China’s Military Tech 20 Years Behind U.S.’

Less than a month after Chinese defense officials came out and said that the PLA doesn’t compare to the United States military, the Asian giant’s defense minister quantified that statement, saying that China’s armed forces are about 20 years behind the U.S. technologically.

In fact, he called the gap “big” and maintained that China is only building up its military to defend its sovereignty and “core interests”. Hmmm, Taiwan, anyone?

Here’s what Chinese Gen. Liang Guanglie said about the PLA’s modernization at the annual Shangri-La Asian security summit, writes my old colleague Wendell Minnick at Defense News:

There is a 20-year gap between China and the U.S. military in equipment, weapons and systems, Chinese Defense Minister Gen. Liang Guanglie told the 10th Shangri-La Dialogue on June 5 in Singapore.

“I would call the gap big,” he said. Liang acknowledged that China’s military modernization has improved, but the “main battle equipment of our services … is mainly second-generation weapons.” China does not have a large arsenal of third-generation weapons, systems or platforms. “For example, the army is still being motorized, not mechanized,” he said.

This kind of reminds us of what we all know. Even China’s newest military gear is reminiscent of Western or Soviet technology from about 20 years ago, or more. I mean, its first operational carrier is a 20+ year-old Soviet hull with updated electronics and even its stealth fighter is rumored to have been build with secrets stolen from the USAF’s 30 year-old F-117A design.

Still, anyone can see the PLA is advancing at a decent clip and as China’s economy grows and its spy services steal more secrets, it may advance even quicker than it has over the past few decades (in my humble  non-China expert opinion).

And while China’s miliary hardware may still lag behind the U.S.’, its cyber capabilities, considered by most to be critical to waging 21st Century warfare may be on par with or ahead of the U.S.’


  • LanceKant

    Is the USAF in charge of cyberwarfare? Or does the FBI and/or CIA take command on attacks to America’ cyber infrastructure?

  • Steve

    20 years behind in certain areas, sure. Cyber-on par, Nuclear-on par, 5 years from now-pretty much all on par.

    Let’s not be stupid and let our guard down. This is just a smarter arms race.

    • padgett

      nuclear is not on par.

    • TrustButVerify

      Agree with Padgett, how do you figure they have nuclear parity, with their handful of ICBMs, no long range bombers, and no operational SLBMs?

    • bill

      Nuclear is not on par, china has around 1000 nuclear warheads as us has 8500 and counting.

  • Riceball

    “Still, anyone can see the PLA is advancing at a decent clip and as China’s economy grows and its spy services steal more secrets, it may advance even quicker than it has over the past few decades (in my humble non-China expert opinion).”

    That’s what I’ve always said, especially when people scoff at China’s military capability by citing how they’re something like 20 years behind us. What they forget is that for a long while they were much more than 20 years behind, more like at least 30 or more, fielding 50’s/60s tech and in a relatively short amount they’ve gained 10 - 20 years worth of military tech to become only 20 years behind us.

    This is the reason why we can’t afford to rest on our laurels and not continue to innovate and develop newer and better weapons systems because at this rate China will probably manage to close the gap by another 10 years within 5. If we don’t continue our R&D to stay ahead then within another 10 -15 years China will have caught up to us and will be ready to pass us by and by that time it’s too late to try to catch up, not if we continue to develop and field weapons systems at our current rate like we did with the F-22 and are with the F-35.

    • Joseph Lyndon Yuipco Awayan

      Scientest for a high end technology, how about trying to form a group of social scientest , to over shadow a society in their thinking pattern, chinese and american are both the same preparing themselves to eliminate each other, what a bunch of people.

  • Prodozul

    What’s the difference between motorized and mechanized?

  • TLAM Strike

    Lets see the M1 Abrams was deployed 31 years ago, the Osprey was first flown 22 years ago, the YF-22 testbed was first flow 21 years ago, the USS Seawolf was launched 16 years ago. So most of our kit is around 20 years old already? Does that mean China’s is in the 60’s?

    • anon

      That is more in line with suggesting that they are approaching the Block 0 of the weapons systems we are fielding today. If you simply examine weapon system to weapon system one might assume there is rough mechanical parity. They have small arms rocket artillery, tube artillery, tanks, IFVs and trucks, SSMs and ICBMs. However it ignores the tech that ties everything together, which is largely responsible for what puts the US ahead of other countries, moreso than the individual weapons systems. Can they watch a commando takedown in Pakistan in real time from thousands of miles away? Can they send UAVs commands from multiple timezones away with sat-com infrastructure?

      Not yet.

    • joe

      True - but the difference in capability between an M1(then) and an M1A2 TUSK (now) is very significant:

      120mm gun vs 105mm
      Remote Weapons Stations used whilst buttoned up
      Networked command & positioning systems
      Additional Reactive & Cage Armour

  • Taxandrian

    20 years behind, huh? Anyone can be killed using a 1600 vintage black powder rifle.

    A hypothetical war between the US and China is nuts. There’s too much water in between. That is, if one observes the rule that to win a war, you need boots on the other man’s ground.

    A ‘war’ would simply be an economic conflict (as it almost always is) between two contries. Three, because Russia will want to get involved - an not on China’s side. See WWTwo, Northern/Southern Economic Reservoir, anyone?

  • Matt

    China is clearly not 20 years behind in tech. They might view themselves as 20 years behind in being able to project power, but not in technology.

  • Brian

    China is not stupid enough to start a war with the US or even tiawan. Even that pipsqueak nation could drown half of china by hitting the 3 gongs dam and following up sinking tankers in critical trade routes. Mass starvation would ensue in a couple of weeks, casualties in the 10’s of millions. It would be suicide!

  • @Earlydawn

    As someone poignantly pointed out in an earlier comment, “All Warfare is Based on Deception.”

  • Dfens

    One more airplane program where we spend 20 years in development and finish off with building few, if any, aircraft and they’ll be all caught up. Heck, if our defense contractors have their way they can spend the next 25 years doing development and never build a single weapon just like the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle program. After all, that’s 25 years of record profits for them, and the fact that the US taxpayer, and more importantly the US soldier — already an endangered species — will have nothing to show for all that money being spent is just a bonus.

    • Tom

      keep in mind that it is not abnormal to have a 20 year research and development history for almost every mature, history writing and war fighting (!) weapon system. A system that has been developed within i.e. 3-5 years has usually weaknesses, the risk that it has never shown its weaknesses during this timeframe is much higher. Do you really want to risk a soldiers life for a chopper type system that has been developed and reached IOC in 5 years? I prefer the Osprey then.
      Keep also in mind that programs that have been cancelled after a long development stage like the EFV or the Comanche, have an impact to its successors. So not every time the money is lost and all was worth nothing.

      • Dfens

        SR-71 was designed in 18 months. It was only knocked down by the inability of Lockheed to milk it as a cash cow like they could the U-2, which requires constant upgrades to stay one step ahead of air defenses. Spouting the usual military industrial complex crap, Tom?

  • bigRick

    Japan was not stupid enough to start a war with the US either!
    Germany was not stupid enough to start WWII on two fronts either!
    Saddam was not stupid enough to invade Kuwait either!

    All wars basically start when the bad guys assume (or know) that the good guys are weak (militarily or politically) China is beginning to think we are weak. That’s why they’re doing the “dog and pony” look at us “poor Chinese military” act

    China’s long term prospects are not good. They are running out of water and arable land due to rapid desertfication. They will either move north or south or both.

    When countries feel they are painted into a corner then history tells us that’s when wars start. The next war is coming like it or not.

    • Yoyo

      It is stupid and pathetic to say the US is good guy. Everyone knows the US is evil and trouble-maker country.

  • Mastro

    We went through the ’80’s and even the post-Tianneman Square ’90’s with no concerns over a Chinese threat.

    China really has to rethink its rearmament- what do they want that they feel a need to risk an arms race/cold war with the US?

    Is their self esteem really that bad? Get over it

  • blinded1

    Will China have 11 Minitz class carriers in 20 years?

    • TLAM Strike

      They don’t have to, our Carriers have to divide up between the Atlantic, Med, Indian Ocean and Pacific. Theirs just have to operate in the Pacific.

  • Byron Skinner

    Good Morning Folks,

    The assessment here even though modest, China is more likely in many area of military technology still in the 1940’s. Since the US is still moving forward in the area of military technology each day China is getting farther behind.

    The statement routinely issued by US right wing think think tanks regarding China and their accelerated development of military technology is pure nonsense.


    Byron Skinner

    • anon

      That would suggest zero improvement since the PLA equipped itself from captured PLA stocks of WW2-era equipment along with leftover IJA equipment and Soviet military aid. Surely you don’t mean 1940’s?

    • USAF SSgt

      Are you kidding? They are closer to the 2000s than anything else! You should seriously consider researching before you start typing and getting an MRI because there is something wrong in your head.

    • Yoyo

      Another idiot thought China is primitive human-beings. This kind of people should be sympathetic because with their naive and illiterate thought, causes the US to extinction.

  • superraptor

    It is hard to say if China is really that far behind. I am just surprised that we don’t ask the PLA how many new nuclear warheads they are deploying each year. I suspect that they are secretly pursuing a 10000 plus nuclear warhead strategic buildup while we are dismantling our ICBMs because of START2. What great American Strategery.

    • @ohfuckinreally

      I too enjoy basing strategies on unfounded speculation.

  • STemplar

    The Chinese Achilles heel is oil. They can develop whatever system they like because they do not have the refining capacity to sustain a military operation of any significance. I was reading one petroleum industry page and the last week of May the central government had to order all refineries to 100% capacity to meet the spring season demand because of agriculture. Compare the US, we are in combat operation is 3 theaters and major disaster relief support in Japan across the entire globe and out economy goes happily chugging along. If China tries to involve itself in something like Taiwan for the short to mid term it has to essentially shut down major parts of its industry or let lots of Chinese people starve to death.

  • anon

    They’re not equivalents. The EFV was basically a high performance boat that could amble about on land. Most other amphibious tanks have sub-optimal performance at sea, but at least the PLA (and the Russian) family of amphibious vehicles also includes direct-fire gun systems, and not just the EFV’s 30mm.

  • Dfens

    You know what I think is funny? I think it is funny that China’s military build-up is cited as some sort of “vast right wing conspiracy” to increase defense spending. We didn’t beat the Soviet Union by outspending them on defense. We beat the Soviet Union because capitalism provided better weapons while costing less than development of equivalent weapons cost the Soviet Union. It was our efficiency that finally killed the Soviet Union.

    Today, even the wildest estimates of what China is spending on new weapons programs has them spending somewhere around 1/10th of what we spend, and yet they’ve turned out a significant number of weapons that achieve near to more than parity with what our defense industry turns out for significantly less than these weapons cost us and they develop them in less time than it takes us. So what do we do, throw money at the situation and go down the failed road taken by the Soviet Union or go back to our capitalist roots in weapons development, in which case we get more bang for less buck? The scary thing is, many who consider themselves “conservatives” would opt for the former instead of the latter.

  • bigRick

    History tends to repeat itself

    It’s the late 1930’s all over again, take note:

    -Again the US economy is in shambles
    -again we have a socialist president attempting to institute major social and governmental change
    -again we have unrest all over the world
    -again we have a Eastern power who feels “dis-respected” and is attempting to right supposed historical “wrongs.”
    -again we have an Eastern power rapidly building up their military
    -again, our military is in a down sizing phase
    -and again we have an Eastern power claiming to be our “friends” but who really are our enemies
    -and AGAIN we have people saving the “fill in the blank” will “never start a war, that would be crazy”

  • Chimp

    Lots of the older fellows… particularly of the Korean War generation (hats off to them… they did the job)… still view China as an agrarian country equipped with Soviet castoffs and informed by an ideology that views human life as worthless.

    It used to be like that. No question.

    It has changed. Go there. Take a look. I think pitching Chinese military technology as equivalent to early the mainstream early 90’s is about right. Better than 1990 Britain, not quite as good as 1990 US kit. In terms of training and doctrine, however, I’d say it’s more than 20 years behind.

  • Thomas L. Nielsen

    Please note that I have not suggested or claimed that your initial speculation was unfounded.

    As stated above, my issue is exclusively with your statement that “you only can claim “Unfounded speculation” if you have hard evidence to the contrary”.

    The burden of evidence rests exclusively with whomever makes the statement. Consequently, it is not my (or anyone else’s) job to show that your speculation is unfounded. It is your job to show that it is not.

    Additionally, “unfounded” has nothing to do with true or false. “Unfounded” merely indicates that the statement or speculation is without basis in evidence. It may later be proven to be true or false, once evidence is available.

    Regards & all,

    Thomas L. Nielsen

  • George

    China is about 20 years behind, but if China and the United States were to go to war with each other, just look at the War in the East. Al-Qaeda (or however you spell it) is using guerilla warfare against the United States. The war would be over by now if the United States was experienced in Guerilla Warfare. Well I guess the war right now does count, but China and Al-Qaeda are two very different figures. China as a emerging super power, and Al-Qaeda, some terrorist army. China is experienced with guerilla warfare and not so much normal war. United States can’t learn so well the concept of guerilla warfare. Both China and the United States do not want to go to war with each other right now. China lacks behind the United States a lot, dont take what I said for granted. Because you may understand it the wrong way.

  • Sarfaraz Ahmed


  • keyboard

    I can say that “20 years behind” is definitely for only certain areas. And even then, 20 years means China is already possessing overall military strength equivalent of the ’90s, after evening everything out. An example will be PLAAF vs PLAN, where its air fleet is made up for 40% 4-4.5gen that are more than sufficient against F-15, F-16 (J-10A,J-10B,J-11), while its J-20 will be comparable, if not exceed F-22 in some areas. In this aspect, this “chunk” represents the side of the PLAAF that’s today’s standards, while the J-8,J-7 represents the obsolete part that would equate into part of the “20 years behind” statement(although these will eventually find themselves allocated to other auxiliary services or less respectable roles as the newer systems replace them). Same goes to Chinese strategic airlift capability, which is rather limited without “blue-sky” capability”. Chinese AEW,AWACS will be roughly in the early ’00s. As for PLAN, it’s naval fleet will be around mid-’80s-early ’90s at best, which is also the weakest branch of the Chinese military. Ground-force wise, Chinese artillery systems and maybe even certain armor systems are more advanced than the US Army. As for its strategic missile command, aka 2nd Artillery, its ballistic missile forces may be behind for certain systems, but ones such as ASAT(anti-satellite) and ASBM, are definitely pioneering. With all that said, the “20 years behind” applies as a general statement, but there are definitely many areas that China is more than competitive in. And lastly something to pay attention will be their training, structure, and management. While more than likely will the methodology require some revision and possibly currently possessing an early ’90s era of thought with certain aspects in the ’00s(relative to the systems they yield), they were never field-tested against a real-time modernized comparable force, therefore it will be hard to know the truth to their capabilities.
    In conclusion, the statement is true to a certain extent, but also simultaneously being both reserved, modest, and slightly deceiving. Lastly, something we overlooked will be the emphasis of pitting US military as the “standard military” to compare to. US military is the most advanced, equipped, and overdeveloped in the world, to the point of leading the gold by a far stretch. While China is currently still behind, it is actually the silver medal runner, and its overall capabilities are definitely a good distance ahead of the bronze, which will be the rest of the tier 1 developed states and powers. With that said, just because China is behind US doesn’t mean it’s behind by world standards. Alternatively, comparing to the rest of the world, China will definitely be the leading one if US doesn’t exist in this world today.

  • ALN

    China is nothing in front of us military mighty. I don’t understand why to alarm, like we are scared of china??

  • Vec

    Carry on bluffing yourself and your self delusion

  • Sam

    It is interesting to read these comments and wonder what news is being read.
    China is not all that far behind or the US Pacific fleet would have know the Chinese sub was following the about 5 years ago for over 50 miles. The fleet probably still wouldn’t have know had the sub not surfaced within eyesight.

    • Alex

      Ironic that a single sub can get into a fleet of top class carriers and destroyers…..

  • Edward

    Not sure why these countries need huge @ss militaries if domination doesn’t even matter in this day and age.

  • Tony

    USA vs.mChinanwar is unlikely. What is unlikely is China vs. Japan, Philippines, Vietnam, Singapore, NATO, Australia, Britain and USA. China has territorial disputes with almost all it’s neighbors - Philippines, Japan, Russia, Vietnam.

    In the Philippines,we do not like China. Hell, those guys are xenophobic, workaholic types who do not stand for anything. USA stands for equality, democracy. What does China stand for. They are racist mainlanders. People of Taiwan and hing kong are much better but do not trust the communist government. Do not worry about China, they have no friends except Pakistan! Lol. ..Pakistan is a joke!

  • Kenny

    Ok first off, China is 20 years behind in general. This includes Nuclear Deterrence Operations, Special Operations, Air Superiority, Global Integrated ISR, Space Superiority, Command and Control, Cyberspace Superiority, Personnel Recovery, Global Precision Attack, Building Partnerships, Rapid Global Mobility and Agile Combat Support. Mechanized vehicle technology, Rifles, Intelligence gathering, Communications etc…China will never catch up, one reason is because our budget is tens of times larger than the Chinese military budget.

  • Will

    the authors cyber piece was compelling, up until 6/2011 China had worlds fastest supercomputer, now Japan is ichiban….for now…

  • Will

    sorry for bad gouge above, seems US IBM Sequoia at Livermore rules now at 16.32 Peta FLOPS vs Japan K’s pevious 10.51….this is far outside the reach of Moore’s Law

  • Will

  • anon

    Isn’t Afghanistan and Iraq 20 years behind China? I don’t see the US subduing those 2 countries very well. Technology isn’t the answer or the be all and end all to everything. The barbarians didn’t beat the romans because they had superior tech, neither did the viets against the west. US reliance on high tech gear can be a strength as well as a weakness.

  • Anthony

    China may have an army of 20million soldiers of 1 billion soldiers, the U.S. technology could kill all of those with Predator Drones. The world military changed. No more soldier. vs. Soldier anymore, its Technology.

    • kevin
  • carpytnteyroyrw
  • khoi Nguyen

    History does repeat. Like in Vietnam, US did not do good in Afg. And Iraq bcuz lack of “propaganda” which in this case is “relegious propaganda”. Again, if war between us and China, US might win the battle but not the people if we don’t have a strong push in “propaganda”. Since china claimed the whole china sea belong to china, they also started what I temporarilly call it “the love of our nation” propaganda. Especially in a comunist country where information is only 1 sided, people are brainwashed easily on the other side of the wall. In conclusion, even 20 yrs behind in hi-tech weapons, it is not easy for US to defeat china if lack of “propaganda”

  • voke

    its seems very naive to say china is 20yrs behind the usa,,,,pointing out that the current economical and industrial boom in china,,they can convert and they do convert civilian used gadgets like smartphone commercial jets into millitary purposes,,so at this time of age technology roams freely if yu have the cash,,and last time i checked china have the cash.

  • wesbailey

    The amount of nonsense posted on this thread is amazing.

    obviously they are a couple decades behind but the only reason they spend so much less then the US on their military is by choice. Their economy is now half the size of the US, they could spend much more if they felt the need to. in a couple decades their economy is going to be twice what the US is and their military spending could easily be many many times more.

    it’s only a matter of time.