China’s Mil­i­tary Modernisation

Vayu Aerospace and Defence - - News -

China’s mil­i­tary modernisation and its im­pli­ca­tions are re­viewed by Dr Manoj Joshi who opines that the op­tions be­fore In­dia are not too many and we would have to evolve asym­met­ri­cal sys­tems of our own to de­ter the Chi­nese - and thus lower the nu­clear thresh­old.

China’s mil­i­tary modernisation be­gan a long time ago. In the 1990s to be pre­cise. But from 1990, when the PLA was over­whelm­ingly equipped with re­verse en­gi­neered Soviet-era weapons, till the be­gin­ning of this decade, the fo­cus was on en­hac­ing the qual­ity of PLA weapons and sys­tems. We are now wit­ness­ing the lat­est phase as of 2015 when China launched a com­pre­hen­sive re­form to its mil­i­tary or­gan­i­sa­tion. The fo­cus of its modernisation is in shift­ing the bal­ance from its Army to the Navy and Air Force and on in­te­grat­ing C4ISR sys­tems. In ad­di­tion, China is mak­ing ma­jor ef­forts to leap frog over US ad­van­tages through in­vest­ments in fu­tur­is­tic tech­nolo­gies.

Ac­cord­ing to spe­cial­ists on the PLA, they have moved from ‘dig­i­tal­i­sa­tion’ to ‘ net­work­i­sa­tion’ and now they aim to achieve ‘in­tel­li­gen­ti­sa­tion’. This third stage in­volves the use of emerg­ing tech­nolo­gies in­clud­ing ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence (AI), with big data and cloud com­put­ing to en­hance the PLA’s C4ISR ca­pa­bil­i­ties.

In gen­eral terms, modernisation in­volves a qual­i­ta­tive upgra­da­tion of older doc­trines, or­gan­i­sa­tion and struc­tures – and equip­ment. It has to take place in the con­text of spe­cific threats and ca­pa­bil­i­ties of per­cieved ad­ver­saries and their modernisation tra­jec­tory.

The main fo­cus of the Chi­nese mil­i­tary re­mains pos­si­ble con­flict over the Tai­wan straits and newer con­tin­gen­cies in the South China Sea and the seas of Ja­pan and Korea. A sense of ur­gency has been brought into the re­form given the stand­off with the US on the issue of the South China Sea and Ja­pan over the Senkaku is­lands.

All this in­volves two as­pects: first, the re­shap­ing of the PLA or­gan­i­sa­tion, its doc­trine and its com­mand and con­trol struc­ture. The sec­ond is the upgra­da­tion of its mil­i­tary hard­ware.

The past year has been ex­tremely sig­nif­i­cant for or­gan­i­sa­tional changes that have led to the cre­ation of The­atre Com­mands in place of the older mil­i­tary re­gions, a com­pletely re­or­gan­ised higher com­mand sys­tem em­pha­sis­ing joint op­er­a­tions, the upgra­da­tion of the force deal­ing with its nu­clear de­ter­rent and the cre­ation of a new strate­gic sup­port force.

In the first phase, Chi­nese strat­egy was to have sys­tems “good enough” to fight a re­gional war. It would play catch up of­ten us­ing asym­met­ri­cal strate­gies like field­ing large num­bers of bal­lis­tic mis­siles, in­clud­ing A2/AD sys­tems.

Now it is look­ing at the next phase, where in­stead of catch up, China seeks to leap- frog, even while si­mul­ta­ne­ously de­vel­op­ing tech­nolo­gies which will de­grade US sys­tems. In line with this, it is pur­su­ing tech­nolo­gies re­lated to hy­per­son­ics, di­rected en­ergy and counter-space. Doc­tri­nally, it is em­pha­sis­ing joint, and in­te­gra­tion of, Com­mand, Con­trol, Com­mu­ni­ca­tions, Com­put­ers, In­tel­li­gence Sur­veil­lance and Re­con­nais­sance (C4ISR) .

China is en­hanc­ing its mis­sile force for re­gional con­tin­gen­cies. Th­ese in­clude cruise mis­siles, short, medium and IRBMs, a new gen­er­a­tion of fighters, in­te­grated air de­fence

sys­tems, in­for­ma­tion war­fare ca­pac­i­ties, plus am­phibi­ous ca­pa­bil­i­ties.

Its counter-space ca­pac­i­ties fo­cus on of­fen­sive cy­ber op­er­a­tions and elec­tronic war­fare. The C4ISR or re­con­nai­sance strike com­plex is grow­ing based on in­te­gra­tion of satel­lites, land based radars, mi­crosatel­lites and UAVs. China has one OTH (Over­The-Hori­zon) backscat­ter radar and will prob­a­bly cover its mar­itime pe­riph­ery with sim­i­lar radars over time. The new PLASSF (PLA Strate­gic Sup­port Force) is aimed at bet­ter in­te­grat­ing space, cy­ber and EW ca­pa­bil­i­ties.

The goals of the or­gan­i­sa­tion are do­mes­tic- po­lit­i­cal, as well as ex­ter­nal mil­i­tary. So at one level, the re­form has led to a tight­en­ing of the role of the CPC and its Chair­man over the mil­i­tary high com­mand, a.k.a. the CMC. From the mil­i­tary point of view, they seek to en­hance (a) the abil­ity to con­duct joint op­er­a­tions (b) to be able to do so in what the Chi­nese call in­for­ma­tionised con­di­tions and (c) to do so fur­ther and fur­ther away from its main­land.

All th­ese aims segue into the ‘China Dream’ of a strong mil­i­tary that will give it a great power sta­tus by 2049, which can pro­vide China diplo­matic pay­off, en­hance its re­gional pre-em­i­nence and as well as pro­tect its in­ter­ests across the globe.

The Strat­egy

Chi­nese strat­egy as de­fined in the White Pa­per of 2015 re­mains “strate­gic de­fence and op­er­a­tional and tac­ti­cal of­fence”us­ing new prin­ci­ples of au­ton­omy, fea­tur­ing in­te­grated com­bat forces, fea­tur­ing in­for­ma­tion dom­i­nance and pre­ci­sion strike. There is a special stress on PLAN to pre­pare for “mar­itime mil­i­tary strug­gle” and the prepa­ra­tions for such a strug­gle. The PLAAF must shift from ter­ri­to­rial air de­fence to aero­space dom­i­nance, the PLASAF strengthen its nu­clear de­ter­rent through S& T de­vel­op­ments and the PLAPF en­sure so­cial sta­bil­i­uty. All this is not de­fen­sive as stated and there is enough lee­way for pre- emp­tive strikes, “ac­tive de­fence” in any case has em­pha­sised the readi­ness for pre-emp­tive counter-strike. PLA’s con­cept of op­er­a­tions is shift­ing from “lo­cal wars un­der in­for­ma­tionised con­di­tions” to “in­for­ma­tionised lo­cal wars”.

This means em­pha­sis on joint op­er­a­tions and tech­nol­ogy to link units both ver­ti­cally up the chain of com­mand and hor­i­zon­tally with other com­bat arms and ser­vices in diff­fer­ent do­mains. Em­pha­sis is on sys­tem ver­sus sys­tem op­er­a­tions, where ac­cord­ing to Kevin Pollpeter, “the con­test is between net­work of sys­tems where the oper­a­tion of every sys­tem and sub­sys­tem af­fects the per­for­mance of the en­tire sys­tem.”

In the ear­lier 2013 ver­sion of the Sci­ence of Mil­i­tary Strat­egy, the au­thors had termed space as the new high ground with­out which China would be dis­ad­van­taged in all other do­mains. In this White Pa­per, for the first time, China of­fi­cially iden­ti­fied outer space as a do­main of war which means the use of space for mil­i­tary op­er­a­tions, as well as counter-space ops to deny the ad­ver­sary use of space.

The Or­gan­i­sa­tion

The CPC Cen­tral Com­mitte’s 3rd Plenum called for op­ti­mis­ing the size and struc­ture of the army, ad­just in­ter­ser­vice bal­ance and re­duce non-com­bat in­sti­tu­tions and per­son­nel. At present the PLA has 73 per cent, PLAN 10 per cent and PLAAF 17 per cent of per­son­nel. Also an­nounced was a “Joint Oper­a­tion Com­mand Author­ity un­der the CMC, and a the­atre joint oper­a­tion com­mand sys­tem.”

Af­ter two years, de­tails be­came clearer. At the 3 Septem­ber 2015 mil­i­tary pa­rade, Xi called for a 300,000 re­duc­tion in per­son­nel to bring the force down to two mil­lion. In Novem­ber 2015, the re­form work­ing group of the CPC’s CMC met and Xi laid out the re­form pro­pos­als. Xi de­clared that cur­rent Mil­i­tary Area Com­mands (a.k.a. Mil­i­tary Re­gion) would be re­grouped into new bat­tle zone com­mands (The­atre Com­mands) su­per­vised by the CMC. A three-tier sys­tem would be cre­ated, and a separate ad­min­is­tra­tive chain of com­mand would link the four ser­vice HQs to units. Th­ese would be re­spon­si­ble for or­gan­i­sa­tion, man­ning and equip­ping units. All of this would take place in the next five years. The key fea­ture of the sys­tem was the in­creased author­ity of Chair­man CMC, Xi Jin­ping, with the changes be­ing termed the “CMC Chair­man Re­spon­si­bil­ity Sys­tem.” The flat­ter com­mand sys­tem em­pha­sised the slo­gan “Com­mis­sion di­rects, the the­atre com­mands fight and the branches build”. All th­ese pro­vide a slight cor­rec­tion to the PLA dom­i­nance.

On 31 De­cem­ber 2015, Xi es­tab­lished the PLA’s new HQ, the upgra­da­tion of the PLASAF to PLARF and a new PLA Strate­gic Sup­port Force. 11 Jan­uary 2016 saw a new CMC or­gan­i­sa­tion set up with 15 func­tional de­part­ments, com­mis­sions and of­fices.

On 1 Fe­bru­ary, five new The­atre Com­mands were an­nounced, each with its own in­te­grated op­er­a­tional com­mand sys­tem. The Chiefs of Staff were deputy com­man­ders with Rear Ad­mi­ral Wei Gang be­com­ing Chief of Staff of the South­ern TC

and AF Ma­jor Gen­eral Li Feng­biao tak­ing the po­si­tion in Cen­tral TC.

In Jan­uary 2017, China got a new Navy chief, as well as a naval vice-ad­mi­ral as the South­ern The­atre com­man­der. VAdm Shen Jin­g­long, fleet com­man­der of the South­ern TC was made PLAN chief, while VAdm Yuan Yubai for­mer com­man­der of the North Sea fleet be­came the new C-in-C of the South­ern The­atre com­mand.

Nu­clear Strike

The goal is to achieve as­sured sec­ond strike ca­pa­bil­ity against the USA. The PLA Sec­ond Ar­tillery Force has been re­named as PLA Rocket Force and up­graded to a full ser­vice. Till the 1980s, it dealt with only nu­clear mis­siles, but since mid 1990s has also got con­ven­tional mis­siles. The force is di­rectly un­der the CMC and is around 130,000 strong, op­er­at­ing from six main mis­sile bases, equiv­a­lent of PLA Group Armies. China fol­lows the no- first use (NFU) prin­ci­ple and ac­cord­ing to the 2006 White Pa­per, it said th­ese weapons were for “self de­fence and to pre­vent oth­ers from us­ing the weapons against China.” Fur­ther it would “never be first to use them and would never use or threaten to use them against non-nu­clear states and re­gions.” How­ever, there are ques­tion marks about what would hap­pen in the event of pre­ci­sion guided mu­ni­tions against Chi­nese nu­clear stor­age or mis­sile sites or in the Tai­wan con­tin­gency.

The Chi­nese nu­clear ar­se­nal is es­ti­mated at 260 in 2015 by SIPRI, which is dou­ble of what it was in 2006, so it is a grow­ing ar­se­nal. Weapons are de­mated. Since the late 2000s, a newer gen­er­a­tion of long range mis­siles are com­ing into ser­vice such as the TEL based DF-31 and -31A, MIRVs DF5B and -5C. The de­vel­op­ment of a longer range MIRV-ca­pa­ble and mo­bile DF-41 is un­der­way.

China cur­rently has five Jin or Type 094 SSBNs, but has not quite got the abil­ity to use its JL-2 mis­siles on them as yet. In the fu­ture, China could field a more ad­vanced SSBN as well as cruise mis­sile launch­ing sub­ma­rine (SSGN).

China fields a va­ri­ety of IRBMs and LACMs, ASBMs like the DF-21D and the so-called ‘Guam killer’ DF-26 for A2/AD. Till now, how­ever, there is no ev­i­dence of an over­wa­ter test of ‘un­co­op­er­a­tive tar­get,’ in re­la­tion to the ASBM (Anti-Ship Bal­lis­tic Mis­sile). The Sci­ence of Mil­i­tary Strat­egy 2015 sug­gests that the hold­ing of con­ven­tional and nu­clear force el­e­ments by the PLARF is de­lib­er­ate strat­egy. Mis­siles like the DF-26 are both con­ven­tional and nu­clear.

Space Sur­veil­lance

China is seek­ing to master the sen­sor-toshooter loop. So far 30 Bei­dou nav­i­ga­tion satel­lites have been launched, some of which are now out­dated, but plans for 35 satel­lite con­stel­la­tions by 2020. There are some 40 Yao­gan satel­lites so far, for ship track­ing, tar­get­ing and ISR net­work. Ac­cord­ing to Jane’s satel­lites are placed in tri­an­gu­lar for­ma­tions com­pris­ing of an EO sur­veil­lance satellte, SAR satel­lite and a sig­nals and ELINT satel­lite.

The Haiyang Ocean sur­veil­lance satel­lite and the Gaofen se­ries of geo­sta­tion­ary high res­o­lu­tion earth ob­ser­va­tion satel­lite can pro­vide near real-time global sur­veil­lance (6 Gaofens have been launched since 2013) and Jilin high def­i­ni­tion multi- spec­tal imag­ing satel­lites are cur­rently 4, but by 2020, a to­tal of 60 Haiyang, Gaofen and Jilin satel­lites will give 30 minute up­dates and by 2030, 138 satel­lites will pro­vide all-day, all-weather ac­qui­si­tion ca­pa­bil­ity to ob­serve any part of the world with 10 minute re­visit ca­pa­bil­ity.

China plans to launch the core mod­ule of its space sta­tion in 2018, fol­lowed by the lab mod­ules in 2020 and 2022. This launch ac­tiv­ity is cen­tered around the lift ca­pa­bil­ity pro­vided by the Long March 5 rocket which can boost 25 tonnes to the LEO and 14 tonnes to the GTO. The space sta­tion will add un­spec­i­fied mil­i­tary ca­pac­ity for the PLA.


Chi­nese be­lieve that US re­lies on space for 70-90 per cent of its in­tel­li­gence and 80 per cent of its com­mu­ni­ca­tions. Loss of crit­i­cal sen­sors would dras­ti­cally de­grade US mil­i­tary ca­pa­bil­ity.

China has been in­volved in a di­rect ASAT test in 2007 when an old met satel­lite was de­stroyed by a ki­netic kill ve­hi­cle. Since then, it has con­ducted eight ASAT tests, though the Chi­nese claim some tests to be mis­sile de­fence tests. The Chi­nese BMD and ASAT ca­pa­bil­ity is linked through the SC 19 mis­sile which was used to de­stroy the satel­lite in 2007, be­ing a ground based ki­netic kill ve­hi­cle. In Jan­uary 2010, it used the SC-19 mis­sile to de­stroy a CSS-X-11 MRBM and car­ried out an­other test in Jan­uary 2013 and again in 2014. The US is the only other coun­try to do this tech­ni­cally chal­leng­ing feat.

The US Na­tional Air and Space In­tel­li­gence Cen­tre ( NASIC) says that “China has the most ac­tive and di­verse bal­lis­tic mis­sile de­fence pro­gramme in the world.”

In May 2013, China used a sound­ing rocket, Dong Neng 3 ( DN3) to reach 10,000 kms in space and re­lease a bar­ium cloud to study the mag­ne­to­sphere. The US con­tra­dicted this and said that the rocket had a bal­lis­tic tra­jec­tory close to geosyn­chronous or­bit. In other words it was in­tended to knock out a tar­get in a geo­sta­tion­ary or­bit by ac­tu­ally ram­ming it.

In an­other test in Au­gust 2010, one Shi­jian 12 satel­lite bumped into a Shi­jian 6F caus­ing it to drift from its or­bit. The US sus­pects this could be an­other kind of ASAT test.

In Au­gust 2013, China con­ducted the test of a ro­botic arm where one of the Shi­jian satel­lites acted as a tar­get and the other with the ro­botic arms grap­pled with it. In June 2016 China launched an Ao­long satel­lites equipped with a ro­botic arm to re­move satel­lite de­bris.

PLAN Strat­egy

PLAN Strat­egy has evolved from coastal or in­shore de­fence which fo­cused on prevent­ing in­fil­tra­tion from sea and sup­port­ing land en­gage­ments in the 1950s and 1960s. In the 1980s, China be­gan to look at de­fence of its cru­cial off­shore wa­ters of the Yel­low Sea, East China Sea and the South China Sea in terms of LOC de­fence, pos­si­ble Tai­wan con­tin­gency, as well as prevent­ing an in­va­sion and pro­tect­ing mar­itime rights and in­ter­ests.

In this mil­len­nium, PLAN has moved from off­shore de­fence to open wa­ters de­fence. This means strength­en­ing off­shore de­fence, even while hav­ing the abil­ity to pro­tect Chi­nese in­ter­ests over­seas and par­tic­i­pat­ing in in­ter­na­tional se­cu­rity co­op­er­a­tion. Chi­nese mil­i­tary modernisation of­ten tends to fo­cus on in­di­vid­ual plat­forms like air­craft car­ri­ers or subs. There has been a sharp ac­cre­tion in the strength of the PLAN with the ac­quiri­sion of the Luhu (052), Luhai ( 051B), Sovre­menny, Luyang ( 052) and Luzhou (051C) class de­stroy­ers, Jiang­wei (053) and Jiangkai (054) class frigates, the Jin, Song Yuan and Kilo class subs, the Shang nu­clear pow­ered at­tack subs, the air­craft car­rier Liaon­ing and 100 fourth gen fighters which in­clude J-10, J-11, Su-30, plus 30 H-6 bombers with air-to-sur­face mis­siles.

But this is in fact a broad based ef­fort rang­ing from ASBMs to ASCMs, de­stroy­ers, frigates, LPDs, C4ISR sys­tems and so on. The in­creas­ing fo­cus is on qual­ity rather

than quan­tity. Still, it has weak­nesses in op­er­at­ing with other ser­vices, poor ASW and anti-mine ca­pa­bil­i­ties and for long range tar­get­ing.

Now, the PLAAF

The PLAAF had a long pe­riod of stag­na­tion when its Soviet-de­rived tech­nol­ogy be­came ob­so­lete. It then sought western tech­nol­ogy, but even that was blocked post-Tianan­men in 1989.

Evoution of the PLAAF has been en­cour­aged by RMA, bal­ance of power with Tai­wan and greater pres­ence in the sea. The Gulf War brought out the value of long-range pre­ci­sion strike, us­ing in­te­grated in­tel­li­gence, sur­veil­lance and re­con­nais­sance net­works. In the mid-2000s the per­cep­tion that Tai­wanese air­power “was stronger,” en­cour­aged ef­forts to modernisation.

The Mil­i­tary Strat­egy 2015 called for in­te­grated aero­space op­er­a­tions with si­mul­ta­ne­ous of­fen­sive and de­fen­sive op­er­a­tions. What does this mean ? Build­ing an air force re­ly­ing on sur­veil­lance and early warn­ing, air of­fen­sive cam­paigns, air and mis­sile de­fence and strate­gic force pro­jec­tion. So we are talk­ing of in­te­gra­tion of in­for­ma­tion sys­tems, long range force pro­jec­tion and strong at­tack.

The PLAAF plans to in­duct 5th gen­er­a­tion fighters like the J- 20 and a mod­ernised H-6K bomber with a range of 3,500 km and the abil­ity to carry six CJ-10 land at­tack cruise mis­sile. In the AEW&C area, China has four KJ-2000s ca­pa­ble of

24 hour op­er­a­tions and is de­vel­op­ing more ad­vanced air­craft. The PLAAF al­ready uses some 300 UAVs in­clud­ing the CH-4A and Bs. It is ac­quir­ing the Su-35 from Rus­sia with its ad­vanced radar and is test­ing the J-31, the other 5th gen­er­a­tion fighter.

The key action ar­eas for the PLAAF is in the area of en­gine tech­nol­ogy. It has de­vel­oped the WS-9 and WS-10 in re­cent years un­der li­cence from UK and Rus­sia, but fo­cus is on its own WS-18 and WS-20 for its new fifth gen­er­a­tion air­craft, the Y-20 trans­port and the H-6K bomber.

Emerg­ing sys­tems

Hy­per­sonic weapons tech­nolo­gies are ei­ther boost- glide weapons or cruise mis­siles at­tain­ing su­per­sonic speed us­ing scram­jet. China has con­ducted a great deal of re­search in this area and there are re­ports that it has flight-tested a scram­jet en­gine that can be use for sus­tained hy­per­sonic flight. Boost glide sys­tems are launched on a rocket and then at the edge of the at­mos­phere or a lit­tle above it, they re-en­ter and glide to the tar­get. They are a by-prod­uct of the ter­mi­nally guided re- en­try ve­hi­cles like DF-21D war­heads.

China has con­ducted seven tests of hy­per­sonic boost glide ve­hi­cles be­gin­ning Jan­uary 2014, the last in April 2016 to ranges of 2,000 kms. Ex­perts like James Ac­ton say that it is less ad­vanced than US whose Ad­vanced Hy­per­sonic sys­tem has been tested over 3,800 kms. How hy­per­sonic ve­hi­cles will be used re­mains a ques­tion, though they will re­duce the ef­fec­tive­ness of mid-course mis­sile de­fences and ex­tend the op­er­a­tional range bal­lis­tic mis­siles.

Space-based C4ISR is needed for power pro­jec­tion and pre­ci­sion strike. Long range cruise and bal­lis­tic mis­siles need this as well as to de­ploy forces for op­er­a­tions far from the home­land.

Ac­cord­ing to the US ex­pert Richard Fisher, China has made large in­vest­ments in en­ergy weapons de­vel­op­ment (lasers, rail­guns and high- power mi­crowave). US de­vel­op­ments are a bench­mark of what the Chi­nese are work­ing on. A US Elec­tro­ma­gen­tic launch gun or rail gun may be de­vel­oped by the mid-2020s and could be de­ployed in nu­clear or elec­tric pow­ered ships like the USS Zumwalt. The US al­ready de­ployes a small Laser Weapon Sys­tem to de­feat drone swarms and small ships at close range and is also near suc­cess in High Power Mi­crowave weapons which use some parts of mi­crowave spec­trum to de­feat elec­tronic tar­gets.

China, for quite a while, has fo­cused on anti-mis­sile lasers since the 1980s. In 2006, there was a re­port of Chi­nese ground-based laser blind­ing a US op­ti­cal sur­veil­lance satel­lite. There have been some Chi­nese ar­ti­cles on the fea­si­bil­ity of space-based laser weapons in satel­lites, in par­tic­u­lar a 5- ton plat­form. Chi­nese com­pa­nies are also work­ing on elec­tric- pow­ered fi­bre op­tic lasers ca­pa­ble of deal­ing with plas­tic drone swarms.

China’s 863 Pro­gramme may well have also de­vel­oped High Power Mi­crowave sys­tems. In Jan­uary 2017, Huang Wen­hua, an HPM ex­pert at the North­west In­sti­tute for Nu­clear Sci­ence won the first prize in na­tional tech­nol­ogy awards for de­velp­ing an HMP weapon ca­pa­ble of de­fend­ing war­ships from anti-ship mis­siles.

China fields an im­pres­sive ar­ray of UAVs and UUVs but th­ese are mostly tac­ti­cal. Their mis­sions in­clude ISR, EW, data re­lay and guid­ance for mis­siles in OTH tar­get­ing. Re­cent break­throughs in swarm in­tel­li­gence and swarm war­fare aim at asym­met­ric at­tacks on US plat­forms par­tic­u­larly air­craft car­ri­ers. In Novem­ber 2016, China Elec­tronic Tech­nol­ogy Group (CETC) a state owned en­ter­prise (SOE) spe­cial­is­ing in AI showed a video of its 70-drone swarm op­er­at­ing au­tonomously and sim­u­lat­ing re­con­nai­sance and strike mis­sions. In Fe­bru­ary 2017, there was a dis­play of a swarm of 1000 UAVs at the Guangzhou Air Show. The key to drone swarms is that they are not cen­trally con­trolled, but each mem­ber of the swarm uses soft­ware for co­or­di­na­tion. As of now th­ese may be good for light shows, and can be eas­ily coun­tered, but the fu­ture may be dif­fer­ent. (The US DARPA has con­tracted four teams to de­velop drone swarms for dis­rupt­ing air de­fence by act­ing as de­coys, or as jam­mers in a co­or­di­nated and dis­trib­uted man­ner so some do de­coys, some jam­ming and oth­ers radar de­tec­tors.)

Now, the PLA has be­gun field­ing ad­vanced multi- mis­sion UAVs. Their R& D fo­cuses on high- alti­tude, long en­durance UAVs with stealth or an­ti­s­tealth, su­per­sonic and pre­ci­sion strike ca­pa­bil­i­ties. China has ex­ported its Yi­long HALE which has in­te­grated recce, pre­ci­sion strike and EW ca­pa­bil­i­ties.

There is also fo­cus on in­tel­li­gent un­manned sys­tems that can op­er­ate au­tonomously in dif­fi­cult elec­tro­mag­netic en­vi­ron­ments.

Still, on bal­ance, the Chi­nese are not as ad­vanced as the US, and still face chal­lenges on engines and data links.

Fu­tur­is­tic sys­tems

In the mil­i­tary tech­nol­ogy area, it takes any­where between 15- 20 years for a tech­nol­ogy to go from con­cept stage to de­ploy­ment. Some fu­ture sys­tems are in­di­cated by Chi­nese tech­nol­ogy test­ing in quan­tum com­mu­ni­ca­tions, pul­sar nav­i­ga­tion and elec­tro­mag­netic drive. In th­ese cases, China has, ac­cord­ing to Kevin Pollpeter, in­tro­duced tech­nolo­gies ahead of pro­grammes, sig­nalling the end of an era where Chi­nese copied con­cepts and re-en­gi­neered the tech­nolo­gies of oth­ers.

Quan­tum tech­nol­ogy is a cut­ting edge area which can be di­vided as three : quan­tum com­put­ing, quan­tum en­cryp­tion and quan­tum sens­ing. Th­ese use mind bend­ing con­cepts of su­per po­si­tion and

en­tan­gle­ment and in­for­ma­tion cap­tured in terms of qubits. Cur­rently a Cana­dian com­pany makes some kind of quan­tum com­puter, but Google, IM, NASA, Alibaba, and the Chi­nese Academy of Sci­ences are work­ing hard to make a real quan­tum com­puter.

Quan­tum en­cryp­tion is said to be un­break­able and a po­ten­tial dis­rupter in in­tel­li­gence. Quan­tum sens­ing is the abil­ity to use for very pre­cise mea­sure­ments in clocks, radar, nav­i­ga­tion and com­passes with pos­si­ble ap­pli­ca­tions in pre­ci­sion strikes.

Cut­ting edge re­search be­ing done by the An­hui Quan­tum Com­mu­ni­ca­tion Tech Ltd headed by Pan Jian­wei. The 5th Plenum of the Com­mu­nist Party’s Cen­tral Com­mit­tee listed this as a tech­nol­ogy tar­geted for break­throughs. It fig­ures in the 13th Five Year Plan and the Na­tional Key R&D Plan. Pan Jian­wei says that a global com­mu­ni­ca­tions net­work could come up by 2030.

Ac­cord­ing to US ex­perts, China has recorded no­table achieve­ments in en­cryp­tion. A Quan­tum Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Satel­lite, Mi­cius, the first ever was launched by China in Au­gust 2016, can ac­cord­ing to the Xin­hua re­port, “es­tab­lish hack-proof” com­mu­ni­ca­tions from space to ground. Chi­nese had ear­lier ex­per­i­mented by send­ing quan­tum com­mu­ni­ca­tions over fi­bre op­tic ca­bles.

How­ever, this is still nascent in quan­tum com­put­ing but do­ing well in that the claimed radar could de­feat all stealth. China feels that quan­tum in­for­ma­tion sci­ence may be the place where it will get pay­offs in civil and mil­i­tary ar­eas, so leapfrog­ging ahead of the US.

Elec­tro­mag­netic drive: China an­nounced in De­cem­ber 2016 that it had de­vel­oped a pro­to­type drive that was be­ing tested in space, the first coun­try to do so (the UK and US have tested it on earth). It in­volves use of mi­crowaves for propul­sion and does not re­quire pro­pel­lants to be car­ried, thus vir­tu­ally halv­ing the weight of a satel­lite.

Pul­sar nav­i­ga­tion: In Novem­ber 2016 China launched the XPNAV satel­lite to test pul­sar nav­i­ga­tion tech. NASA is ex­pected to do so in the ISS later this year and use pul­sar star pulses for more ac­cu­rate nav­i­ga­tion satel­lites. Th­ese would also give more au­ton­omy for satel­lite flight plan.

A ma­jor area of fo­cus is Ar­ti­fi­cial In­tel­li­gence. This is one area in which the Chi­nese gov­ern­ment is push­ing com­pa­nies like Baidu and Ten­cent to be­come dom­i­nant play­ers in the world. A White House assess­ment of ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence re­search in­di­cates that to­day China, with 350 pub­li­ca­tions, leads the field with the USA at num­ber two with a litte over 250. All other play­ers UK, Australia, Canada, Ja­pan, Ger­many, Sin­ga­pore, South Korea or France pro­duce a lit­tle over fifty or lit­tle less than that. This is not just an ab­so­lute lead, as the same set of fig­ures look­ing at their be­ing cited by other re­searchers ( a mea­sure of their in­flu­ence) in­di­cates China re­mains as num­ber one.

An ex­am­ple of the Chi­nese in­flu­ence comes from the fact that Baidu runs a huge cen­tre for AI re­search in San Jose, the Sil­i­con Val­ley where its chief sci­en­tist, An­drew Ng (who re­signed ear­lier in April 2017) is also an as­so­ci­ate pro­fes­sor at the Stan­ford Univer­sity’s com­puter sci­ence depart­ment. This cen­tre em­ploys some of the top level AI re­searchers in the USA.

The clear trend

The clear trend in China’s modernisation ef­forts is to­wards cre­at­ing a world class mil­i­tary, ca­pa­ble of tak­ing on the United States. This may ap­pear to be a tall or­der to­day, but things could look quite dif­fer­ent 15 years from now. The US, of course, has huge ad­van­tages be­cause of its re­search ca­pa­bil­i­ties which are based on its ecosys­tem of com­pa­nies, uni­ver­si­ties and en­gi­neers who are se­lected from vir­tu­ally all over the world. The Chi­nese have been skil­fully lo­cat­ing their re­search fa­cil­i­ties in the US to tap this ta­lent, ac­quir­ing a num­ber of cut­ting edge Western com­pa­nies and also fund­ing many Amer­i­can start ups.

Th­ese de­vel­op­ments have im­pli­ca­tions for coun­tries such as In­dia be­cause we are, as it is, find­ing it dif­fi­cult to get some mo­men­tum in the cur­rent modernisation deficit. We do not have the re­sources to put into fu­tur­is­tic tech­nolo­gies or an R&D and man­u­fac­tur­ing ecosys­tem to de­velop them. The op­tions be­fore In­dia are not too many and we would have to evolve asym­met­ri­cal sys­tems of our own to de­ter the Chi­nese - and thus lower the nu­clear thresh­old.

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