Modernizing Military Intelligence: Playing Catch-Up (Part One)

Publication: China Brief Volume: 16 Issue: 18

Joint Staff Department of the Central Military Commission is the new umbrella organization that includes the former PLA 2nd Department

This two-part series is adapted from remarks delivered at The Jamestown Foundation’s Sixth Annual China Defense and Security Conference and chapter in China’s Evolving Military Strategy (2016). Part One addresses the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) evolving thinking on intelligence. Part Two addresses the organizational aspects of how the PLA’s intelligence evolved away from military operations and how this problem is being addressed under the current reform program.

While the  People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) new satellites, ground-based sensors, unmanned aerial vehicles, and command and control are frequently the subject of analysis, the tension between the capabilities, concepts, and organization of its military intelligence system tying them all together tends to be overlooked (China Brief, February 10, 2011; China Brief, August 22, 2014; China Brief, May 11). The military’s intelligence effort and organization,  has not been well-suited to exploit these technologies or provide the kind of support to military commanders that new PLA warfighting concepts, like “system of systems” operations or information warfare in the network and electro-magnetic domains require (China Brief, October 5, 2012; China Brief, April 16, 2015). This disconnect is unsurprising, given that the intelligence system was created in the early 1950s. The reforms announced last year are driving a radical shift in how the PLA organizes intelligence, finally realigning the military organizations to more closely resemble Chinese military’s thinking about intelligence developed in the early 2000s. Underpinning changes to the former General Staff Department, army headquarters, and technical reconnaissance bureaus is a fundamental recognition about the need to clarify responsibilities and information flows amid an incoming tidal wave of information available from the PLA’s new equipment.

The first part of this essay examines what the PLA means by intelligence and its defining features, while the latter half examines the three roles the PLA gives to intelligence: supporting decision making; supporting deterrence operations; and supporting information warfare.

Intelligence: Supporting Decision Makers at All Levels

Intelligence, for the PLA, is knowledge that allows a decision-maker to resolve the specific dilemmas holding them back from reaching a decision—a perspective that varies from most Western definitions only in its focus on problem-solving. [1] The Chinese concept of intelligence most widely used in PLA writings originated with Dr. Qian Xuesen (钱学森), the U.S.-trained scientist who led China’s rocket program from the 1950s onward. Qian observed: “Intelligence is the knowledge necessary to solve a specific problem. This view embodies two concepts. One is that [intelligence] is knowledge, not false, nor random. And the other? It is for a specific requirement and also for a specific question, so timeliness and relevance are very important…” [2] Variations of this definition appear in both PLA publications and professional information science journals to which PLA officers contribute. For example, Military Informatics, a PLA-sponsored study, stated that “intelligence is…the knowledge necessary to solve a specific problem and…the value of intelligence is determined by its degree of usefulness to consumers.” Since decision-makers’ needs define its value, intelligence has several characteristic qualities that inform its functioning. [3]

Among these qualities are its purposefulness or target-oriented focus (目的性), timeliness (时效性), and confidentiality (保密性). The first two qualities are obvious in the context of supporting decision-makers. Intelligence cannot be random, but must be directed, and intelligence must arrive in advance of a decision for it to be useful. The need for confidentiality in intelligence stems from the role of intelligence in the broader conduct of information warfare. Intelligence operations, whether offensive or defensive, occur in an explicitly competitive domain where success is zero-sum and relative to the success of one’s adversary. The clandestine or discreet acquisition and dissemination of intelligence helps to ensure its reliability and integrity, so decisions based upon it are objective and undistorted by outside interference. [4]

Perhaps the most important quality of intelligence, however, is the need for selectivity (选择性) at every step from collection to final delivery to decision-makers. In contrast to the model espoused by the  “grains of sand” approach, PLA writings are very clear about this: at each step, intelligence officers must make decisions about what to collect, what to validate, and how much effort to expend. After collection, analysts must determine which information requires analysis, and then which information should be forwarded to decision-makers. The consequence of not being selective is to overload both the intelligence system and decision-makers with unnecessary or irrelevant information, potentially paralyzing the system. China’s continued deployment of satellites, fixed and mobile radars, airborne-early warning and command and control systems, and several different models of unmanned aerial vehicles is dramatically increasing the amount of information arriving in PLA headquarters. Chinese writings suggest this challenge is a problem of selectivity and command judgment rather than one of processing as it is often discussed in the United States. Put another way, information overload can be overcome through better education and better organizing the relationship between intelligence work and military operations.

A final feature of conducting intelligence work, according to both the Science of Military Intelligence and SMS 2001, is the need to account for one’s own side. This awareness is a natural implication of selectivity and judgment, because intelligence cannot be selected unless there is a close connection between intelligence and command. This offers a distinct counterpoint to the U.S. approach to intelligence that assumes objective, reality-based intelligence support requires distinct operational and intelligence staffs with the latter focused on the adversary. The Science of Military Intelligence notes “military intelligence should take the enemy’s situation as the primary task, but also should not be limited to the adversary’s situation (it also should include [one’s own] side and related objective circumstances).” [6] SMS 2001 explains that intelligence plays a role in matching one’s specific strengths to an adversary’s weakness, and in helping calibrate coercive measures to control escalation. This cannot be done without a clear picture of one’s capabilities and ongoing operations. [7]

The PLA organizes intelligence between units designated for intelligence (情报) or reconnaissance (侦察). Intelligence bureaus from the Joint Staff Department’s Intelligence Bureau (formerly the GSD Second Department, or 2PLA) on down compile, analyze and disseminate information in some form. These units also may have some collection responsibilities, but their primary purpose is compiling intelligence to support the appropriate level of command. Military reconnaissance units are first and foremost collection units, performing the “action taken to obtain the required intelligence for national security.” Technical reconnaissance (技术侦察), such as the technical reconnaissance bureaus previously associated with the services and military regions, refers specifically to “the use of technical equipment or technical means to carry out reconnaissance.” [8] Although this distinction has little to do with how the PLA views intelligence in the Information Age, it is a critical component for understanding how the Chinese military is reorganizing intelligence work within the Joint Staff Department and the Strategic Support Force.

The Roles of Intelligence in an Informatizing World

Intelligence serves three basic roles for the PLA. The first, as noted above, is supporting decision-making at all levels from the Central Military Commission (CMC) down to the tactical level. It is a recognized and valued military staff function. The second is enabling deterrence and compellence, so that controlled pressure can be applied to a foreign country without triggering a war. The third is enabling information warfare in which intelligence plays a role at every level, including how to understand an adversary’s society and social structures, and across each information warfare discipline.

First, intelligence supports strategic decision-making at the level of the Central Military Commission (CMC) and tactical decision making in the field. Without elements of a general staff to handle intelligence, the PLA could not function on the basis of “calculations, scientific evaluations, and verifications” and could not coordinate their activities to execute a chosen strategy. This has remained a consistent point through the release of the 2013 edition of the Science of Military Strategy, which emphasizes strategic intelligence as a necessary component of both the art and science of strategy. [9] At the CMC level, the PLA’s modernization drive may not have substantially affected how intelligence functions. At lower levels, however, information technology for both sensors and communications shapes how the PLA is thinking about intelligence in fundamental ways.

The PLA has held since at least 2001 that the proliferation of technical sensors and digital forms of intelligence data will continue to reshape the discipline, both in terms of what intelligence can do and how to organize intelligence support. Electronic data storage and communications allow the pluralization of intelligence users through ease of collection and dissemination. PLA scholars have also noted that local informatized warfare places requires intelligence collection to be flexible enough to deal with rapidly changing circumstances. [10] Integrating and sharing this data is core element of “system of systems” operations to enable precision strikes and to allow modular force groupings tailored to specific missions (China Brief, July 6, 2012).

In the early 2000s, the PLA expected that several other related qualities of intelligence would also change under modern, informatized conditions. The potential comprehensiveness of reconnaissance was moving toward greater transparency on the battlefield. Alongside this transparency, greater precision was needed to exploit the opportunities and vulnerabilities provided by technically-advanced sensors. These factors placed a premium on speed, and a traditional model involving a lengthy process of collection, assessment, and dissemination would not meet PLA requirements. Practically, intelligence dissemination would need to be in real time for commanders to support decision-making and for shooters to enable precision strikes. The logic of these developments suggested the PLA should automate of information management, especially at the tactical level. The explosion of information that modern intelligence could gather threatens to overwhelm existing intelligence procedures and could not be managed by human hands, alone and unaided. An integrated intelligence picture compiled and disseminated in real time, however, needed a PLA-wide response that crossed the different military regions and services. At the time, each service operated on different networks with different hardware and software protocols. Integrating these different systems was a necessary first step for successfully executing PLA intelligence doctrine. [11]

Nothing in the more recent PLA publications, like SMS 2013, suggests PLA thinkers misunderstood where the world of intelligence was going. These publications focus on applying intelligence rather than developing any new ideas.

Second, the PLA considers intelligence to be a critical component of deterring would-be adversaries and conducting coercive diplomacy, both of which are encompassed by the same Chinese term (威慑, or weishe). SMS 2001 highlights several tasks that intelligence must perform to guide decision-makers in these endeavors. The first is to provide a systematic understanding of the other side’s decision-making, including both organizational and psychological factors. This enables the formulation of actions that will result in psychological shock. The second is to help China’s leaders calibrate and match Chinese objectives to the right strength of coercive or deterrent measures. Keeping these two objectives in balance is necessary in order to avoid missteps that might mistakenly escalate a situation. The third is to target deterrent measures against “a target that the enemy must save,” forcing the adversary to cede the initiative, take defensive action, and/or withdraw. Such targeting hides the vulnerabilities of one’s own side. Finally, intelligence provides a feedback mechanism that alerts Chinese decision-makers to how the adversary is responding to the PLA’s coercive or deterrent measures. A properly working intelligence feedback mechanism helps Beijing maintain the initiative, because intelligence allows decision-makers to respond promptly and with confidence to the inevitable crises and contingencies that arise when force is used against an adversary. [12]

Third, supporting deterrence operations highlights the expansive nature of intelligence support to information warfare in the broadest sense. Placing intelligence within this framework links it directly to the creation and use of covert power apart from its uses to support decision makers. Chinese military thinkers label intelligence as one of the four components of information warfare, which also includes network warfare, political/psychological warfare, and electromagnetic warfare. Each of these areas, including intelligence warfare, is where the PLA seeks an advantage over an adversary’s decision-making processes, ranging from how information is collected to how it is understood, communicated, and used. Because an adversary is not transparent about any of these areas, intelligence is required to map the adversary’s networks, society, sensors, and intelligence apparatus. Surveying the adversary’s information landscape is prerequisite for all other elements of information warfare. Thus, as the Science of Military Intelligence described it, modern information warfare has shifted intelligence from a “subordinate and protective” role to a leading role in identifying what operational goals to pursue and targets to strike. [13]

In addition to the role cutting across the information warfare disciplines, the tactical and strategic dimensions of information warfare add another layer of complexity to modern demands placed on intelligence. For example, at a tactical level, psychological warfare might aim to undermine small units’ willingness to keep fighting. At a strategic level, it might aim to shift an adversary’s perspective about China. The information required to do this effectively goes beyond traditional requirements about an adversary’s capabilities and intentions to address how a society functions. In one sense, this is now new. Since at least 1963, the Political Work Regulations for the People’s Liberation Army stated an imperative “to investigate and study the condition of the enemy forces, and to lead in the work designed to dis-integrate enemy forces.” [14] One of the PLA’s information warfare experts, Ye Zheng, explained this guidance for intelligence collection more concretely as including “the enemy’s national state of affairs, the circumstances of the enemy’s military, the psychological warfare situation of the enemy’s military, the circumstances that the enemy currently faces, and the real psychological state of our own military and the state of our own equipment and materials, etc.” [15]


PLA thinking on intelligence has evolved remarkably little over the last fifteen years, because, in many respects, it has not been necessary. The PLA’s steady modernization effort to conduct joint operations on shared knowledge of the battlefield with precision-guided munitions demanded more from the PLA’s intelligence apparatus than it could give without a serious overhaul. The ambitious set of intelligence missions—supporting decision-making at all levels of command, helping calibrate deterrence operations, and guide information warfare—suggests the challenges for PLA intelligence is not in the concepts but the organizational infrastructure to execute. Even though the sweeping changes announced in the latest round of reform beginning in November 2015 are not yet clear, the reported changes indicate the intelligence concepts outlined above finally may be put to the test. The organizational dimensions of China’s evolving military intelligence system will be the focus of Part Two to explain the divergence between the PLA’s concepts and organization of intelligence as well as how the intelligence system has changed under the new reforms.

Peter Mattis is a Fellow in the China Program at The Jamestown Foundation, where he served as editor of the foundation’s China Brief, a biweekly electronic journal on greater China, from 2011 to 2013. He previously worked in the U.S. Government and the National Bureau of Asian Research. Mr. Mattis received his M.A. in Security Studies from Georgetown University and earned B.A.s in Political Science and Asian Studies from the University of Washington in Seattle. He also studied Chinese language, history, and security policy at Tsinghua University in Beijing. He is the author of Analyzing the Chinese Military: A Review Essay and Resource Guide on the People’s Liberation Army (2015).


  1. For example, U.S. Executive Order 12333, which outlines the purpose and scope of U.S. intelligence activities, defines intelligence as “the necessary information on which to base decisions concerning the conduct and development of foreign, defense and economic policy, and the protection of United States’ national interests from foreign security threats.”
  2. Chen Jiugeng, “Regarding Intelligence and Information [关于情报与信息],” Journal of Information (情报杂志) 19, No. 1 (January 2000), pp. 4–6.
  3. Yan Jinzhong, ed., Military Informatics Revised Edition [军事情报学修订版] (Beijing: Shishi chubanshe, 2003), p. 13.
  4. , pp. 4–5.
  5. Zhang Shaojun, chief editor, Zhang Shaojun, Li Naiguo, Shen Hua, and Liu Xinming, eds., The Science of Military Intelligence [军事情报学] (Beijing: Junshi kexue chubanshe, 2001), p. vi.
  6. Peng Guangqian and Yao Youzhi, eds., Science of Military Strategy [战略学] (Beijing: Military Sciences Press, 2001), p. 191. Hereafter, SMS 2001.
  7. Liu Zonghe and Lu Kewang, eds., Military Intelligence: China Military Encyclopedia (2nd Edition) [军事情报: 中国军事百科全书 (第二版)], pp. 22, 95.
  8. SMS 2001, p. 214; SMS 2013, p. 264.
  9. Ye Zheng, Lectures on Information Operations Studies [信息作战学教程] (Beijing: Academy of Military Sciences Press, 2013), p. 51; Zhang et al, Science of Military Intelligence, p. 195; Xiao Tianliang, ed., The Science of Military Strategy [战略学], (Beijing: National Defense University Press, 2015), p. 260.
  10. Zhang et al, Science of Military Intelligence, pp. 195–197.
  11. SMS 2001, pp. 191–193.
  12. Zhang et al, Science of Military Intelligence, pp. 188–189.
  13. David Finklestein, “The General Staff Department of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army: Organization, Roles, and Missions,” in James Mulvenon and Andrew N.D. Yang, eds., The People’s Liberation Army as Organization Version 1.0 (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, pp. 126–128.“Political Work Regulations for the Chinese People’s Liberation Army,” in Ying-mao Kau, Paul M. Chancellor, Philip E. Ginsburg, and Pierre M. Perrolle, The Political Work System of the Chinese Communist Military: Analysis and Documents (Providence, RI: Brown University East Asia Language and Area Center, 1971).
  14. Ye, Lectures on Information Operations Studies, p. 185; Zhang et al, Science of Military Intelligence, p. 190.