China’s Military Modernisation
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.
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 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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.