Perspectives on China’s Evolving Military: Part 3


China’s Evolving Military: SLD Coverage of Jamestown’s PLA Conference (Part 3)

The third panel focused on China’s C4ISR modernization. The first speaker, Kevin Pollpeter, is the China Program Manager of Defense Group, Inc.’s of the Center for Intelligence Research and Analysis. He spoke about “Informationization and Joint Operations.” His key point was that the PLA has now achieved the ability to conduct operations that integrate multiple elements of a single service (such as using the infantry with the artillery) but not yet joint operations that effectively integrate the assets of several military services. Until the PLA achieves this latter capacity, its ability to exploit the full combat potential of all its new equipment will remain inherently limited.

Pollpeter described five challenges the PLA has been experiencing in instituting joint operations: conceptual, organizational, training, technology, and mindset.

In terms of concepts, PLA regulations and doctrine during the past decade have reached the level of “coordination” (when one service knows what the others are doing in an area of operations, which is helpful to avoid fratricide) but not integrated operations when the units of multiple services operate in unison.

In 2004, the PLA introduced two concepts that would profound the command and technological foundations for joint warfare. The first term, “integrated joint operations,” is what the U.S. military is doing today. The PLA described this as allowing command elements from one service to order the units of another service, which implies that this real command authority had not been occurring under “coordinated operations.” PLA analysts have also established the goal of being able to conduct “systems of systems operations.” As far as Pollpeter can determine, this term means connecting combat technologies together in a manner, regardless of service  or platform, that the U.S. military means by the term “network-centric operations.” It has only been in 2010 that PLA writers state that the PLA has begun practicing “systems-of-systems operations.”

The second challenge is that, from top to bottom, PLA organizational structures are not optimized to conduct joint operations. According to Pollpeter, the only genuine joint command structure in the PLA is at the top. The Central Military Commission (CMC), though still Army-dominated, includes senior PLA Air Force and Navy officers. All the structures below that, including the major PLA Departments like the General Staff Department and the General Armaments Department, are overwhelmingly dominated by the Army. The geographic military regions are also primarily dominated by the ground forces, with an Army officer as the senior command and a Navy or Air Force officer as his deputy. On paper, they would only become joint structures when activated for a war (as a “war zone”), but even this is unproven since they are not standing joint combatant commands like those of the U.S. military. The PLA has made some limited success with joint logistics in the last few years, including establishing a Joint Logistics Department, but its overall impact seems unclear

Training represents yet another challenge. PLA has conducted relatively few joint exercises, though their number is increasing and the PLA has established permanent joint training offices in each of the military regions. Ideally, you would want to train as you fight. PLA commanders and writings often state they conduct  “joint operations,” since this is what they leadership demands. But most of these are simply “combined arms” exercises, such as when the infantry practices with tank units. Pollpeter felt that Navy commanders were particularly prone to make these erroneous claims. A logical progression would see cross military region training operations in which one MR simulates an invasion of another with more than one service participating.

Pollpeter saw technology as presenting yet another barrier to joint. The PLA has been good at vertically linking its units, so that commanders can communicate with and control their subordinate units. But the PLA has not been good with horizontal integration between units belonging to different services and commands. Many problems are related to the use of incompatible technologies, since each unit is giving funds to develop its own communication systems. Often the commands have had to exchange personnel with each other, with everyone bringing their own equipment along with them. The PLA has recently introduced integrated command platform that is supposed to operate across services in any attempt to overcome this problem.

The final problem relates to the PLA mindset. Many in the PLA are reluctant to a joint force. Jointness is difficult since it often requires various sacrifices and complexities. The PLA is trying to have commanders and others harangue the troops about the importance and unavoidability of jointness.

Summing up, Pollpeter  said that the PLA had only made small progress regarding to jointness. It lags considerably behind U.S. standards, but the U.S. military also found it difficult to achieve jointness until the U.S. Congress intervened and imposed it by legislation, the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act. The PLA acknowledges this weakness. Its 2008 White paper just says that the PLA is laying a foundation for future jointness now, and does not expect to attain it for another decade or two.

Dean Cheng, Research Fellow at the Heritage Foundation, spoke about “China’s C4ISR Modernization: Problems, Progress, and Prospects.”

Fighting the PLA would present a new challenge for the U.S. military in this regard since all its previous adversaries only possessed rudimentary C4ISR systems and no outer-space capabilities. But China too would face the challenge that, unlike the United States, it has never tested its C4ISR capabilities in a real war. Credit Image: Bigstock

According to Cheng, China has been striving for the ability to conduct high-technology and integrated joint operations based on space-based ISR since watching the decisive U.S. victory in Operations Desert Shield/Desert Storm in 1991. PLA experts saw this campaign as showing that military technology could achieve a quantum change in the nature of warfare and the operational art. This PLA perception that modern information technologies required major changes in the theory and practice of warfare has been reinforced by the subsequent overwhelming U.S. military victories over Kosovo in 1998, Afghanistan in 2001, and Iraq in 2003.

Before 1991, the PLA had relied on uncoordinated ad hoc efforts by various PLA elements to introduce automated command processes, with no effort at comprehensive modernization or integration of its C4ISR efforts. Since then, the Chinese military has undertaken a comprehensive effort to develop its C4ISR concepts and capabilities. As a result, one sees the PLA introducing new terms between 1991 and 2001 as it modernizes its C4ISR functions and doctrine. These terms include “information dominance,” “information operations,” “information deterrence,” “information frontier,” “unified network electronic warfare,” “computer network warfare,” and others during

Immediately after Desert Shield/Desert Storm, the PLA undertook an extensive study of these campaigns and sought to incorporate them in its own style of war. In 1993, the PLA introduced new high-level guidelines on “local war under modern conditions.” These emphasized the value of modern information operations in warfighting.

In 1995, Communist Party Secretary-General Jiang Zemin called for “two transformations” in the PLA—from a military establishment that focused on quantity to one that focused on quality, and from a military preparing for “local wars under modern conditions” to those of  “local wars under modern high-technology conditions.” These are described in the 1997 edition of the PLA encyclopedia as conditions under which quality of weapons matter, the conflict is marked by high operational tempos, joint operations predominate, the battlefield has become three dimensional, its geographic scope extends farther a deeper into a countries’ strategic rear areas, and the role of command, control, communications, and intelligence is paramount. So C4ISR functions are essential for the successfully waging of such wars as is the capacity to interfere with an adversary’s C4ISR systems.

In addition to its doctrinal dimension, the PLA has undertaken a sustained campaign to develop the C4ISR capabilities to implement its guidelines. These efforts have focused on the three traditional domains of land, sea, and air but also the new domains of outer and electromagnetic (cyber) space since these dimensions were so important for ensuring situational awareness as well as command and control functions. Achieving dominance in these domains has been added to the PLA’s “historic missions.” Recognizing the importance of the cyber dimension, the PLA’s 2004 White Paper replaced the phrase “local wars under modern high-technology conditions” with that of  “local wars under modern informationlized conditions.” PLA texts also refer to “active offense,” “tight defense,” “seizing and preserving local information dominance,” and “breaking the enemy’s network and disrupting links.” All these terms suggest the PLA is developing  a potential doctrine for “joint campaign information operations.”

The PLA is not slavishly following the U.S. model in developing its C4ISR capabilities. In addition to the C4ISR systems and tasks emphasized by the United States, the PLA places a lot of emphasis on the psychology dimension, seeking to exploit it to slow down the adversary’s decision making cycles. This approach reflects the fact that PLA writings place a lot of information on “the human factor,” of having a good commander who can make good decisions or, conversely, preventing the adversary from  enjoying such an asset. The PRC is also employing what others call “lawfare” to degrade U.S. C4ISR capabilities. For example, China has joined with Russia to push cyber and space arms control treaties that would exempt their own systems while constraining those of the United States.

Until recently, the PRC’s C4ISR efforts from a lack of PLA-wide centralized direction. In 2002, the PLA has sought to provide unified guidance to reconcile requirements and achieve information dominance in all five domains of warfare. The recent PRC White Paper on Outer Space also confirms that has developed more advanced  outer space capabilities. These include a space-based communications and sensor network using ever more sophisticated communications and reconnaissance satellites, including spy satellites capable of serving as “national technical means.” These activities further confirm that the PRC’s civilian space program is closely associated with its military space operations. The PLA in effect is creating an advanced C4ISR architecture with multiple layers extending into outer space.

Fighting the PLA would present a new challenge for the U.S. military in this regard since all its previous adversaries only possessed rudimentary C4ISR systems and no outer-space capabilities. But China too would face the challenge that, unlike the United States, it has never tested its C4ISR capabilities in a real war. They might do better if they had already experienced a Grenada-type operation that exposed their vulnerabilities in a relatively non-threatening environment.  In the discussion session, Cheng later noted that ironically the PLA may have made its own C4ISR systems more vulnerable by relying so heavily on pirated software. For example,  there is no way that the PLA can be sure that its systems have downloaded the latest Microsoft patches to close critical vulnerabilities that an adversary might exploit.

Mark Stokes, Executive Director of the Project 2049 Institute, discussed “China’s Space-Based Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance,” reviewing the factors that are driving the modernization of the PLA’s space-based ISR, the key PLA organizations involved in this effort, the industrial entities that actually design and manufacture these capabilities, and some interesting aspects of the PRC’s space modernization programs.

According to Stokes, PLA leaders want advanced outer-spaced ISR capabilities for the same reason that the world’s other major militaries are acquiring them. The first reason is to enhance peacetime situational awareness, which includes knowledge of other countries’ military activities as well as for early warning of an attack. For example, they can determine the location and type of U.S. warships. The second reason is to support mission planning functions such as targets for missiles or air strikes. The final driver is general battle damage assessment, to see how well any attacks performed and what needs to be struck again.

Based on his comprehensive study of the PLA’s efforts in these areas, Stokes believes that the General Staff Department (the GSD consists of warfighters) that develops the PLA’s requirements for space-based ISR capabilities. For example, the Aerospace Reconnaissance Bureau of the GSD Second Department appears to be the primary organizations that develops the operational requirements for space-based surveillance. It probably also operates the ground-based radars that collect the information from the reconnaissance satellites and converts the data into operationally useful intelligence such as targeting data. The GSD Third Department of the General Staff Department also might play a role in collecting signals and communications intelligence from space since it is roughly equivalent to the U.S. National Security Agency. The GSD Fourth Department is also likely involved in radar and electronics countermeasures.

And the General Armaments Department–especially its Electronics and Information Infrastructure Development Bureau–actually contracts with various design bureaus and other entities to produce these capabilities. For example, its people publish articles on various outer space ISR architecture development options, including how to combine optical and synthetic aperture satellites. Two large PRC state-owned enterprises (SOEs) are involved in manufacturing these capabilities. The first is the China Aerospace Science Technology Corporation, especially its China Academy of Space Technology, which makes electro-optical satellites, and its Shanghai Academy of Aerospace Technology, which makes synthetic aperture and electronic intelligence satellites for military and civilian purposes such as weather monitoring. These two business division-level entities compete a little but basically have monopoly status in their areas of specialization. Another large SOE, the China Aerospace Science Industry Corporation, manufactures “microsatellites” (small satellites for single-purpose missions) as well as “operationally responsive launch vehicles” that could launch microsatellites in a timely manner (as during a war or after existing satellites had been destroyed or damaged).

In terms of his net assessment, Stokes argues that the PLA’s outer space capabilities still lag behind those of the United States, but it probably has good enough space-based communications and electronics reconnaissance.  The PLA’s current space ISR requirements probably include having more optical imagery satellites, better unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), improved synthetic aperture radar for penetrating under clouds and surveying at night, superior signals intelligence for monitoring and identifying warships, and having greater resiliency (hence the interest in microsatellites). The PLA will benefit from the improving capabilities of China’s civilian space program. For example, even weather satellites can provide useful capabilities since they can supply information about the upper atmosphere (the ionosphere), which can be useful for calibrating a ground-based over the horizon radar, or help provide information about maritime conditions, useful for targeting ships.

The PLA sees outer space not just as a domain to support terrestrial operations but also as an area of warfare in its own right. It is also developing a large space program for prestige and economic as well as military reasons. For example, PRC leaders believe that high-tech industries like space can generate spinoffs that can be distributed to  many other sectors of the entire Chinese economy. The PLA has also used  its satellites to help manage its response to earthquakes, with the satellites surveying  the damage. It is likely that the PRC uses its space-based surveillance capabilities for domestic monitoring purposes as well.