China’s “Revolution in Military Affairs”: Rhetoric Versus Reality

Publication: China Brief Volume: 8 Issue: 5

China is currently engaged in a determined effort to transform its military from an army based on Mao Zedong’s principles of mass-oriented, infantry-heavy “People’s War,” to what many foreign observers perceive to be an agile, high-technology force capable of projecting power throughout the Asia-Pacific. A corollary to this assertion is that this modernization process is nothing less than a larger effort by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to engage in a comprehensive “revolution in military affairs” (RMA) that would radically alter the way it conducts warfare, given that the PLA is in the midst of perhaps the most ambitious upgrading of its combat capabilities since the early 1960s—both quantitatively and qualitatively—to its arsenal of military equipments.

An RMA is a process of discontinuous, disruptive and revolutionary change. For its proponents, the RMA is a fundamental change—a “paradigm shift”—in the character and conduct of warfare. Basically, an RMA occurs when new technologies are combined with new operational and organizational concepts so that it “fundamentally alters the character and conduct” of conflict and produces a “dramatic increase in the combat potential and military effectiveness of armed forces” [1].

An RMA is not an overlay of modernized equipment over an existing force structure, and encompasses much more than just force modernization—hardware and technology are obviously crucial and primary components. A “true” RMA, however, entails fundamentally changing the way a military conducts its business—doctrinally, organizationally and institutionally.

The conventional wisdom is that the current RMA is being primarily driven by the ongoing revolution in information technologies (IT), which in turn has made possible significant advances in the areas of sensors, seekers, computing, communications and precision-strike. Therefore, the current RMA is particularly and inexorably linked to emerging concepts of network-centric warfare (NCW): it is more than just vastly improved and more capable command, control, communications, computing, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR) infrastructures; it is additionally about networking these C4ISR capabilities with weapons and combat platforms in order to achieve holistic and synergistic payoffs in terms of battlefield knowledge, agility, jointness, and lethality [2].

“RMA” with Chinese Characteristics

The PLA’s current national defense strategy is centered on the ability to fight “Limited Local Wars under Conditions of ‘Informatization.’” This entails short-duration, high-intensity conflicts characterized by mobility, speed and long-range attack; employing joint operations fought simultaneously throughout the entire air, land, sea, space, and electromagnetic battlespace; and relying heavily upon extremely lethal high-technology weapons. PLA operational doctrine also increasingly emphasizes preemption, surprise and shock value, given that the earliest stages of conflict may be crucial to the outcome of a war [3].

As such, the PLA has acquired or is in the process of acquiring a number of new high-tech weapons systems, including fourth-generation fighter aircraft, large surface combatants, new nuclear and diesel-electric attack submarines, precision-guided munitions (PGMs, including land-attack cruise missiles and supersonic antiship missiles), airborne early warning aircraft, air-to-air refueling aircraft, improved air defenses, and the like. China also puts unique emphasis on the use of tactical ballistic missiles for precision-strike against land and sea targets [4]. Of particular note, the PLA is forming a core of approximately a dozen division—or brigade-sized rapid reaction units (RRUs), including three airborne, four amphibious or marine divisions, and several Special Operations units—shock troops that could be used for a variety of regional—particularly against Taiwan—or even out-of-area contingencies [5].

At the same time, China’s military is increasingly focused on the information-technologies side of the RMA. According to You Ji, the PLA is currently engaged—as part of an ambitious “generation-leap” strategy—in a “double construction” transformational effort of simultaneously pursuing both the mechanization and “informatization” of its armed forces (China Brief, November 24, 2004). Initially, therefore, the PLA is attempting to upgrade its current arsenal of conventional “industrial age” weapons, through improved communications systems, new sensors and seekers, greater precision and night-vision capabilities.

Concurrently, and in accordance with the principles of informatization, the Chinese military has put considerable emphasis on upgrading its C4ISR assets—including launching a constellation of communication, surveillance, and navigation satellites—while also developing its capabilities to wage “integrated network electronic warfare”— an amalgam of electronic warfare (jamming the enemy’s communications and intelligence-gathering assets), offensive information warfare (disrupting the enemy’s computer networks), and physical attacks on the enemy’s C4SIR network (China Brief, November 24, 2004; Defense News, September 11, 2006). In addition, similar to the U.S. Army’s “Land Warrior” program, the PLA is reportedly experimenting with digitizing its ground forces, right down to outfitting the individual soldier with electronic gadgetry in order to provide him with real-time tactical C4ISR [6].

It is important to note that informatization represents a critical new development in the PLA’s warfighting strategy, which implies a fundamental shift away from platform-centric and toward network-centric warfare. In particular, the Chinese are reportedly trying to exploit informatization and “knowledge-based warfare” in order to leapfrog weapons development, to accelerate the pace of military modernization, and to create new levers of military power for the PLA (China Brief, November 24, 2004).

A “True” RMA?

Long-term trends in Chinese military modernization have the potential, in the words of the Department of Defense, to “pose credible threats to modern militaries operating in the region” [7]. Ultimately, the PLA hopes to turn itself into a modern, network-enabled fighting force, capable of projecting sustained power far throughout the Asia-Pacific region. Ironically, too, the PLA, more than any armed force in the Asia-Pacific region, appear to have mimicked the United States in terms of the ambition and scope of its own transformational efforts—and therefore challenge the U.S. military at its own game [8].

Can the military modernization undertaken by the PLA be technically considered an RMA? In this regard, it is worth making five observations. First, there is a lack of available evidence that the Chinese military is engaged in an RMA-like overhaul of its organizational or institutional structures. According to the authoritative Jane’s, the PLA “has yet to promulgate a definitive military doctrine to guide the development of capabilities and operations” according to the principles of “Limited Local Wars under Conditions of ‘Informatization’” [9]. Additionally, the bulk of the PLA ground forces remain traditional infantry units, hobbled by a shortage of rapid mobility assets (e.g., helicopters, airlift, or amphibious lift) [10]. The PLA’s highly hierarchical and top-down command structure and interservice compartmentalization does not seem to have changed, and even the Pentagon acknowledges the PLA’s deficiencies when it comes to jointness [11].

Second, while the Chinese military is certainly acquiring new and better equipment, little of it could be construed as particularly “revolutionary,” or be seen as “leap-frogging” a generation of weapons development. For example, using short-and medium-range ballistic missiles as precision-attack systems may be a unique approach, but in China’s case this may be more a matter of making a virtue out of a necessity—the PLA simply lacks sufficient numbers of other types of PGMs—particularly for land attack.

In addition, systems such as the J-10 fighter jet, the Song-class diesel-electric submarine, and the Type-52C Luyang II-class destroyer—which is equipped with an Aegis-type air-defense radar—while advanced for the PLA, are basically 1980s-era weaponry in terms of their technology. The J-10, for instance, is operationally comparable to the F-16C, which first entered service in the mid-1980s. Even the equipment that the Chinese have acquired from Russia—Su-27 fighters, Sovremennyy-class destroyers, Kilo-class submarines, and S-300 surface-to-air missiles—arguably the sharpest edges in the pointy end of the PLA spear—are hardly cutting-edge, transformational weapons systems.

Most Chinese weapons systems coming online today were more or less developed sequentially—that is, following along the lines of traditional patterns of incremental research and development (R&D). For example, Chinese fighter aircraft development has moved in a fairly routine fashion from second-generation (J-7/MiG-21) to third-generation (J-8) to fourth-generation (J-10) systems—acknowledging, of course, the 20-year period of near-total absence of new R&D from the mid-1960s to the mid-1980s, in which case, one could argue that the Chinese are more engaged in a frantic game of “catch-up,” as opposed to leap-frogging.

Third, it is also worth noting that much of the RMA-related activities being undertaken by the Chinese military are still very embryonic and even experimental, and we possess only a vague idea as to the PLA’s paths and progress in many areas of informatization, such as information warfare or digitization, or whether these programs will ever be effectively implemented” (China Brief, November 24, 2004).

Fourth, recapitalizing the Chinese military with modern equipment—and in particular pursuing improvements in C4ISR—does not in and of itself constitute an RMA; on the contrary, acquiring these systems makes perfect sense even without worrying about “transforming the force.” Overall, a military does not need to believe in the RMA in order to appreciate the importance of precision-guided weapons, modern fighter jets and submarines and better intelligence.

21st Century People’s War

Finally, it is possible that PLA transformation may turn out to be much less revolutionary in practice. According to Dennis Blasko, the current concept of limited, informationalized war is, in many ways, People’s War adapted to 21st century requirements and capabilities. He argues that the Chinese actually see “no contradiction” between using the “most advanced weapons and technologies available to them,” while at the same time relying on the principles of People’s War. In fact, he argues, People’s War is still seen as China’s “secret weapon” [12].

In particular, he points out that while the PLA appreciates the effectiveness of such “transformational” concepts as information warfare and massed, conventional missile attack, it does not see these weapons in and of themselves as decisive in battle. He quotes the PLA officer’s training manual, which states that “in the employment of forces, one should mainly rely on high tech ‘magic weapons’… while at the same time maximizing one’s superiority in conducting a People’s War…” [13].

On the whole, the PLA seems to have done a better job pursuing a “modernization-plus” approach to transforming itself. China’s current military buildup is ambitious and far-reaching, but it is still more indicative of a process of evolutionary, steady-state, and sustaining—rather than disruptive or revolutionary—innovation and change.

Not that this is necessarily a wrong path for the Chinese military, nor is it one that should fail to give other nations considerable cause for apprehension and even alarm. China is undeniably emerging as a military—as well as economic and political—power in the Asia-Pacific to be reckoned with. Perfection, it is said, is the enemy of good enough, and even absent a full-blown RMA, the PLA is adding considerably to its conventional combat capabilities. At the same time, there is particularly worrisome military potential in the PLA’s nascent abilities to wage offensive information warfare against technology-dependent adversaries such as the United States. Overall, it certainly behooves potential adversaries to continue to closely monitor Chinese military modernization activities. For better or for worse, the PLA is emerging as a much more potent military force, and that, in turn, will increasingly complicate regional security dynamics in the Asia-Pacific and even beyond.


1. Andrew Krepinevich, “From Cavalry to Computer: The Pattern of Military Revolutions,” The National Interest, Fall 1994, p. 30.

2. Office of Defense Transformation, Network-Centric Warfare: Creating a Decisive Warfighting Advantage (U.S. Department of Defense, 2003).

3. Office the Secretary of Defense (OSD), Annual Report on the Military Power of the People’s Republic of China 2007 (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Defense, 2007), pp. 5, 11-14.

4. Annual Report on the Military Power of the People’s Republic of China 2007, pp. 3-5, 14-24.

5. Timothy Hu, “China–Marching Forward,” Jane’s Defense Weekly, April 25, 2007.

6. See

7. Office the Secretary of Defense, Annual Report on the Military Power of the People’s Republic of China 2006 (U.S. Department of Defense, 2006), p. i.

8. See Richard A. Bitzinger, U.S. Defense Transformation and the Asia-Pacific Region: Implications and Responses (Australian Strategy Policy Institute, 2006)

9. Timothy Hu, “China – Marching Forward,” Jane’s Defense Weekly, April 25, 2007

10. Ibid.

11. Office the Secretary of Defense, Annual Report on the Military Power of the People’s Republic of China 2007 (U.S. Department of Defense, 2007), p. 15.

12. Dennis J. Blasko, The Chinese Army Today: Tradition and Transformation for the 21st Century (Routledge, 2006), p. 95.

13. Ibid., p. 101.