Flawed Missiles Trigger Shakeup
Reports emerged this week that a number of high-ranking officers in China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) have been removed from their posts in recent months over serious quality control issues with the country’s missile arsenal.
According to sources quoted in Bloomberg, U.S. intelligence revealed that multiple missiles produced by China were found to have been filled with liquid fuel rather than rocket fuel, rendering them inert and unusable. This grave error is said to have angered Chinese leader Xi Jinping and directly led to the ongoing purge within the PLA’s leadership ranks.
So far at least six senior military officials have been fired, including the commander of the Eastern Theater Command, General Liu Yantong, and the political commissar of the Northern Theater Command, Fan Xiaojun. The shakeup represents the largest change in China’s army command structure under Xi’s rule.
Sources say those removed held oversight roles related to weapons development and may have been directly or indirectly responsible for the issues uncovered with the missiles:
“The flaws found in some of the weapons systems, including missiles, were the result of negligence and slack supervision over manufacturing processes rather than sabotage, the people added.” Bloomberg
Concerns Over Combat Readiness
The missile defects highlight what some analysts see as systemic issues impacting China’s ability to wage war, despite huge investments in modernizing its armed forces over the past decade.
China’s military budget has grown steadily under Xi, rising 7.1% to $230 billion last year. The country now possesses cutting-edge weapons like hypersonic missiles and advanced stealth fighters.
However, serious questions linger over whether Chinese troops have the practical experience and skill to properly utilize this high-tech arsenal. As Derek Grossman, senior defense analyst at the RAND Corporation notes on Twitter, China’s army lacks combat experience compared to the U.S.:
“The PLA simply has not fought in as many wars as the US military has over the past 30 years. There is no substitute for combat experience.”
The issues with the missiles, which some analysts chalk up to basic human error, seem to validate these doubts over China’s combat readiness. As a Japan-based Chinese military expert told The Straits Times:
“The flaws exposed problems like lax management and supervision over the manufacturing process…It is still questionable if the Chinese military is combat ready.”
Anti-Graft Campaign Used to Justify Shakeup
In announcing the leadership changes, China’s military has stressed crushing corruption rather than directly addressing the missile defects.
State media reported that several private sector executives from defense companies are also being investigated for graft.
Sources tell Bloomberg that portraying the purge as an anti-corruption drive allows Xi to avoid tarnishing his long-running campaign to modernize the PLA:
“Highlighting corruption allows Xi to blame individual officials for the missile defects rather than the billions spent on new military hardware over the past decade, analysts said.”
By scapegoating a few key figures, the shakeup lets Xi signal accountability while leaving his overarching reform agenda intact ahead of a key Communist Party congress later this year where he is expected to take unprecedented third term.
What Happens Next?
In the near-term, analysts expect the leadership changes, while disruptive, are unlikely to significantly impact China’s overall military trajectory or stoke instability:
“The replacement of several high-level officers mid-career shouldn’t disrupt the modernization drive,” said Zhou Chenming, a military expert based in Beijing.
However, the embarrassing episode may lead China to double-down on enhancing readiness through more realistic training and drilling of its missile forces and other key units. It could also prompt an internal review of manufacturing and quality control processes in its defense industrial base.
In geopolitical terms, the flaws uncovered in China’s missile arsenal may factor into calculations by the U.S. and allies in the region about Beijing’s ability to wield its growing military power. It deals a reputational blow to the image Xi has tried to cultivate of the PLA as a modern, world-class fighting force.
The coming months will show whether the purge and renewed anti-corruption push have deeper effects in rooting out problems in China’s defense establishment. But the missile defects clearly puncture notions that rapid modernization alone has resolved all weaknesses in the PLA. Despite major strides in weapons technology, China’s troops still have much work to do when it comes to combat preparedness.
Table 1: China’s Military Spending Under Xi
|Spending (Billions USD)
Table 2: Prominent Officers Removed in PLA Shakeup
|Commander of Eastern Theater Command
|Political Commissar of Northern Theater Command
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