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Chinese Military Modernization Aims For Regional Projection

October 2003
By Robert K. Ackerman
E-mail About the Author

Advanced technologies lie at the heart of most efforts.

The focus of long-term changes underway in China’s military is on regional rather than global improvements. This approach includes deploying systems that have only a local reach as well as developing or acquiring advanced technologies for specific military units or elements.

Considerable emphasis is being placed on advanced information technology, according to a report to Congress sent just before the August recess. Among the priorities is a significant endeavor to build a comprehensive military information system network. Other thrusts aim at developing advanced space operations, including counterspace activities; enhancing surveillance and reconnaissance assets; and improving electronic warfare capabilities.

According to a U.S. Defense Department official, China’s military modernization program focuses on two general areas. One is to build specific capabilities relevant to a potential conflict over Taiwan. The other is to generally modernize the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) so that its elements are not left behind by the advancing state of the art of military capabilities, even in areas where China does not face any particular threat in the foreseeable future.

Nonetheless, even though this buildup does not have a global reach, it does have implications for U.S. military operations in the Asia-Pacific region.

“If China develops effective open ocean/over-the-horizon surveillance capabilities, we have a problem,” the official states. China also is increasing its ability to hit bases with non-nuclear tactical ballistic missiles, which would hinder the ability of U.S. forces to project power from beyond the range of Chinese forces.

China began changing its military doctrine in 1980, and the U.S. official believes that it is halfway through a 40-year effort to modernize its military operations. The country has emphasized increased flexibility at the tactical level, more realistic training and more innovative tactics. In December 1999, near the end of its ninth five-year plan, China published its first true standardized doctrinal PLA publications. The tenth five-year plan, which began in 2001, implements that doctrine in the training program of the PLA.

Some aspects of modernization deal with threat-free areas. In a broad-based undertaking, the country is modernizing ground forces despite the lack of any ground threat, the official observes. Even though it does not face any such threat for the next 20 years, because China began its 1980 plan three generations behind other countries’ capabilities, the PLA will find itself unable to catch up if such a threat materializes. It has to close the gap well before urgency sets in, so it is modernizing now.

One of the major trends in China’s upgrades for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) is that the country has recognized its inability to find targets over the horizon (OTH) at sea, the official states. Accordingly, China “clearly is exploring options” to address that shortcoming.

Airborne early warning remains a high priority. After failing to obtain an Israeli-built Falcon radar system mounted on a Russian aircraft, China has stepped up its efforts to develop indigenous air early warning aircraft. It is leasing A-50/Mainstay surveillance aircraft from Russia, but this is just a stopgap measure until China can develop its own capability in a few years.

Helicopters that came with destroyers purchased from Russia can be used for OTH target acquisition for the ships’ cruise missiles. The congressional report notes that China has skywave medium-wave OTH radars that could be used to target aircraft carriers.

The official describes these efforts as “still at the exploratory phase of trying to decide what to do about this problem. What we don’t see yet is any serious commitment to building a comprehensive network to provide the kind of broad-area ocean coverage that is necessary for their task. And, the obvious task here is to be able to keep an opponent—the only opponent that matters to them is the United States—far enough off their shores so that it cannot strike targets of concern to them or interfere in issues such as a potential Taiwan Strait conflict.

“If they really cared, they could build a pretty good system out of components they have available to them right now—if they felt the need to do it right now,” the official continues. “What does it take—some aircraft with radars on board? That would do it—that’s how we did it in the 1960s. The most likely explanation [of why they are not building it] is that they are not yet ready to commit to large-scale implementation of a solution to this problem—probably because they are not quite satisfied with the state of their own technology in that area, and they don’t want to commit before they achieve the technology level that they want. They don’t want to be locked into something that will seem obsolete soon,” the official warrants.

The official adds that, at the moment, a mismatch exists between the range of China’s strike systems and the range of its surveillance systems to detect targets. Several programs seek to address this shortcoming. A joint program with Brazil aims to develop and launch an earth resources imagery satellite that would improve related military capabilities. China launched its first oceanological satellite last year, and the country intends to orbit a constellation of these satellites by 2010 to monitor the ocean environment.

The U.S. official emphasizes that China’s ISR campaign “is not taking place in a vacuum” isolated from work to improve its communications network. However, the command, control, communications and computers (C4) aspect is progressing much faster than its ISR counterpart. China is making major investments in building a comprehensive, modern military C4 network. Networking ISR sensors with an effective information sharing network is a key part of solving the ISR problem, the official notes, and the C4 backbone will play a key role.

“They are much closer to the international state of the art on their C4 work than they are on the ISR side of the picture,” the official observes.

This is an area where China has jumped successfully from 1960s technology to 1990s technology, the official continues, saying, “What the Chinese are doing now is comparable to what we did in the 1990s—wire everybody up on computer networks.” The path to that success largely follows that of the United States: adopting commercial off-the-shelf information technology and adding indigenous encryption. The encryption algorithms are solid and have been implemented well, the official states.

The United States chose a different course after its 1990s modernization when it opted for elements such as establishing a common operating picture for all forces and pushing the network into the aircraft cockpit. It is too soon to predict whether China will follow that road map, the official offers. Of primary concern is finishing the process of networking all of China’s forces in a command-level system. China does not seem to be exhibiting much interest in extending the military C4 network down to the vehicle or individual level as has the United States.

Having established a good fixed C4 infrastructure, the next likely step will be to develop an advanced mobile C4 infrastructure, the official offers. That program seems to be advancing at full speed and making good progress.

The official continues that some of the few remaining commercial companies owned by the PLA are producing state-of-the-art computer network components. One of these companies, known as Huawei, is being sued by Cisco Corporation for appropriating some of its most advanced router technology. In addition to manufacturing clones of top routers, the Chinese company also produces advanced telecommunications components for both commercial and military uses.

Information operations are given a high priority in China, as evidenced by open source information. The report to Congress states that the country views information operations/information warfare as “a strategic presumptive weapon for use outside of traditional operational boundaries.” The report continues that it is to be used “substantially as an unconventional weapon at the beginning of a conflict.” Recent PLA exercises have incorporated the concept of information warfare between opposing command posts at the onset of conflict.

The report also cites the presence of “nationalistic hacking,” which is described as more likely to occur during periods of tension or crises. The report continues, “Although the extent of Chinese government involvement would be difficult to ascertain, official statements concerning the leveraging of China’s growing presence on the Internet and the application of the principles of ‘People’s War’ in net warfare suggest the government will have a stronger role in future nationalistic hacking.”

China’s electronic warfare capabilities lag compared to those of other nations. Noting that China clearly is interested in both offensive and defensive capabilities, the U.S. Defense Department official describes China as “very aware” of U.S. offensive electronic warfare capabilities and the need to operate in that kind of environment.

The report to Congress notes that China’s electronic warfare inventory largely consists of 1950s to 1980s technologies, many of which have been reverse-engineered from other countries. Some newer systems, which have been sent to only a few select units, have been displayed for sale at international trade shows.

The U.S. official does not see a broad-based enterprise to modernize China’s electronic warfare capabilities. However, the official notes that China is buying some “pretty good” electronic warfare systems from other countries, which the report cites as focusing on intercept, direction finding and jamming capabilities. China also has been pursuing indigenous electronic warfare research. “This is for the most part not rocket science,” the official observes. “It is just basic electronics, and they are reasonably good at basic electronics.”

The report to Congress states that China is actively pursuing technologies that could be used to develop active antisatellite capabilities. These include lasers, space interceptors and jammers.

The report cites significant research and development programs in kinetic energy weapons, lasers and radiofrequency weapons. Much of this research is similar to that ongoing in the United States and Russia, the U.S. defense official notes, describing the laser work as at “a reasonably well-funded research program level.”

However, the official does not believe that China will employ “a weapon of massive space destruction.” This is because China is becoming more dependent on space assets itself. It is pursuing largely the same capabilities enjoyed by the United States, but on a regional basis rather than a global one. So, a vastly destructive space weapon would inflict considerable damage on China’s own capabilities.

The country has its own satellite-based positioning system with a pair of geosynchronous orbiters providing position location. This capability augments the U.S. global positioning system (GPS), which China also uses in its own systems. The Chinese Beidou system offers positioning data that would not be shut off or altered in a conflict, as could the GPS signal.

Satellite navigation, whether GPS or Beidou, plays a role in a new generation of tactical ballistic missiles that extend China’s reach to bases beyond traditional ranges. The CSS-6 Model 2 missile has a range of 1,000 kilometers. And, the mobile solid-fuel CSS-5 medium-range ballistic missile has a range of approximately 2,000 kilometers.