China's Military Potency Relies On Arms Information Content

November 1999
By Clarence A. Robinson, Jr.

Beijing glimpses future, ranks information deterrence as the new operational concept.

China’s senior military thinkers are clamoring for that nation to develop or acquire information and electronic warfare technologies and systems. Ascribing almost mystical qualities to the coming revolution in military affairs, these leaders are pressing for the development of advanced technologies such as missiles armed with radio frequency microwave warheads to destroy or disrupt an enemy’s battlefield sensor and communication grids.

Some Chinese military leaders believe that an inevitable acceleration of the revolution in military affairs (RMA) will drastically reduce the relative military power of any nation that does not pursue this revolution with great vigor, according to Dr. Michael Pillsbury. He is a China scholar who visits China, reads and writes Mandarin Chinese, and often translates works by military authors from that nation.

In studies for the U.S. Defense Department’s Office of Net Assessment, he has translated more than 100 Chinese books and articles about future warfare and the security environment. Since 1995, he also has conducted more than 60 interviews with Chinese military officials during visits to Beijing.

Pillsbury points out that China does not provide a description of how the transition will be made to this new era. In fact, debate still exists in the United States over the precise definition of RMA. Nevertheless, China views itself, through access to global resources, in a role as one of five or six major poles in a new multipolar world.

Since the early 1990s, the focus of China’s military strategy has been on preparing for potential military contingencies along its southern flank, especially in the Taiwan Strait and South China Sea. Beijing’s goal is to field forces capable of rapidly deploying to fight and win a future regional war along China’s periphery under “high-technology” conditions.

As a keen observer of the U.S. and allied success in the Persian Gulf, Beijing understands the need to improve the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA’s) ability to fight against an adversary that possesses advanced information technologies and long-range, precision-guided weapons. It is this Chinese perception of a military-technical revolution that, according to a Defense Department report, has suddenly increased the urgency for the United States to press forward with its own capability to fight a high-technology war.

RMA efforts by China include the development of long-range air-to-air and surface-to-air missiles that could be used to target special support aircraft. These targets include the U.S. Air Force airborne warning and control system (AWACS), the joint surveillance target attack radar system (JointSTARS) and other command, control, intelligence and electronic warfare aircraft. There are air-to-air missiles already in China’s inventory that could be used to engage these aircraft, and Beijing is also acquiring more modern air defense missiles that could threaten these aerial platforms. The new weapons include indigenous versions of an advanced medium-range air-to-air missile (AMRAAM), Defense Department studies reveal.

Beijing learned from the vivid demonstration during the Gulf War that its own version of an adequate air defense fell woefully short in the face of precision weapons, cruise missiles and stealth aircraft. In the aftermath, the PLA embarked on an effort to procure a modern integrated air defense system. China now is procuring from Russia two variants of the SA-101 Grumble long-range surface-to-air missile system as well as the SA-15 Gauntlet short-range missile system.

China also is developing a number of indigenous air defense systems—the HQ-9 advanced long-range surface-to-air missile and the HQ-7 short-range tactical missile. The HQ-9 is intended to counter high-performance aircraft, cruise missiles and tactical ballistic missiles. Also known as the FM-80, the HQ-7 includes land-based and naval variants. Over time, China is expected to procure missiles and technology while developing its own systems, integrating these systems into a cohesive infrastructure. While it may take more than a decade to reach this goal, Beijing already has demonstrated a rudimentary local integrated air defense capability with its mobile tactical air defense system.

To realize its high-technology goals, the PLA is undertaking a long-term program of military modernization. This effort focuses on an overall force structure reduction of 500,000 soldiers; equipping with more modern weapons, either acquired from abroad or produced domestically; and a more technologically skilled force to sustain operations.

In the area of information warfare and its electronic warfare component, an analysis of China’s publications and technical journals suggests that Beijing is developing high-power microwave sources that could form the basis for radio frequency weapons applications. This involves an explosive-powered system that would be delivered to the vicinity of a target. Upon detonation, the device would emit a single intense pulse of microwave energy to disrupt or damage the electronics in an enemy’s equipment. It is still unclear whether sufficient microwave energy can be produced by this weapon to negate electronics at a greater range than does blast damage caused by the same size high-explosive warhead.

Six new combat concepts are emerging in China. The COSTIND (an English acronym for China’s Commission on Science, Technology, Industry and National Defense) journal, Contemporary Military Affairs, published an article by Chen Huan, “The Third Military Revolution.” This piece calls for rapid technology development of information, stealth and long-range precision strike weapons. Chen predicts new operational concepts will appear in future wars. They include long-range combat using an air arm to independently carry out strikes, combining the strikes with long-range rapid movement of troops transported by land and sea; employing vertical airdrops of airborne forces; and encompassing five-dimensional air, land, sea, space and electromagnetic long-range combat.

Chen continues that another form of combat will be in outer space, where new concepts will emerge in a continuous stream in the areas of laser, ultrahigh frequency, ultrasonic wave, stealth, plasma, ecological, smart, logic and sonic weaponry, and electromagnetic guns. Still another Chen theory involves paralysis combat—striking vital points of an enemy’s information and support systems so that a single blow can cause paralysis and collapse morale. Computer combat is another of his concepts. It involves injecting viruses by electromagnetic waves from long distances and duplicating them again and again within the enemy’s command and communications systems.

In addition, radiation combat would bring the use of sound, electromagnetic energy, radiation and other destructive mechanisms. “The main radiation weapons,” Chen explains, “are laser weapons, microwave weapons, particle beam weapons and subsonic wave weapons; they possess enormous military potential.”

Robot combat is another important concept for the Chinese. According to Chen, they envision employing robots for vehicle emergency measures, minelaying, minesweeping, reconnaissance, transportation, electronic missions and as vehicle drivers. He also predicts the use of unmanned intelligent tanks, and engineering, chemical defense and tactical patrol robots.

Chang Mengxiong, former senior engineer of COSTIND’s Beijing Institute of System Engineering, suggests that “we are in the midst of a new revolution in military technology and that in the 21st century both weapons and military units will be information intensified.” Pillsbury’s translation reveals that Chang goes on to describe these future weapons and then proposes that China’s leaders adopt a new standard of effectiveness to support decisions on which weapons to acquire.

To fully appreciate the significance of these statements, it is important to understand that in the United States no equivalent to Chang’s position exists. This is because Chinese defense industries are government owned and controlled through COSTIND based on the model of defense industries in the former Soviet Union, Pillsbury clarifies. “To find an equivalent to Chang, an American would have to imagine that the U.S. undersecretary of defense for acquisition actually owned and controlled the budgets and planning of all major defense corporations such as Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin, General Dynamics as well as government defense plants. The observer must further imagine that at the top of this structure, a group of analysts like Chang Mengxiong provided long-term assessments about which weapons systems merit increased investments or cancellation,” he illustrates.

In the new century, between 2010 and 2020, Chang declares, both weapons and soldiers will be information intensified. He adds that soldiers will carry global positioning, direction finding, night vision, identification friend or foe and other systems. Soldiers will request the launch of information-intensified weapons by remote control, and “soldiers’ clothing will change temperature, color and, for some, permit flying. Each soldier will be able to receive orders directly from division commanders.”

Chang also discusses the potential for “the robot troops about which there is much discussion both in China and abroad.” These will include information-intensified platforms, specifically robots that serve as sentries, engineers, infantrymen and unmanned smart tanks. Robot troops will be arrayed in large numbers, he believes.

Command, control, communications and intelligence systems will be “everywhere in the future,” so widely dispersed that attacking and protecting space-based satellites, airborne early warning aircraft and electronic warfare aircraft, and ground command sites will become important forms of combat, Chang maintains. “The main form of 21st century combat weapons systems will be information-intensified combat groups.”

One of Chang’s most vivid metaphors is of a Chinese boxer: “Information-intensified combat methods are like a Chinese boxer who has knowledge of vital body parts and can bring an opponent to his knees with a minimum of movement.” For example according to Pillsbury’s translation, Chang also discusses some specific new weapons concepts that include high-performance microwave weapons that “destroy the opponents’ electronic equipment” to achieve information superiority, which is “more important than air and sea superiority. We will have to gain air and sea superiority, but win information superiority first of all.” Chang emphasizes that information deterrence will be a new operational concept, and that like nuclear deterrence, “information deterrence will be vital.”

Pillsbury has written two books and numerous papers on China, explaining the evolution of the RMA concept since 1994 and how this third school of thought differs from China’s two traditional views of likely types of conflict—the local war and people’s war. “Some American authors state that no one yet knows what the new RMA will look like. Yet, there are Chinese generals confidently predicting the details of air, sea and land battles 20 to 30 years from now when they have not seen in person the advanced warfare demonstrated in the Gulf War,” he remarks.

He adds that in Chinese military circles there are a few books and more than 30 articles by Chinese authors relating directly to RMA. China’s assessment of this “third military technical revolution” scenario is characterized by an “opponent who will have advanced weapons, satellites for communications and reconnaissance, stealth aircraft, nuclear weapons and nanotechnology—perhaps the United States, Russia or Japan,” Pillsbury reveals.

From recent Chinese military writings more details emerge: “China must close an information gap, network all of its forces and attack enemy command, control, communications and intelligence systems to paralyze.” These RMA advocates also call for China to pre-empt an enemy attack by using directed energy weapons, computer viruses, submarine-launched munitions, antisatellite weapons, logistics buildup prevention and special operations force raids.

This Chinese RMA school of thought contrasts with the local war (jubu zhanzheng) school of thought. It envisions an opponent who will be a superpower, combat action near China’s border and a war that will not be a deep invasion. The definition of local war seems to include a broad range of scenarios, almost any war smaller in scale than global war or a major nuclear conflict. Numerous articles in China seek to describe “local war” doctrine and how to cope with a high-technology enemy. They leave little doubt that the weapons, equipment and uniforms that this high-technology enemy will have are those of U.S. forces or its allies.

China plans to seek a quick military decision in this local war concept, with rapid reaction forces that would defeat the “local” forces of Japan, Vietnam, India, Central Asia, Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia or Indonesia.

In a Maoist people’s war scenario, the enemy—the United States, Russia or Japan—would invade and seek to subjugate China. In this scenario, the war would last many years, requiring the nation’s leaders to move to alternative capitals. The defense industrial base would arm millions of militia for a protracted war, until an enemy could be defeated by China’s main army.

Pillsbury notes that references to China’s third RMA scenario often parallel Russian military journals that discuss the same subject. Chinese authors, however, fail to reference or footnote Russia’s work in this area. He adds that there is new enthusiasm for the RMA concept, with even the Liberation Army Daily official newspaper publishing articles on the subject almost weekly. These articles are about the military-technical revolution and its implications for China. Beijing has also held a national conference to discuss the implications of a potential RMA.

This third school of thought concerns the RMA potential for invasion conflict scenarios that are very different from the first two schools, Pillsbury asserts. “For example, Gen. Wang Pufeng, quoting Andrew W. Marshall (who heads the Defense Department’s Net Assessment), urges China to develop three systems for new missions: strategic reconnaissance and warning; a battlefield information grid; and long-range precision strike weapons, including tactical guided missiles. This approach would bring all of China’s military branches into a single network for combat coordination,” he says.

Other articles from China’s RMA school stress that the submarine will rise in status to become a major naval warfare force with the appearance of underwater arsenal ships and underwater minelaying robots, Pillsbury adds. He continues that Chinese military writers call for “space warfare that will be conducted by navy ships, which can destroy reconnaissance satellites and other space systems. Tactical laser weapons will be needed for antiship defense. And, long-range precision strikes at sea will cause both sides to make lightning attacks and raise first strike damage rates.” Many of the authors in this school of thought are senior officers from China’s Academy of Military Science.

One theme of this RMA school of thought is the need to change measures of effectiveness used to design and develop military equipment and weapons. One Chinese analyst proposes that future weapons systems and military organizations be judged largely on the basis of the “intensity with which they use information technology.” It is apparent from this proposal that most “local war” weapons and equipment being developed or procured by China would currently score at a very low level using information intensity as the measure of effectiveness.

In assessing and understanding these conflicting Chinese strategic writings, foreign observers should note that Asian conflict scenarios implicit in the RMA school “involve equipment and capabilities for China’s future enemies which are not possessed by Vietnam, Outer Mongolia, North Korea, India, Central Asian states, South Korea and Japan. Missions of long-range precision strike, information warfare operations, and attacks against space satellite reconnaissance systems imply that either Russia or the United States is part of the conflict scenario,” Pillsbury observes.


 (Dr. Pillsbury’s new book, “China Debates the Future Security Environment,” includes material from China on “12 ways to kill an aircraft carrier.” This book was published in October by National Defense University.)


Chinese Beam Weapons Gains Help Thwart Satellite Sys tems

Acquisition by China of a variety of foreign technologies is believed to be related to the development of antisatellite weapons. Beijing may already have acquired technical assistance that could be applied to the development of laser radars to track and image satellites. China is also seeking an advanced radar system to track satellites in low earth orbit, U.S. officials confirm.

These officials believe that China already has acquired high-energy laser equipment and technical assistance that could be used in the development of ground-based antisatellite weapons. In addition, China probably possesses the capability to damage, under specific conditions, optical sensors on satellites that are extremely vulnerable to impairment from laser beams.

Given China’s current level of interest in laser technology, the U.S. Defense Department reasonably assumes that Beijing could develop a weapon capable of destroying satellites, the U.S. officials report. Chinese engineers, they add, also are seeking to develop jammers for use against global positioning system receivers.