China regularly likes to point the finger at the US for harbouring a "Cold War mentality", but nothing speaks of militaristic ambitions and martial glory as a large military parade. And no military spectacle comes close to the size of the event held in Tiananmen Square on October 1.
That date marked the 70th anniversary of the founding of the modern-day People's Republic of China, and while the parade culminated in a massive pageant of civilian floats and dancers, most in the audience were there to glimpse the stunning display of military hardware.
State commentators proudly boasted that 40 per cent of People's Liberation Army (PLA) armaments in the parade were being shown to the public for the first time. This is a staggering proportion considering that the last parade in Beijing was held just four years ago. Chinese industry has been incessantly churning out newer and more capable pieces of military technology.
Neighbours such as India, Japan, South Korea and Vietnam who currently have some kind of beef with China would have been left with much food for thought after those camouflaged vehicles finished rolling along Chang'an Avenue (which translates as Eternal Peace Street).
Although the parade line-up was pointed most directly at the US, there was plenty for India to think about. While a country like India can put on a decent display of military equipment every year on Republic Day, there is no way that New Delhi can compete with the investment and high-tech weaponry that the PLA is inducting.
Some of the PLA equipment on display had a direct bearing on India. For example, a couple of vehicles that have recently entered service in Tibet, part of the PLA's Western Theater Command, put in maiden appearances at the October 1 gala.
One was the ZTQ-15 (Type 15) light tank that is already operational with combat units in southern China and Tibet. In fact, it is believed that these tanks participating in the parade were likely from the PLA's 54th Combined Arms Brigade headquartered in Lhasa. The light tanks weighing approximately 35 tons were finished in a primarily sand-colored digital camouflage scheme. In all, 16 ZTQ-15 tanks rolled through Tiananmen Square, following 22 examples of the larger and heavier Type 99A main battle tank.
Also, debuting in the 2019 parade was the PLC-181 truck-mounted howitzer. This type carrying a 155mm L/52-caliber gun is known to have deployed to Tibet during the Doklam standoff. Commentators noted that the PLC -181 "gives stronger fire and greater mobility". Its maximum range is expected to be 40km. Eight of these vehicles took part in the parade behind an identical number of multiple-launch rocket systems (MLRS) of 370mm caliber.
Although the PHL-03A rocket launcher is deployed temporarily to the Tibet region, this newer MLRS may also wind up in Tibet. Its estimated range is 280km, meng that its rockets travel farther than the PHL-03A 300mm rocket launcher but not as far as short-range ballistic missiles.
The PLA Ground Force displayed many of its armoured vehicles in the parade, including the ZBD-03 airborne infantry fighting vehicle, AFT-10 anti-tank missile carrier, ZBD-04A infantry fighting vehicle (already stationed in Tibet) and ZBD-05A amphibious assault vehicle.This all shows that India faces a well-equipped foe on its northern border, as Chinese forces receive weapons with greater range and more mobility for the difficult mountainous terrain. At the same time, the Indian Army is struggling to gain any kind of traction for new tanks and infantry fighting vehicles to replace its ageing inventory, while new artillery pieces are only starting to dribble into service after decades of reprehensible neglect.
As if this is not concerning enough, beads of sweat must have been breaking out on the brows of senior Indian Ministry of Defence leaders when they saw no fewer than four formations in the information warfare phalanx of the parade. Most of these vehicles, festooned with multiple antennas and satellite communications domes and dishes, have never been seen before. Their functions in the electromagnetic spectrum can only be imagined, but China sought to deliberately underscore its credentials in this area.
Certainly, under the aegis of the PLA's Strategic Support Force, China is prioritising warfare in the electromagnetic and cyber realms. While the PLA may be overmatched in the naval, land and air domains by the US, the same probably cannot be said about information warfare.
Indeed, China's accomplishments in this area, at least based on the sheer plethora of new equipment on display at this year's parade, vastly outmatch India's capabilities. This hypothesis can be confirmed by the level of indigenous equipment and maturity of technology displayed at defense exhibitions such as DefExpo in India. Unfortunately, New Delhi has been caught napping in this area.
However, it is the area of missiles that perhaps represents China's greatest strength. State broadcasters declared that missiles were a "force for realising the dream of a strong nation and strong military".
In fact, this parade featuring the most significant weapon systems of the PLA Rocket Force (PLARF) was the largest-ever public demonstration of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) that the world has ever witnessed. Backstopping the parade were DF-31AG and DF-41 ICBMs of the PLARF, appearing for the first time in public. It is uncertain how many multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles (MIRV) the DF-41 carries, but some believe up to ten is possible.
The question needs to be asked: why does a country need to gloat about possessing the most destructive weapons on the planet?
Andrei Chang, editor of Kanwa Asian Defence, warned, "We must wake up!" He said the situation was "very similar to Germany in the 1930s", what with the speed of Chinese warship construction and "massive new weapons showing up every year". Chang added, "The worst thing is rogue people who are proud of army power."
China is fielding more and more advanced ballistic missiles without let-up and unrestricted by any international arms treaties. While China wags a finger at Washington for recently nullifying the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty with Russia, Beijing itself refuses to accede to any treaty that would limit its own inventory of ballistic missiles.
Chang estimates that when missiles and their MIRV warheads are added up, the PLARF could possess anywhere from 500-1,000 nuclear warheads. At the same time, the Chinese military is deploying a national missile defence system, thus "totally destroying the military balance in the world".
Two rare and hi-tech missiles to appear for the first time were the DF-100 supersonic cruise missile and the DF-17 ballistic missile with hypersonic glide vehicle (HGV). Kanwa assesses that the former is probably employed for anti-ship and land attack missions. Such is their speed that it is very difficult for ship defenses to counter, and its range is likely to be significant too given the length of the missile.
The DF-17 was revealed with a chiselled HGV that moves extremely quickly and would be able to "destroy all anti-ballistic missile systems so far developed," Chang said. That includes Patriot systems owned by Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and the US, as well as THAAD that the US has deployed on Guam and in South Korea. What is most alarming is the US military assessment that the DF-17 could potentially be nuclear-capable.
While India is procuring the very capable S-400 air defence system from Russia (as is China), it would likely be defenceless in the face of the DF-17 and its HGV payload. It is too early to say which units and locations that new missiles such as the DF-17 and DF-100 will be located, but the Western Pacific is the most likely target area.
China also showed eight JL-2 submarine-launched ballistic missiles, four DF-5B ICBMs with MIRVs and 16 DF-26 intermediate-range ballistic missiles in the 70th anniversary parade.
Such a variety and number of missiles is unprecedented. While India is working on fielding more examples and variants of its Agni family of missiles, the country is totally eclipsed by China's missile inventory and its ability to target anywhere on the subcontinent.
While military planners in India could be enduring sleepless nights over Chinese missiles, they may find some relief in the fact that most are aimed eastwards towards Japan, Taiwan, Guam, Hawaii and the US mainland. Indeed, short and medium-range ballistic missiles were conspicuously absent from the 2019 parade, with planners preferring rather to emphasise on longer-range missiles. President Xi Jinping was sending a message to the US because, after all, missiles are mostly tools of coercion and deterrence.
Andrew Erickson, professor of strategy at the US Naval War College, commented, "China's newest, most powerful and arguably most advanced nuclear weapons system, the DF-41, has clearly been designed and deployed with deterring the US in mind. It is described as 'a cornerstone of China's nuclear (weapons) power'."
Erickson said, "The several dozen 'carrier killer' weapons China fields today are but a fraction of its potent arsenal." Indeed, with over 2,000 ballistic and cruise missiles in its arsenal, China possesses the largest and most diverse missile force in the world.
Interestingly, "conventional missiles exceed its nuclear missiles by at least a 7:1 ratio," according to Erickson.
Another area of equipment in which China is showing great maturity is unmanned systems. With items such as the GJ-11 Sharp Sword unmanned combat aerial vehicle, the WZ-8 supersonic high-altitude reconnaissance and targeting drone, an autonomous underwater vehicle called the HSU001, the GJ-2 or Wing Loong II unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), as well as several other UAV types and loitering munitions, China is progressing in leaps and bounds.
By contrast, India's Rustom II/Tapas UAV crashed during testing last month, and its entry into service looks as far away as ever. While India is developing a stealth UCAV as well, Indian research and development is being left far in the wake of Chinese advances.
Take the WZ-8, for example. It possesses two hooks on its upper surface that indicate it would be dropped by an aircraft such as the H-6N bomber, which also debuted in the parade. The unmanned platform, likely rocket-powered, can help the PLA pinpoint warships operating in the Western Pacific.
It must be remembered that the appearance of a piece of kit in a PLA parade means that it is officially in service. There was a lot displayed in this parade that will take military analysts months and years to digest and for militaries to act upon. However, the message is clear - no regional competitor to China can hope to keep up.
Buoyed by massive investment and an influx of new weaponry, the PLA has moved far beyond parity with India's military, and it is flexing its muscles ahead of any possible confrontation with Washington. Thus, the parade was not so much about India or Taiwan or Japan. President Xi Jinping and the PLA were sending a pointed message to the US.
Indeed, Erickson explained that "China's missile-centric military build-up may be the single biggest factor eroding American power and influence in Asia. If not countered effectively, it could restructure the region away from the peace and prosperity-promoting alliances and rules that Washington has spent tremendous blood and treasure to cultivate over the last eight decades."
Major General Cai Zhijun, deputy director of the PLA office that helped orgse the parade, described it as the first demonstration of the "rebuilding of a strong army". Doubtlessly, China has a strong army. But what will it do with it other than parade through Tiananmen Square - that is the question that worries many.
( With inputs from ANI )