with Russia reveal further weaknesses. Between 1992 and 2006, the total value of Russia's arms exports to China was US$26 billion (S$34 billion) - almost half of all the weapons Russia sold abroad.

But tensions arose in 2004 when Russia discovered that China, which had been licensed to produce the Su-27 fighter jet from Russian kits, had actually copied the plane. After it signed a contract for a batch of IL-76 military transport planes, Beijing was furious when it discovered that Moscow had no way to make them.

Weapons negotiations were not held for several years. When it resumed in 2008, China found the Russians were driving a harder bargain. For one thing, it was not offering to let the Chinese produce Russian fighters in China.

The Russians also said they would provide the Su-35 only if China bought 48 - enough to ensure Russian firms a profit before China's engineers attempted to copy the technology. Moscow also announced that the Russian military would buy the S-400 air defence system first and that Beijing could get in line.

'We, too, have learnt a few things,' said Mr Vladimir Portyakov, a former Russian diplomat twice posted to Beijing.


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