Military parade to lift curtain on China's 'game-changing' missiles, fighter fleet

Story highlights

  • Parade is rare opportunity for PLA watchers to assess country's military hardware
  • They will be watching for ballistic missiles, vertical take-off fighter jet
  • Capabilities may signal new threats for U.S, Japan and Taiwan

Tate Nurkin is the Senior Director, Strategic Assessments and Futures Studies with IHS Aerospace, Defense and Security. He is also a member of the World Economic Forum's Global Agenda Council on Nuclear Security. The views expressed here are solely his.

(CNN)On Thursday, 12,000 People's Liberation Army (PLA) troops, between 100 - 200 aircraft and about 500 pieces of military equipment will participate in a military parade in the Chinese capital commemorating the 70th anniversary of the surrender of regional rival Japan to end World War II.

The parade is designed to send various messages to domestic and foreign audiences --- including the United States and to regional rivals like Japan and Taiwan, both of which are engaged in territorial or sovereignty disputes with China.
The claim by government spokesman Qu Rui that 84% of the equipment on display will have "never been viewed by the public" has amplified the 'buzz' around the event, though many of the capabilities involved in the parade will likely be familiar to some degree to defense and intelligence communities monitoring China's military..
    Still, the lifting of the curtain -- even for a few hours -- on China's frequently opaque military modernization program will keep PLA watchers busy for weeks to come assessing the incremental evolutions and stark leaps forward in intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), amphibious assault, military space and counter-space, unmanned systems and land systems capabilities.
    All of which are critical to China's modernization program and to pursuing territorial claims in the East and South China Seas.

    'Game-changing missiles'

    Tate Nurkin
    China's development of more, better and a wider variety of ballistic and cruise missiles is of particular concern for the U.S., Japan and, especially, Taiwan, at which IHS Jane's estimates approximately 1,100 Chinese short-range ballistic missiles are targeted.
    Indeed, the 2014 U.S. Department of Defense Quadrennial Defense Review asserted that "growing numbers of accurate conventional ballistic and cruise missile threats represent an additional cost-imposing challenge to U.S. and partner naval forces and land installations" across the Western Pacific.
    This missile threat complicates U.S. power projection efforts while also raising the possibility that current missile defense systems of regional allies and partners could be overwhelmed by clusters of Chinese cruise and ballistic missiles fired from land, air and sea.
    Given their strategic and operational importance, missiles are certain to play a prominent role in the parade. State news agency Xinhua, has already noted that "the scale and number of missiles (on display) will surpass any previous outing."
    Speculation about specific systems that may appear in the parade has concentrated on the DF-16, a newly developed short-range ballistic missile and the DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM), known as the 'carrier killer', among others.
    The operational status of the DF-21D is uncertain outside the PLA, but the ASBM capability, especially when targeted against aircraft carriers, is novel and potentially game-changing.
    The JL-2 submarine launched ballistic missile, thought to be nearing deployment, enhances the range of China's strategic at-sea deterrent and plausibly changes the calculus of U.S.-China nuclear deterrence.
    Whatever the final mix of missiles included in the parade, observers will be looking closely at the contour and dimensions of missiles to determine improvements in range, speed, mobility and survivability of the systems.
    Examination of warheads will help determine what types of missions China's next generation of missiles will carry out as well as whether the missile is capable of carrying multiple independent reentry vehicles (MIRVs) that will further stress regional missile defense systems.

    Attack fleet

    Military aviation platforms will also be of interest to observers in Washington and across the Western Pacific.
    China's two most well-known fifth generation fighter development programs, the J-20 and J-31 (the latter of which will eventually be made available for export) are likely to feature.
    News outlets have speculated that a third fifth generation platform, the J-18, a carrier based vertical takeoff and landing fighter jet about which little is known, may make an appearance as well, emphasizing the diversity and sophistication of China's future stealthy attack fleet and its ambitions to develop a carrier strike wing over time.
    In addition, the possible inclusion of new indigenously developed capabilities such as the Y-8GX6 maritime surveillance and anti-submarine warfare aircraft --based on the design of China's Y-9 transport aircraft-- will reflect the importance of efforts to rebalance the PLA Air Force (PLAAF) fleet structure away from an overwhelming reliance on combat aircraft to a more balanced and mature combination of combat, surveillance and support aircraft.
    This balance is expected to enable the PLAAF to drive and support operations further away from China's borders in line with strategic objectives articulated in the May 2015 Defense White Paper.
    Perhaps the most emphatic point the parade will make, though, is the demonstration of the growing capacity of China's well-funded indigenous defense industry.
    While China's defense industry still lags behind that of the U.S. in innovation, scale and efficiency and in several important technological areas -- aero-engines, for example, it has closed these gaps at a steady and significant pace over the last decade.
    Thursday's parade may well stand as an ardent reminder of this progress and as a catalyst for enhanced discussion in Washington, Tokyo and Taipei of new approaches to managing future military and geopolitical threats across the region.