Are Chinese Super Weapons Too Expensive to Use?

Commentary The failure of the Russians to use their most advanced tanks in Ukraine recalls critical historical lessons that apply to advanced Chinese weapon systems like their capital ships and J-20 fighter. A significant part of the Russian army’s poor performance involves their tanks, including the total absence of the new and feared T14. Their absence is understandable because of that dismal performance, but it also raises several important points concerning the utility of new and supposedly fearsome weapons. Analysts suspect the T14 is missing because they are too few to make a difference and too expensive to lose in battle. This isn’t surprising to those who learn the lessons of military history. It suggests that the regime’s superweapons won’t make a difference in the next war because they are too valuable to use and lose. As I wrote years ago, there should be no Western fear over the T14 tank. The Russian army had experience, but it has many problems on display in Ukraine. Despite the Russian tank being superior to British and American varieties, the Russians are looking for cheaper alternatives and will not mass produce the tank. They will instead rely on older models like the T72 and T90A. The army expected to have hundreds of the T14 by now, but in 2022 has about 20 known operational tanks. Having so few expensive, state-of-the-art tanks makes them like the Japanese super battleships from World War II. Like the T14 that had a bevy of advanced systems and capabilities that made them sound incredibly scary on paper, they had minimal effect on World War II. They were so expensive and vital that the Japanese often kept them away from intense battles until late in the war, when they were heavily outnumbered and strategically limited. The ships spent so much time in port—especially after a submarine attack damaged one of them—that they were often called hotels. This meant that these ships missed critical engagements like the Solomon Islands Campaigns and Battle of Guadalcanal, where they could have made a difference in the strategic balance of the war. Once they were committed late in the war, design flaws and deficiencies in strategy, combined operations, and training were revealed. The Russian tanks and the historical antecedent of Japan’s super battleships directly apply to China’s military buildup and plans for East Asia because a small number of fancy weapons are often hoarded, which significantly degrades the combat effectiveness of the offensive. A Chinese J-20 stealth fighter performs at the Airshow China 2018 in Zhuhai, in southern China’s Guangdong Province, on Nov. 6, 2018. (Wang Zhao/AFP/Getty Images) Looking at just two examples, their capital ships in their navy and jet fighters reveal these flaws. (While they have many missiles, that isn’t a cause for fearmongering either.) The Chinese regime has a more significant number of ships than the United States and Taiwan, but they are mostly smaller ships with less tonnage. The United States has a more substantial number of carriers, nuclear-powered submarines, cruisers, and destroys than China, with only diesel-powered submarines and inferior carriers. China’s navy, in general, has a focus on smaller ships like frigates and corvettes. While the Chinese are rapidly modernizing their force, they still have many legacy platforms. For example, China would likely be too worried about losing its carriers, and during any conflict, they would stay in port. So any operation might look like Russia’s, being fought by aging platforms because the new systems are too expensive to commit to battle. And this is before assessing the training of sailors for each side or the difficulty of mounting a successful invasion. The 30-year improvement in the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) sounds scary. Still, analysts might also contend that it has taken China 30 years to become only an inferior near-peer adversary of the United States. And in the case of war, those gains could be erased by committing them to battle, like Russia is currently doing to the tanks that it committed to battle, or Japan did to its super battleships in World War II. The Chinese have shortcomings with fighters as well. The J-20 is China’s most advanced fighter jet, but its original engine exploded in tests, and the new engine needs afterburners to reach top speed, which significantly impacts its stealth signature. So it is inferior to U.S. fighter jets, especially the long-range sensors of the F-35, and there are relatively few of them. Estimates suggest that China has about 150 J-20 fighters. That sounds like a large amount, but it is a tiny number in a war. For comparison, Russia has lost 57 aircraft in three weeks of the war against an opponent without a meaningful air force or air defenses. The world’s most advanced and experienced corporations, like Lockheed Martin, can produce only 156 F-35s in a year. It stands to reason China could lose a similar number of aircraft

Are Chinese Super Weapons Too Expensive to Use?

Commentary

The failure of the Russians to use their most advanced tanks in Ukraine recalls critical historical lessons that apply to advanced Chinese weapon systems like their capital ships and J-20 fighter.

A significant part of the Russian army’s poor performance involves their tanks, including the total absence of the new and feared T14. Their absence is understandable because of that dismal performance, but it also raises several important points concerning the utility of new and supposedly fearsome weapons.

Analysts suspect the T14 is missing because they are too few to make a difference and too expensive to lose in battle. This isn’t surprising to those who learn the lessons of military history. It suggests that the regime’s superweapons won’t make a difference in the next war because they are too valuable to use and lose.

As I wrote years ago, there should be no Western fear over the T14 tank. The Russian army had experience, but it has many problems on display in Ukraine. Despite the Russian tank being superior to British and American varieties, the Russians are looking for cheaper alternatives and will not mass produce the tank. They will instead rely on older models like the T72 and T90A. The army expected to have hundreds of the T14 by now, but in 2022 has about 20 known operational tanks.

Having so few expensive, state-of-the-art tanks makes them like the Japanese super battleships from World War II. Like the T14 that had a bevy of advanced systems and capabilities that made them sound incredibly scary on paper, they had minimal effect on World War II. They were so expensive and vital that the Japanese often kept them away from intense battles until late in the war, when they were heavily outnumbered and strategically limited.

The ships spent so much time in port—especially after a submarine attack damaged one of them—that they were often called hotels. This meant that these ships missed critical engagements like the Solomon Islands Campaigns and Battle of Guadalcanal, where they could have made a difference in the strategic balance of the war. Once they were committed late in the war, design flaws and deficiencies in strategy, combined operations, and training were revealed.

The Russian tanks and the historical antecedent of Japan’s super battleships directly apply to China’s military buildup and plans for East Asia because a small number of fancy weapons are often hoarded, which significantly degrades the combat effectiveness of the offensive.

A Chinese J-20 stealth fighter
A Chinese J-20 stealth fighter performs at the Airshow China 2018 in Zhuhai, in southern China’s Guangdong Province, on Nov. 6, 2018. (Wang Zhao/AFP/Getty Images)

Looking at just two examples, their capital ships in their navy and jet fighters reveal these flaws. (While they have many missiles, that isn’t a cause for fearmongering either.) The Chinese regime has a more significant number of ships than the United States and Taiwan, but they are mostly smaller ships with less tonnage.

The United States has a more substantial number of carriers, nuclear-powered submarines, cruisers, and destroys than China, with only diesel-powered submarines and inferior carriers. China’s navy, in general, has a focus on smaller ships like frigates and corvettes.

While the Chinese are rapidly modernizing their force, they still have many legacy platforms. For example, China would likely be too worried about losing its carriers, and during any conflict, they would stay in port. So any operation might look like Russia’s, being fought by aging platforms because the new systems are too expensive to commit to battle. And this is before assessing the training of sailors for each side or the difficulty of mounting a successful invasion.

The 30-year improvement in the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) sounds scary. Still, analysts might also contend that it has taken China 30 years to become only an inferior near-peer adversary of the United States. And in the case of war, those gains could be erased by committing them to battle, like Russia is currently doing to the tanks that it committed to battle, or Japan did to its super battleships in World War II.

The Chinese have shortcomings with fighters as well. The J-20 is China’s most advanced fighter jet, but its original engine exploded in tests, and the new engine needs afterburners to reach top speed, which significantly impacts its stealth signature. So it is inferior to U.S. fighter jets, especially the long-range sensors of the F-35, and there are relatively few of them.

Estimates suggest that China has about 150 J-20 fighters. That sounds like a large amount, but it is a tiny number in a war. For comparison, Russia has lost 57 aircraft in three weeks of the war against an opponent without a meaningful air force or air defenses. The world’s most advanced and experienced corporations, like Lockheed Martin, can produce only 156 F-35s in a year.

It stands to reason China could lose a similar number of aircraft during a conflict but only be able to replace a fraction of them. (And that is before considering how long it takes to replace a trained pilot.) The Chinese military might perform better than the Russian military, but Taiwan has better air defenses and continues to upgrade theirs.

Thus, in any potential conflict, even without direct American involvement, the lessons of Russia suggest that China is likely to suffer significant losses that take years to replace, or more likely, Beijing will be too careful in committing its limited number of advanced fighters to the point they are useless.

Conclusion

The point is that many weapons sound scary on paper. But sometimes, leaders put so much time and effort into those platforms that they are too valuable to risk in battle. The T14 is just the most recent example, but it has historical precedent. The Russians likely don’t want to risk its limited number of expensive and hard-to-produce tanks. The Japanese created great battleships with incredible combat power, but they weren’t threatened in battle until it didn’t matter. The Chinese are technologically advanced but took 30 years to field their current military and still have only a small number of capital ships and inferior jets, representing much of their army.

There is an irony that fearmongering analysts suggest that China’s strategy might make the United States too fearful of committing its carriers into a swarm of missiles. Still, it is more likely that the rising power with a limited number of advanced platforms will be too scared of committing its cutting-edge forces.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.


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Morgan Deane is a former U.S. Marine, a military historian, and a freelance author. He studied military history at Kings College London and Norwich University. Morgan works as a professor of military history at the American Public University. He is a prolific author whose writings include "Decisive Battles in Chinese History," "Dragon’s Claws with Feet of Clay: A Primer on Modern Chinese Strategy," and the forthcoming, "Beyond Sunzi: Classical Chinese Debates on War and Government." His military analysis has been published in Real Clear Defense and Strategy Bridge, among other publications.