US more cautious than wary as China's reach grows

This 30-mile-long volcanic island appears on a map like stray bit of tropical spackling flung out in the Pacific. Honolulu is eight hours east, Tokyo four hours north, Hong Kong and Jakarta four hours west and south. The rest is ocean.

Guam has been a sleepy supply depot for decades. But it is now becoming known as the "tip of the spear" of US Pacific forces. This US territorial outpost no longer means just "fuel and ammo" but "subs and bombers" as well.

Some officers say Guam's new priority is a result of diverse missions in the Pacific, like tsunami relief. But most agree it has its source in the "unknowns" in East Asia - code language for Pentagon concerns about the rise of China - with its claims on Taiwan and rivalry with Japan - and a region with friction over oil rights, North Korea.

"[Guam] hasn't had a continuous bomber presence since Vietnam," says Lt. Col. Hans Lageschulte, a flight operations officer here. "But things changed two years ago."

At that time, about 12,000 military aircraft were landing on the longest runway in the Pacific. Last year, that figure was 26,000. Bulldozers are flattening earth for a second parallel runway. Parked wing to wing on Andersen's tarmac are seven B-1B Lancer bombers with names like "Night Hawk" and "Live Free or Die." Their gray swept-back forms now carry JDAMs, or guided munitions. Each plane carries the payload of three B-52 bombers. [Editor's note: The original version mischaracterized the B-52 bomber.]

"We [US forces] are developing an ops [operations] mentality in the Pacific," says David Crockett, as he stands inside a B1 cockpit loaded with upgrades. A B1 squad leader who wears titanium Armani glasses, Colonel Crockett is a veteran of Kosovo and Afghanistan. "We are training more and staying out longer."

China's military is beginning to show signs of serious capability, as it rises and spends in tandem with its new-wealth economy (see Part 1, Nov. 17). As China's submarines and destroyers begin to navigate the Pacific Ocean currents, US forces in Asia are becoming more robust and watchful - even as the Pentagon seeks better ties with the PLA.

The PLA has reformed 15 percent of itself into a core modern force capable of giving the US trouble around Taiwan. It has newly effective cruise missiles, three new classes of submarines, and a significant new defense industrial base from which to develop advanced weapons.

China lags behind the US in areas like stealth technology and the ability to project power

But this does not mean China now has a state-of-the-art Army, nor that China is on the verge of Pacific military parity with the US. To take one example, the PLA currently can "lift" or move only one division, about 15,000 personnel. It has no carrier force. In fact, there are so many wide gaps between China and the US - from stealth technology to "battlefield vision" - that some experts say China lags 20 years behind in the area of purely military matchups.

In the past year, however, a dawning realization of new Chinese military capability has been so surprising that many analysts warn of overcompensating, and of attributing to China far more threat than there is. They point to fearful commentary about Chinese ambitions and warmaking ability that is largely based on lists of Chinese hardware - planes, missiles, tanks, subs. Yet few serious military planners feel such lists are a genuine method of assessing military prowess. As one Pentagon source noted, quoting an old CIA joke, "no one ever lost their job here by analyzing a threat."

"To predict anything with certainty about the PLA or its intent is really irresponsible," says a senior US expert on China's military. "I don't think the PLA knows which way it is headed. I think there are just too many question marks."

"I view China as a challenge, I would like to put it that way," says Guam's air commander, Col. Michael Boera. "I don't yet know if they are a problem."

Problems for China: sustaining an attack on Taiwan and a US 'revolution in military force'

In interviews in Hawaii, Guam, Taiwan, and Tokyo, generals and pilots, analysts and experts offered two fundamental points about China and the US in Asia. First, while China has turned its 1970s-era military technology into late 1980s-era technology, it is still 1980s-early-90s technology, and remains untested in combat conditions. China's high-tech training of officers and enlisted personnel is still considered very modest.

Moreover, while China is creating the kind of high-tech battle force that will allow its ships, planes, missiles, and operations centers to coordinate with precision and speed, it does not yet have this hard-earned capability. Nor does it have advanced satellites and AWACS-enhanced battlefield vision (though China is purchasing up to four AWACS-type Russian A-50 planes.)

In the short term, China faces two real problems. One, in the most serious and potentially catastrophic scenario - a PLA attack on Taiwan - it is far from clear that China can sustain an attack, once it meets advanced resistance.

Second, US Pacific forces are not sitting dormant. China, for example, may be reforming, but it has not undergone the kind of "revolution in military affairs" that US forces have in the past decade. Moreover, should it come to a serious dustup in the Pacific, China might be required to face both US and Japanese forces. Japan has state-of-the-art systems that are mostly compatible with US systems.

From atop the slender control tower here at Anderson, with its "Prepared to Prevail" inscription, officers are busy managing a live example of how US forces are adapting. Aircraft from three military branches work together: Ke-135 bomber refuelers, B-52s, Navy P-3s, and Navy H860 helicopters. A set of stealthy B2 bombers was here last week, and Marine F-18 jets arrive next week. Lumbering C-17s buzz around like oversize bumblebees.

This is a composite picture of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's idea of "interoperability" - where military branches act in concert. The concept will be further enhanced this month when a new "Kenney War Fighting Center" starts up in Honolulu. The center will oversee a rapid-response Air Force team throughout the Pacific. Here in Guam, the Kenney center will deploy three sophisticated "Global Hawk" unmanned reconnaissance planes. Global Hawk replaces the U-2 spy plane, and will fly reconnaissance missions of 24 hours or more at 54,000 feet above the 100 million square miles and along the 43 countries that make up the Pacific command region.

"Flexibility, speed, quick response ... is what we seek," says Lt. Col. Jason Salata of Pacific Command.

Last summer, US and Japanese planes conducted joint bombing runs off Guam - the first time Japanese planes dropped munitions here since WW II.

Guam's downside is vulnerability to what is called a "single point failure." That is, many assets could be wiped out in a single event, like an earthquake or a hostile submarine with tactical nuclear weapons. Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, was nearly a "single point failure."

One gap between China's military aims and its actual ability is the officer corps. China is developing a high-tech army. Yet it is unclear whether enough high-tech officers are available. A colonel in the PLA makes about $500 a month, less than the salary of many office clerks in Beijing's joint-venture firms. One Western expert who has spent time at PLA schools says that while China may be purchasing a modern army, it is not clear that enough officers are "modern in their heads ... a lot of them are still fairly local. They like hanging out in karaoke bars and don't want a lot of trouble."

Andrew Yang, one of Taiwan's foremost military experts, says that on a trip to Beijing this summer, he felt the PLA "officers are not at a high level, and they are still losing talent to the private sector."

One sharp critic of a "Chicken Little attitude" about China is analyst Richard Bitzinger, now at the Asia-Pacific Center for Strategic Studies. Mr. Bitzinger argues that precise appraisals of the PLA are nearly impossible, since the Chinese do not share much information. He argues that many China hawks substitute their own fears for what they don't know about China's capability. Yet he says it is possible to use common sense in taking some basic appraisals of the PLA.

To quickly become the dominant power in Asia, China would have to sharply increase its military budget

For example, he says, for China to develop quickly into the dominant military power in Asia would require PLA commanders to focus on every area at the same time - research, training, weapons manufacture, deployment, and the creation of high-tech communications that even US forces find daunting. Such a full-out buildup would require China to even more sharply increase its already whopping budget.

"The problem for the PLA goes to the old saying, 'You can't make everything a priority,' " Bitzinger says. "They can't upgrade at all the levels needed and still spend only 3 percent at most of GDP."

Moreover, for PLA generals to simply go on a shopping spree and obtain cutting-edge aerospace, boats, and missiles, doesn't necessarily mean much, Bitzinger argues. Modern militaries require "sweating the details" to make very unusual and hard-to-duplicate military systems and subsystems work. This takes years.

"You can't just go out, buy stuff, and expect to plug and play [sophisticated hardware]," Bitzinger says. "I blame Star Trek for these assumptions," he adds, "where Captain Kirk and Spock can build anything out of nothing. You may want an Aegis system, but you can't buy it off the shelf.

"We see a smooth plating on China's new 053 destroyer that looks like our Aegis system," Bitzinger says, "and some military analysts decide China does have an Aegis. But that assumes too much, in my view."

Many PLA watchers say that despite China's modernization, many critical details are not addressed. For example, relations between the Chinese Army and Navy have long been so bitter that they sometimes don't speak to each other. While Chinese pilots now get a standard 200 hours training, that training is not advanced.

In a Taiwan scenario, too, the battle China has been planning for, there are many unsolved problems. Military commanders who have "war gamed" Taiwan point out that an invasion force of at least 250,000 to 300,000 is required. Yet China can't deliver that many men to Taiwan's shores in a first assault.

While China may be able to bloody the US Navy if it comes close to China's shores, the US Navy no longer employs this tactic in a Taiwan scenario, analysts say. One active Japanese army general who has war-gamed Taiwan many times says that China has only bad outcomes at present. If China tries to sink US ships with waves of aircraft, it will probably lose much of its Air Force, he states: "As a military planner you have to live to fight another day.... I have done the gaming many times from the Chinese side, and I've never won. My worst nightmare job is to be the Chinese operational planner for a Taiwan invasion. I have questioned whether China would sink a single US ship."

Beijing can now potentially sink an aircraft carrier that gets too close to the Taiwan strait. But so far its cruise missiles, which are similar to the US Harpoon or French Exocet, are still 1970s vintage. These missiles can hit a ship. But more than 40 navies in the world use this type of weapon, and US ships are practiced in countermeasures.

"People talk about Chinese cruise missiles as if one missile could stop the US Navy," says Bitzinger. "I really question that. For starters there are countermeasures. In a real scenario, the Navy isn't sitting on its hands."

Missiles aimed at Taiwan are not a decisive military threat

Then there are those 600-800 Chinese missiles aimed at Taiwan from Fujian province in China. US commanders, Taiwanese politicians, and journalists often describe these missiles as if they are a decisive military threat. In fact, they are more likely symbolic. As a munitions expert told the Monitor, 700 missiles is "nothing. For a military attack that is supposed to incapacitate and paralyze a country, it is not impressive."

Each missile carries about a half-ton of explosive. Some 1,000 of them represent 500 tons. That amount is smaller than US forces dropped on Tokyo in two days, March 9-10, 1945, in an early futile effort to get Japan to surrender.

In an eerily prescient PLA book that came out before Sept. 11, 2001, two PLA officers argue that many future conflicts would be organized around "asymmetric warfare," also called "assassin's mace." The tactic itself sounds unsettling, based on deception and trickery. Yet some US strategists point out that military tactics from the Trojan Horse to Pearl Harbor have relied on surprise and hitting the enemy in vulnerable places. One said, "I think maybe only the British in the 19th century deigned not to attack in a vulnerable or dishonorable place. Everyone else has and does, and plans for it. I don't think China has a corner on that market.

Unfortunately, many assessments about China's military can only be proven in war. Such an event would probably be catastrophic. Many sources for this report, including some that confess they simply "don't trust China," nonetheless abhor the assumption that conflict is inevitable in the Pacific.

Future relations envision everything from a US and allies "containing" China to a future where both the US and China find a way realistically to share the security of the Pacific. Admiral William Fallon, head of the Pacific Command, pointed out in Beijing in September that the stakes are too great for US and Chinese military relations to remain chilly, and cloudy.

"If I were to encounter an issue with most of the countries in the Asia Pacific right now," he told reporters. "I would merely have to pick up the telephone and call someone I already know, I've already met, had a dialogue with...." Fallon continued that he felt it, "important for more than just the US-Chinese relationship" to develop a new and serious rapport. It is important for the entire region of Asia, he stated.

Second of two parts.

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