Publication: China Brief Volume: 4 Issue: 23

In 2002, China substantially revised its 1993 national defense strategy of fighting a regional war under hi-tech conditions to a new strategy of fighting a regional war under the condition of informatization. This change indicates a new phase in the PLA’s use of the Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) as the central linkage between new military theories and concrete reforms. Specifically, information technology (IT) is now seen as the engine of the RMA, and stimulus for global military change. Guided by this new approach, the direction of the PLA’s modernization has been shifted from seeking superiority through mechanization (enhancing hardware platforms) to realizing a simultaneous transformation through mechanization and informatization (systems integration).

Revolution in Military Thinking

In the early 1990s, the PLA responded to the altered form of warfare by quickening the R&D of advanced conventional platforms, as prescribed by the newly emerging hi-tech combat environment. But, after watching the series of anti-terror wars led by the U.S. in recent years, the PLA is now convinced that systems integration is more important than individual hi-tech hardware. Informatization is thus singled out as the driving force for PLA transformation. This reflects a new understanding about the type of war the PLA expects to face in the future: even if the combat is between conventional platforms, the key to victory is the IT systems. The idea of adding numbers of platforms to enhance capabilities is obsolete. Therefore, Information Warfare (IW) is no longer seen as only one method of combat, but the dominant form and the core of all other types of military engagement. Nor is IT upgrading a matter of mere technical significance – it is now considered the lifeline of the PLA’s survival.

This revolution in thinking addresses the weakest linkage of the PLA’s recent transformation. The PLA has no unified C4ISR (Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance) systems and only an incomplete foundation for IT networking, leading to poor cooperation and coordination between different services in the battlefield. Now, efforts are made to design an overarching blueprint to address this problem. The final goal of this program is to realize unobstructed and digitalized transfer of information between all systems: at the strategic, campaign and tactical levels, among services and between platforms.

To the PLA, system integration represents a short cut in raising combat effectiveness as opposed to adding more expensive platforms. In the short run, this approach will plug IT assets into individual weapons as force multipliers. In medium term, systems integration (networking computers in command centers with weapons and sensors in the war zones) is the top priority to improve C4ISR interconnectivity. Informatization allows for the efficient sharing of intelligence, the acceleration of the decision- making process, and the effective implementation of orders. A real time grasp of battlefield situations is thereby obtained and quickly disseminated.

Therefore, informatization has made the RMA-driven transformation of the PLA more comprehensive and systematic than before. This revised strategy is an indicator of a change in focus from platform-centric to networking-centric, a significant step in China’s catch-up campaign.

The Generation Leap Strategy

The idea of a generation leap is at the core of the PLA’s IT-RMA transformation. It means that the PLA pushes two transformations simultaneously: mechanization and informatization. In the West, the former precedes the latter, as the platforms are the carriers of the systems. China’s mechanization is far from complete, but there is no time to wait – the PLA trying to invent its own way of informatizing.

The process unfolds as such: the PLA will first upgrade its conventional weapons of industrial age through plugging IT assets into them individually to increase their interconnectivity. Then all weapons systems will be integrated through IT networks, especially the C4ISR architecture. Ultimately, the PLA will be turned from a military of mechanization into a military of informatization, which means that the PLA will acquire tremendous combat capability for “soft kill.”

The idea of a generation leap is also applicable to the process of informatization itself. To the PLA, informatization can be divided into three stages of evolution: digitalization, systems integration and intelligentization (zhinenghua). Digitalization is the initial phase. The PLA has not fully entered this stage, but it is already working on comprehensive networking.

The PLA believes that its late start can save it from the blind exploration of a wrong path. The U.S. experience shows the rules of and steps in transformation from mechanization to informatization. Through learning from the U.S., the PLA hopes to skip a few stages of development and enter the fast track early. American military reforms are therefore providing a good roadmap for the PLA to quicken the pace of its own reforms.

Informatization and War Preparation

The PLA’s 1993 hi-tech strategy was a strategy guiding military modernization in peacetime. The revised strategy is target specific: armed conflict with Taiwan, with possible U.S. involvement. This serves as the accelerator for the PLA’s transformation and offers a practical roadmap for the PLA’s war preparations. Under this new strategy, each service explores the exact type of war it is going to fight. Now that a Taiwan crisis (with possible U.S. involvement) is identified as the most likely scenario, non-engagement warfare is logically set as the main form of combat, at least at the initial stage of war. A Taiwan war is a war of politics, not one of mass destruction. From this rationality, IW is the most suitable type of warfare that can help achieve China’s political objective without causing too many casualties.

More concretely, the PLA’s projection is that in a worst case scenario, China’s future war will be fought against lightening air and missile surgical strikes, or sustained air, missile and electronic bombardment. If it is the PLA that takes action, it would be an information-dominated attack in the country’s maritime areas. Non-personnel engagement will be a new but prominent feature of combat, although exchange of fire within short distances (e.g., aerial dog fights) could possibly occur.

The idea of a pre-emptive IW strike has been elevated to the central place in the PLA’s design of the attack: crippling the enemy’s major military assets rather than its urban centers. This has broadened its vision in waging an anti-RMA war against a superior opponent. Having to rely on inferior weapons to counter U.S. intervention, the PLA has seriously studied how to conduct a one-sided war. To PLA strategists, the informatization of the U.S. military has not only generated strength, but also exposed weaknesses. The 9/11 tragedy reflects the vulnerability of a mighty nation to new kinds of war. The PLA is contemplating various types of asymmetrical warfare for self-protection.

To this end, China is developing new IW measures. Cyber attacks on the enemy’s C4IRS will be an integral part of future warfare. Such attacks are much cheaper than attacks on carrier battle groups. The PLA believes that the more a military depends on IT, the more vulnerable it becomes to strikes at its information hubs. One PLA researcher pointed out that about 80 percent of U.S. military communications facilities rely on civilian networks, creating a window of opportunity for cyber strikes. For the first time, militarily weaker powers have found the means to deliver punches to the soft-underbelly of the more powerful enemy.

The much talked-about missile threat is another form of non-engagement warfare the PLA contemplates in planning asymmetric warfare. Saturated conventional missile attacks at military targets and communication hubs is one of the first choices in a Taiwan war scenario. It is also a way to threaten aircraft carrier groups. The PLA does not currently possess this capability, but is determined to acquire it and is seriously studying the tactics.

The goal of missile warfare is to bring the war to the enemy’s territory. More importantly, a pinpoint counter-force strike is less threatening politically than direct engagements between personnel. It reduces human losses for the PLA, and has a greater psychological effect on the opponent’s population. Missile launches are also more manageable. They can be halted promptly to avoid escalation and direct confrontation with a superpower. Missile warfare is seen as the extension of a process for political settlement.

The Challenges Ahead

The PLA’s new defense strategy is risky. The “double construction” (mechanization plus informatization) will dictate a huge increase in military spending that will stretch China’s economy to the limit. Funds available for upgrading mechanization may dry out, while money for systems integration may be wasted due to the difficulties in achieving IT breakthroughs. It is questionable if the PLA is ready for deep RMA-IT reforms, which will require it to give up many of its cherished traditions and force it to overcome many institutional barriers. Finally, with a very low level of education, it is hard for soldiers to learn how to use IT facilities. “Double construction” may therefore result in a double loss.