New Concept Weapons: China Explores New Mechanisms to Win War

Publication: China Brief Volume: 21 Issue: 8

Image: A digital rendering of a potential “new concept weapon” accompanies a 2017 article in China Military Online calling NCW the “new darling” of future warfare (Image source: China Military Online).

Introduction

The idea of “New Concept Weapons” (NCW, 新概念武器, xin gainian wuqi) is not new. In the parlance of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), NCW was once almost a synonym for directed energy weapons (DEW) programs, with roots dating back to the 1960s.[1] In recent years, NCW has been increasingly associated with the PLA’s discourse on “new mechanism (新机理, xin jili) weapon systems.” (81.cn January 20, 2017; PLA Daily, September 28, 2017) It is often discussed in the context of broader military applications of disruptive technologies to create enduring asymmetric advantages. The majority of NCW operate in the information domain and overlap with the mission of the PLA Strategic Support Force (PLASSF). Because of this, NCW thinking may provide useful insights into the “new technology testing” (新技术试验, xin jishu shiyan) responsibilities of the PLASSF (Xinhua, October 1, 2019).

While this article does not delve into significant details of China’s NCW development, it provides an overview of the field and seeks to understand what factors shape Chinese views on NCW. It first summarizes the evolution of the PLA thinking on NCW over the past two decades. It then categorizes the main focus areas and analyzes the PLA’s key considerations for NCW development. Finally, it calls for better understanding China’s NCW programs as an integral component of the PLA’s deterrence strategy.

Something Old, Something New

The Chinese conceptualization of what constitute NCW has evolved and appears to have gained clarity over the past decade or so. In the mid- to late- 2000s, PLA writers approached NCW more holistically, broadly defining them as weapons that embodied technological innovation and breakthroughs.[2] NCW were said to have the potential to deliver “surprise effects,” and could fundamentally change the patterns and efficacies of military activities.[3]

In the 2010s, Chinese academic and military interest in NCW increased. For instance, China Electronics Technology Group’s (CETC) Journal of China Academy of Electronics and Information Technology (CAEIT) published a featured series of papers on NCW in April 2011.[4] Chinese authors increasingly placed “new mechanism” as the core characteristic—the “soul”—of NCW (PLA Daily, September 28, 2017). Disruptive technologies, through which NCW deliver effects, were placed front and center. More recent discussions on NCW focus on “new energy sources, new principles of action (作用原理, zuoyong yuanli), and new destruction mechanisms (毁伤机理, huishang jili).” (PLA Daily, September 28, 2017) According to researchers from the National Key Lab for Laser Propulsion and Applications (激光推进及其应用国家重点实验室, jiguang tuijin ji qi yingyong guojia zhongdian shiyanshi), which is housed at the PLASSF Space Engineering University (China Brief, July 29, 2020), NCW systems are developed on “fundamentally new principles,” adopt “new mechanisms for destruction,” and “often employ different combat methods.”[5]

Based on analysis of over a dozen published Chinese studies on NCW in the 2010s, the table below summarizes their broad categories (PLA Daily, September 28, 2017).[6] Notably, while PLA-affiliated authors generally use the type of energy source to categorize NCW, there has also been a more recent trend towards emphasizing on “effects.” For instance, PLA authors have demonstrated interest in the convergence of NCW and non-lethal/disabling weapons (非致命失能武器, fei zhiming shineng wuqi) (Science and Technology Daily, July 14, 2015).[7]

Energy NCW as “New sword” Information NCW as “Force multiplier” Biological/chemical NCW as “Invisible card”
  • Kinetic energy weapons (动能武器, dongneng wuqi)
  • DEW  e.g. Laser weapons, microwave weapons, electromagnetic pulse, particle beam
  • New atomic weapons e.g. neutron bomb, antimatter
  • Sonic weapons e.g. noise, infrasound (次声波, ci shengbo)

 

  • Intelligent network and electromagnetic spectrum attack and defense weapons

“Computer chip virus” (芯片细菌, xinpian xijun) weapon

  • New-type psychological intervention/warfare weapons e.g. noise intervention (噪声干扰, zaosheng ganrao), holography display (空中投影, kongzhong touying)
  • Nanosatellites for intelligence collection
  • Intelligence and decision-making support systems based on big data analytics
  • Military cloud computing platforms
  • Logistic support systems built on Internet of Things (IoT)
  • Weather warfare/weather modification (81.cn, August 23, 2019) [8]
  • Gene (editing) weapons e.g. genetic virus weapons (基因病毒武器, jiyin bingdu wuqi); “animal worrier”
  • Non-lethal/Disable chemical weapons

 

In 2006, a group of PLA researchers used the Delphi method to identify future focus areas for China’s NCW research and development.[9] Key considerations were given to: 1) if the technologies of NCW are forward-leaning (i.e., maturing in 20 years); 2) feasibility (i.e., if a relatively established industry base can support the weaponization process); 3) facilitation (带动性, daidong xing) (i.e., if NCW development could drive industrial S&T development in one or more fields; and 4) urgency.[10] Similar assessments for NCW development priority areas were conducted in 2011 and likely also in 2014.[11]

List (2006) List (2011) List (2014)
  • Network Attack and Defense Weapons (网络攻防武器,wangluo gongfang wuqi)
  • Anti-Satellite (ASAT/反卫星, fan weixing wuqi)
  • Laser weapons (激光武器, jiguang wuqi)
  • Radio frequency weapons (射频武器, shepin wuqi)
  • New Energy Artillery (新能源火炮, xin nengyuan huopao)
  • Stealth weapons (隐身武器, yinshen wuqi)
  • New Type of atomic weapons (新型原子能武器, xinxing yuanzi neng wuqi)
  • Hypersonic kinetic (energy) weapons (超高速动能武器, chao gaosu dongneng wuqi ) (81.cn, December 25, 2020; Simons Center, 2017)
  • Micro-weapons (微小型武器, weixiaoxing wuqi)
  • Future combat systems (未来战斗系统,weilai zhandou xitong)
  • Network Attack and Defense Weapons
  • ASAT
  • Laser weapons
  • Radio frequency weapons
  • New energy artillery
  • Stealth weapons
  • New Type of atomic weapons
  • Hypersonic kinetic (energy) weapons
  • Micro-weapons
  • Future combat systems
  • Particle beam weapons (粒子束武器, lizi shu wuqi)
  • High-rate of fire weapon system (高射速武器系统, gao shesu wuqi xitong)
  • Non-lethal chemical weapons (非致命化学武器, fei zhiming huaxue wuqi)
  • Sonic weapons (声波武器, shengbo wuqi)
  • Plasma weapons (等离子体武器, dengliziti wuqi)
  • Gene weapons (基因武器, jiyin wuqi)
  • Multi-tasking weapon and munition systems (多任务武器与弹药系统, duo renwu wuqi yu danyao xitong)
  • Environmental weapons (环境武器, huanjing wuqi)
  • Long-range artillery systems (超远程火炮系统, chao yuancheng huopao xitong)
  • Network Attack and Defense Weapons
  • ASAT
  • Laser
  • Microwave weapons (微波武器, weibo wuqi)
  • New Energy Artillery
  • Stealth weapons
  • New Type of atomic weapons
  • Hypersonic kinetic (energy) weapons
  • Particle beam
  • Non-lethal chemical weapons

Network and electromagnetic spectrum (EMS) weapons – including multiple types of DEW, such as laser and microwave weapons, are top priorities for China’s future-minded weapon experts and researchers. ASAT weapon systems, both kinetic and non-kinetic, have also been ranked consistently high. Interestingly, official Chinese media has at times alluded to linkages between the PLASSF and disruptive weapons development as well as the PLASSF serving as a growth point for PLA’s new-quality combat capabilities (新质作战能力, xin zhi zuozhan nengli) (People’s Daily, January 24, 2016; CCTV, August 30, 2016). Western analysts have also documented the PLASSF’s possible involvement in a number of priority areas for NCW development.[12] Taking into consideration its organizational structure, the PLASSF is likely involved in the development and testing of some, if not all, of China’s NCW.[13]

A Different Form of Guerilla Warfare?

Chinese writings suggest that the United States military is involved in or has led various categories of NCW development.[14] Nevertheless, Wei Jinghe (魏敬合), an expert on very large-scale integration (VLSI) and a leading engineer at CETC, has said that China should view the use of NCW as waging “a different form of guerrilla warfare,” that seeks to build asymmetric advantages through irregular means.[15] While this captures the broad thrust of Chinese discourse on the topic, three more key observations are also worth noting.

First, the information domain will almost certainly remain the top priority for the PLA’s strategic modernization efforts. All NCW, particularly those that operate in the information domain, are discreet, non-attributable, and cost-effective—traits which appear to be highly valued by Chinese writers (PLA Daily, September 28, 2017). Similarly, Chinese researchers clearly favor ASAT and advanced cyber weapons because such weapons cause “destructive and irreversible damages” to expensive enemy systems without incurring huge cost for the offensive party. For instance, Pei Fei (裴飞), a researcher affiliated with the PLA National Defense University, has written that using space-based scalable high energy lasers (HEL) devices to interfere with or (partially) destroy enemy satellites is preferable, because it has “short duration of action (difficult to detect)… and it is non-attributable” (PLA Daily, September 28, 2017).[16] It should be noted that China is keenly aware of the PLA’s increased vulnerabilities in the information domain and PLA researchers have likely advised adopting strengthened information security and protection measures against NCW effects.

Second, exploiting the cognitive domain is critically important to the PLA (China Brief, September 6, 2019).The exotic capabilities of various NCW systems have provided fascinating insights into how disruptive technologies may transform future battlefields. But the most critical aspect of understanding PLA NCW literature lies in the strategic effects that China seeks to deliver through such sophisticated weapon systems. NCW target not just the physical but also the cognitive domain. (PLA Daily, July 28, 2015) China’s expansive NCW list demonstrates that the PLA is exploring “new mechanisms,” such as advanced network and EMS weapons, DEW, and psychological warfare to achieve cognitive domination. In the PLA’s own words, the desired effects include: “disorient enemy minds (乱其心智, luan qi xinzhi), weaken their willpower (弱其意志, ruo qi yizhi), and deprive their fighting spirit (夺其斗志, duo qi douzhi).” (PLA Daily, July 2015)

Third, despite the wide-ranging academic interest in NCW, China’s strategy for research, development and acquisition (RD&A) processes for NCW appears to be slow yet steady. Chinese analysts are keenly aware of the high cost, uncertainties, and high risk associated with NCW development, and have urged the PLA to “correctly understand the return on investment.”[17] Evidence also suggests that the PLA is dedicating significant effort to the development of a credible and sustainable standards validation system to ensure that NCW RD&A will be properly executed. It is also plausible that—at least in part through the PLASSF—the PLA is actively testing and assessing the effectiveness of various types of NCW under development (e.g. DEW systems) against such validation standards.[18]

Conclusion

The Chinese defense community’s interest in exploring NCW is consistent with the PLA’s emphasis on pursuing asymmetric strategies to create and sustain advantages in warfighting. As the perceived weaker party in future conflicts, both in terms of technological and military capabilities, Chinese authors see the value of developing a “savvy NCW strategy” for China.[18] The PLASSF’s possible mission pertaining to NCW and military applications for disruptive technologies remains largely unknown. But the seriousness, depth, and scope of PLA efforts into the exploration of “new mechanisms” to win future wars warrants further research. Indeed, it may be useful for western PLA watchers to view Chinese thinking about NCW as an integral component of the PLA’s evolving deterrence strategy.

Dr. Marcus Clay is an analyst with the U.S. Air Force’s China Aerospace Studies Institute (CASI). The views expressed are those of the author, and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Air Force, Department of Defense, or other agencies of the U.S. Government.

Notes

[1] For a focused discussion on this topic, see Mark A. Stokes, China’s Strategic Modernization: Implications for the United States (Carlisle, PA: Army War College, 1999). For discussion about weapons and technology systems that fall under China’s “New Concept Weapons” in the late 1990s, see Appendix IV “China’s Directed Energy Weapons,” p.199. Accessed at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/resrep11962.13.pdf.

[2] Guo Meifang (郭美芳), Fan Ningjun (范宁军), Zheng Bin(郑斌), “Identifying and Analyzing Key New Concept Weapons (重要新概念武器的确定与分析),” Journal of Projectiles, Rockets, Missiles and Guidance (弹箭与制导学报) , 2006, Vol.26, No.2, p.77.

[3] Ibid.

[4] “Journal of China Academy of Electronics and Information Technology [中国电子科学研究院学报],” China Academy of Electronics and Information Technology (中国电子科学研究院), April 2011, Vol. 6 No. 2, https://mall.cnki.net/magazine/magadetail/KJPL201102.htm. ­­­

[5] Wang Mingdong (王明东), Wang Tianxiang (王天祥), “Current State and Development Trends of New Concept Weapons (新概念武器的现状与发展趋势),” Journal of Sichuan Ordnance (四川兵工学报) Vol. 35, Issue 6, June 2014. p.1. Accessed at http://scbg.qks.cqut.edu.cn/newsinfo.aspx?id=311.

[6] Wei Jinghe (魏敬合), “Characteristics and Policy Responses of 21st Century New Concept Weapons (21世纪新概念武器的特点及应对策略),” Journal of China Academy of Electronics and Information Technology, April 2011.

[7] Jiang Bin (姜斌), Liang Min (梁敏), Huo Bei(霍贝), “Research on the Development of Non-lethal Disable weapon (非致命失能武器发展问题研究) ”, Ship Electronic Engineering, No. 7, 2020. http://cnki.nbsti.net/KCMS/detail/detail.aspx?filename=JCGC202007004&dbcode=CJFQ&dbname=CJFD2020.

[8] Note that this was only mentioned in one author’s widely cited work. See: Wei Jinghe, April 2011.

[9] The Delphi method was developed by RAND in the 1950s to forecast the impact of technology on warfare. A group of experts anonymously reply to questionnaires and receive feedback in the form of a statistical representation of the “group response,” after which the process repeats itself. The goal is to reduce the range of responses and arrive at something closer to expert consensus. See: https://www.rand.org/topics/delphi-method.html; Olaf Helmer-Hirschberg, Analysis of the Future: The Delphi Method. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 1967. Accessed at https://www.rand.org/pubs/papers/P3558.html.

Guo Meifang(郭美芳), Fan Ningjun (范宁军), Zheng Bin(郑斌), “Identifying and Analyzing Key New Concept Weapons (重要新概念武器的确定与分析),” Journal of Projectiles, Rockets, Missiles and Guidance (弹箭与制导学报), 2006, Vol.26, No.2, p.77.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Wei Jinghe, April 2011; Wang Mingdong and Wang Tianxiang, June 2014, p.1-2.

[12] Roderick Lee, “China’s Recent Ballistic Missile Defense Test May Have Actually Been An Anti-Satellite Test,” CASI, February 9, 2021, https://www.airuniversity.af.edu/CASI/Display/Article/2497584/chinas-recent-ballistic-missile-defense-test-may-have-actually-been-an-anti-sat/; Mark Stokes, Gabriel Alvarado et al, China’s Space and Counterspace Capabilities and Activities, The U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, March 30, 2020, https://www.uscc.gov/research/chinas-space-and-counterspace-activities; Marcus Clay, “To Rule The Invisible Battlefield: The Electromagnetic Spectrum and Chinese Military Power,” War On the Rocks, January 22, 2021, https://warontherocks.com/2021/01/to-rule-the-invisible-battlefield-the-electromagnetic-spectrum-and-chinese-military-power/.

[13] Rachael Burton and Mark Stokes, “The People’s Liberation Army Strategic Support Force Leadership and Structure,” Project 2049 Occasional Paper, September 25, 2018.https://project2049.net/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/180925_PLA_SSF_Leadership-and-Structure_Stokes_Burton.pdf;

Marcus Clay, Supporting the Infinitive Battlefield, China Aerospace Studies Institute, 2019.

[14] Wei Jinghe, April 2011; Guo Meifang and Fan Ningjun, 2006.

[15] For background on Wei, see: Innovation Talent Wei Jinghe profile, see: http://expert.irsp.cn/resource/detail/5dcf8efa-35fb-4f6b-9386-bd992fbed9f9; Wei Jinghe, April 2011.

[16] For the author’s possible affiliation with the National Defense University (NDU), see: http://dtech.view.ckcest.cn/search/toDetail?id=1572943838833186; also see: Tang Suyan(唐苏妍), Qi Yongqiang (祁永强), Pei Fei (裴飞), “Challenges and Responses for Disruptive technologies (颠覆性技术发展面临的挑战与对策),” http://gfkj.nudt.edu.cn/gfkj/article/abstract/20170110?st=search.

[17] Du Taijiao (杜太焦) Chen Zhihua (陈志华) , Wang Jianguo (王建国), “Validation Methods for New Concept Weapons Capabilities (新概念武器性能指标评定方法),” Journal of Sichuan Ordnance (四 川 兵 工 学 报), Vol.30, Issue 5, May 2009. pp.46-48.

[18] Authors of at least one of the key publications on such matters are affiliated with the PLASSF Northwest Academy of Nuclear Research(西北核研究院).See: Du Taijiao, Chen Zhihua, and Wang Jianguo, 2009.