China is moving up plans for the completion of its military reforms and modernization. Shortly after the close of the 19th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping announced that the modernization of the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) would essentially complete by 2035. Subsequent reporting confirmed that this announcement represented an acceleration of the military modernization plan, shortening the original plan’s third stage by 15 years from 2049 to 2035 (Xinhua November 24, 2017). However, Xi added that the PLA would not transform into a world-class military until mid-century (Xinhua, October 27, 2017).
This shortened timeline is a sign of both successes of the reforms and recognition of continuing areas of weakness for the PLA. Even more importantly, however, is the fact that this accelerated timeline is being accompanied by reform of military education and training which are necessary complements to the equipment modernization. Cultivating military talents as part of the military educational reforms, and enhancing training to approach actual combat conditions are important components of military modernization.
President Xi’s current reform efforts, first announced in November 2013, are scheduled for completion by the end of 2020 (Government of the PRC, November 15, 2013; Xinhua, September 13, 2017). These reforms seek to lay a strong foundation by completing several long-term projects: mechanization of the force by incorporating information and computer technologies, significantly increasing key combat capabilities, improving military education and training, and making adjustments and refinements to the restructured force and command systems (Xinhua, May 13, 2016).
President Xi has initiated the most expansive military reforms and reorganization in at least three decades, breaking institutional barriers that had impeded the required command and structural changes proposed by PLA academics. President Xi appears to have removed impediments to initiating the tough, but needed changes through personnel promotions, corruption charges to remove opposed officers, as well as populist appeals to the collective interest and party loyalty to build a strong modern military (China Brief, February 4, 2015; Xinhua August 11, 2014; China Military Online February 28, 2014).
Accelerating Modernization based on Key Concepts
Past PLA media and defense white papers have identified the requirement to accelerate various components of PLA modernization, improvements in training and exercises, as well as accelerating the modernization of national defense and the armed forces in general. The need to accelerate military modernization is in part a response to China’s complex security environment. But it is also a response to the perception that the speed of technological change, and modernization of advanced militaries in the world is threatening to leave the PLA further behind (Information Office of the State Council, March 31, 2011; Information Office of the State Council, April 16, 2013 [English]; Information Office of the State Council, May 26, 2015; PLA Daily August 31, 2014).
In 2012, an Air Force colonel, Dong Zifeng (董子峰), who held numerous operational and academic positions, as well as serving as a joint operations expert at the Academy of Military Sciences published a book Transformation of Generating Mode of Warfighting Capability. Dong advocated an accelerated modernization effort focused on implementing system of systems operations and integrated joint operations, two dominant theoretical subjects impacting all aspects of PLA transformation (China Brief, July 17, 2014). 
It is not known if the new accelerated military modernization plan announced by President Xi incorporates proposals from this publication, the author does highlight many requirements prominent in PLA publications, suggesting that Dong’s book provides useful insights. The author views transformation of the method for generating combat effectiveness as key to overcoming difficult issues threatening to leave the PLA behind the world’s advanced militaries. His intent is to accelerate modernization by focusing the effort on the areas that will allow the services and branches of the PLA to work together in a networked, cohesive way.
Dong takes a holistic and interactive approach including development of personnel, weapons and equipment, organizations, training, military research, operational innovation and experimentation, as well as the impact of technology and the international situation. The feedback process allows for revision and refinements of the modernization process (China Brief, July 17, 2014). 
Although the revised PLA modernization plan focuses completion of the current military reform plan by 2035, no military can afford to stagnate. The PLA is already focused on seizing the commanding heights of science and technology through innovation in research that can bring about profound changes in warfare (PLA Daily, May 12, 2017). The PLA, believing scientific and technological innovation is the core engine of combat effectiveness, has identified new and disruptive technologies leading to a new revolution in military affairs based on intelligent technologies. These areas include artificial intelligence, big data, quantum communications and computing, nanotechnology, hypersonic vehicles, directed energy weapons, battlefield robotics, and weapons based on new physical principals that can dramatically change warfare (PLA Daily, August 17, 2017).
A key area the PLA is researching is artificial intelligence as one of the most significant of the disruptive technologies. The incorporation of intelligent technologies into weapons and equipment, what the PLA refers to as “intelligence-ization” (zhiyehua; 智能化), is viewed as a new revolution in military affairs and a key to warfare in the post information age. The PLA views this technology as a potential game changer providing an opportunity for less advanced countries to overtake the world’s advanced militaries. The 19th Party Congress which accelerated the military modernization plan also placed a priority on speeding up the development of military intelligent technologies (PLA Daily, November 14, 2017).
PLA theorists view the development of disruptive technologies as a nonlinear process that can lead to a shock wave causing a technological avalanche. This will lead dramatic changes in industry and economies, society, and the power of countries (PLA Daily, February 10, 2017). However, technological development and equipment modernization could be the easy part of the PLA’s modernization effort. Ongoing reforms of military education, training and exercises, and development of joint operations are critical areas where they cannot fail if the PLA hopes to optimize the employment of new technologies through innovative operational methods. PLA is deficient in these areas by its own estimates.
The incorporation of artificial intelligence (AI) into the PLA will prove insightful, as the incorporation of autonomous systems collides with the PLA’s preference for centralized, unified command and control. Decentralized command is only employed in secondary directions, or temporarily when required by an unforeseen battlefield situation. PLA theorists have already stated that military artificial intelligence must be human controlled, which could protect against the dangers of AI, but also degrade its advantages. The PLA continues to maintain that while science and technology provide the core for a combat effective force, man remains decisive to the outcome of wars (PLA Daily, December 8, 2017; PLA Daily, December 12, 2017).
The decision to accelerate the current PLA modernization plan promises an upward change in the trajectory of the PLA’s increasing combat capabilities as it ventures toward global operational capabilities. The accelerated modernization plan combined with China’s emphasis on developing key disruptive technologies that could allow the PLA to leapfrog past the current advanced militaries represents a significant course correction. Reform of military education and training, and innovation in doctrine and tactics are critical to the success of this effort. President Xi’s promotion of fundamental change in all aspects of the PLA is long overdue, but should be a cause for future concern when combined with a more aggressive strategy in Beijing.
- For an overview of how Dong Zifeng envisioned transformation, see the translated chart here.
- Lectures on Joint Combat, (Beijing: Military Science Press, 2013), p. 6.