PLA Navy Modernization: Preparing for “Informatized” War at Sea

Publication: China Brief Volume: 8 Issue: 5

In recent years, senior Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leaders and high-ranking military officers have repeatedly emphasized the importance of naval modernization. Most prominently, CCP General Secretary, President and Central Military Commission (CMC) Chairman Hu Jintao in a December 2006 speech to People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) officers underscored the need “to build a powerful People’s navy that can adapt to its historical mission during a new century and a new period” (International Herald Tribune, December 26, 2006). Similarly, PLAN Commander Wu Shengli and Political Commissar Hu Yanlin promoted the importance of naval modernization in an article that appeared in the authoritative CCP journal Seeking Truth [1]. This growing sense of urgency about naval modernization appears to be a function of increasing concern about maritime security issues, particularly Taiwan, the protection of maritime resources and energy security. These missions drive the PLAN’s requirements, not only for new platforms, but also for command, control, communications, computer, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (C4ISR) capabilities.

Enhancing the PLAN’s information technology and communications capabilities is thus seen as critical to the success of Chinese naval modernization. According to one recent article in Modern Navy, a PLAN magazine, “[t]he informatization of shipboard weapons and equipment is the core of maritime joint combat … the Chinese Navy should vigorously build data links for maritime military actions and fundamentally change the way to carry out tasks in the future,” ultimately creating a “networked fleet” [2]. Reaching this goal hinges on narrowing the gap between the PLAN and the world’s most advanced navies through the development, acquisition and integration of advanced information technology.

PLAN “Informatization”

The PLAN is undergoing an unprecedented transformation from what was essentially a coastal defense force to a more offensively oriented service capable of executing a variety of regional missions. As part of this impressive modernization program, a number of new surface ships and submarines have entered service in recent years. China’s new surface ships include Russian-built Sovremennyy guided missile destroyers (DDGs), indigenously developed Luzhou and Luyang I and II DDGs as well as Jiangkai I and II guided missile frigates (FFGs), in addition to Houbei-class PTG wave piercing catamarans. Among the PLAN’s new submarines are Kilo-class diesels acquired from Russia and the domestically developed Shang nuclear-powered and Song and Yuan conventional attack submarines. With the addition of these new platforms, the PLAN is improving its surface warfare, undersea warfare and air defense capabilities. The PLAN also appears poised to become an increasingly important part of China’s nuclear deterrence posture with the addition of several Jin-class SSBNs, which will be armed with JL-2 SLBMs. According to China’s 2006 Defense White Paper, the PLAN “aims at gradual extension of the strategic depth for offshore defensive operations and enhancing its capabilities in integrated maritime operations and nuclear counterattacks” [3].

China’s leaders perceive their nation to be confronting a strategic environment in which “[m]ilitary competition based on informatization is intensifying” [4]. This view both highlights the growing importance of information technology in military modernization and places a heavy premium on striving for information dominance in any future conflict. Indeed, many Chinese analysts write about the role of information in a style reminiscent of U.S. publications on “network centric warfare.” For example, according to one recent article by three PLAN researchers, “[i]n the information age, information has become one of the main sources of combat power” [5].

PLAN C4ISR Systems

For many years, the entire PLA, including the PLAN, faced major shortcomings in its C4ISR capabilities, but Beijing has embarked on a massive effort to modernize, upgrade and expand its communications infrastructure. One of the key results of this communications upgrade, which has been bolstered by the rapid development of China’s civilian information technology and telecommunications industries, was the construction of a national fiber-optic communications network that provides the PLA with much greater communications capacity, reliability and security. According to one source, “in the coastal military commands, a gigantic optic-cable communication network has been set up, which guarantees the optic-cable communication among the headquarters of each military command. Meanwhile, satellite communication has been applied more widely, which ensures smooth communication between the top commanding organ and the headquarters at different levels of the military commands” [6]. Chinese research institutes have also “developed a VSAT [Very Small Aperture Terminal] communication system consisting of mobile vehicle-borne components” as well as new microwave and troposcatter communication systems [7]. Additionally, China is upgrading some of its traditional HV, VHF and UHF communication systems [8]. Improving military computer networks and making them available to more and more units also has been a priority for the PLA as it expands its communications networks, another key “informatization” development that has major implications for the PLAN. Indeed, recent reports indicate that all PLAN units at the division level and above are now connected to military computer networks, and that current plans focus on extending coverage to lower-level units [9].

Beijing has likewise intensified its efforts to improve its space-based C4ISR capabilities, which are particularly crucial for naval informatization. Navigation and positioning has been another major area of emphasis with implications for military modernization and the informatization of the PLAN. In addition to using GPS and GLONASS and working with the EU on the Galileo navigation satellite system, China has deployed the indigenous built Beidou Navigation System-1 comprised of four satellites, and plans to develop a larger system called Compass (or Beidou-2) comprised of thirty-five satellites. Chinese developments in small satellites and maritime observation satellites are also of particular interest from the perspective of naval informatization. In addition, the PLAN is improving the capabilities of its ocean survey and reconnaissance ships, which are responsible for a number of tasks, including surveying, gathering meteorological and hydrographic information, laying and repairing undersea cables, and intelligence collection.

Trends in C4ISR Research and Development and Naval Training

One major area of emphasis appears to be the development of C4ISR capabilities required to implement an access denial strategy. According to the 2007 Department of Defense report on Chinese military capabilities, “[t]o prevent deployment of naval forces into western Pacific waters, PLA planners are focused on targeting surface ships at long ranges … One area of apparent investment emphasis involves a combination of medium-range ballistic missiles, C4ISR for geo-location of targets, and onboard guidance systems for terminal homing to strike surface ships on the high seas or their onshore support infrastructure” [10]. China is already developing the capability to target U.S. ships with ballistic missiles, such as the DF-21 MRBM [11]. “China is equipping theater ballistic missiles with maneuvering reentry vehicles (MaRVs) with radar or IR seekers to provide the accuracy necessary to attack a ship at sea,” according to the Office of Naval Intelligence [12]. If supplied with accurate real-time target data from China’s growing constellation of ISR satellites or other sources, terminal seekers and maneuvering warheads could threaten targets such as airbases and aircraft carriers [13].

Chinese researchers also emphasize the importance of linking platforms together into an integrated whole, suggesting that this will continue to be a major focus of defense R&D programs. This is considered particularly important for the PLAN. According to an article by Wang Hangyu, a researcher at the PLA’s Naval Engineering University, “[a] platform-centric navy cannot bring into full play the potentials of its sensors and weapons,” but “effective networks formed with multiple platforms and multiple sensors can enable the resources of military strength to grow steadily” and “resource sharing among various platforms and coordinated allocation of the resources of all operational forces can enable the currently available resources of military strength to be fully utilized” [14]. According to an article by Li Qiang, a researcher affiliated with the PLA’s Academy of Equipment Command & Technology, “[i]n order to effectively fuse all C4ISR system elements and achieve a seamless connection from sensors to shooters it is necessary to solve the problems of data integration” [15].

Unmanned reconnaissance systems appear to be another area of emphasis in Chinese C4ISR-related research. Indeed, recent technical articles indicate that Chinese scientists and engineers are conducting research on various types of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) [16]. Chinese researchers are also working on unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs). For example, one recent article by PLAN researchers addresses the sonar capabilities of remotely operated vehicles (ROVs), which could have applications in ISR and a number of other maritime warfare mission areas [17].

The PLAN’s focus on technological developments notwithstanding, Chinese planners realize that rapid improvements in hardware will not be fully effective without corresponding increases in the ability of military personnel to operate them under realistic combat conditions. In keeping with recent PLA-wide guidance from the General Staff Department that stresses making training more realistic and challenging, the PLAN has emphasized making training approximate the actual battlefield environment as much as possible. Official sources indicate that the PLAN is striving to make training more rigorous [18].

Chinese reports frequently highlight the importance of conducting training under “complex electromagnetic conditions,” which necessitates such activities as jamming, electronic attacks, reconnaissance and electronic deception [19]. The PLAN is also conducting opposing forces training featuring “Blue Force” detachments playing the role of enemy units and making extensive use of modeling and simulation to enhance training. Another area of emphasis for the PLAN is joint training. According to one recent article in the PLAN’s official newspaper, “[a]s profound changes take place in the form of war, future warfare will be integrated joint operations under informatized conditions. Training is the rehearsal for war, and what kind of a war we fight determines what kind of training we should conduct” [20]. Articles in the same official newspaper highlight the PLAN’s recent involvement in “informatized” multi-service training activities, some of which have focused specifically on enhancing joint communications capabilities [21].

Conclusion: How Good is Good Enough?

Enhancing China’s naval capabilities is a key component of China’s military transformation, as reflected by recent leadership statements and the development of several new classes of surface ships and submarines. Moreover, informatization is clearly a central aspect of PLAN modernization and naval C4ISR modernization will have important implications in areas such as joint operations and command and control. Chinese C4ISR modernization has become a top priority and PLAN informatization appears to have made some impressive progress in recent years. It remains unclear, however, how close the Chinese actually are to achieving the so-called “informatized force.” The PRC’s 2006 Defense White Paper established a goal of being able to fight and win informatized wars by the mid-21st century. This reflects a perceived gap between the Chinese armed forces and the world’s most advanced militaries, which Chinese writers often suggest will take decades to overcome. At the same time, however, it also raises the issue of distinguishing between the “ideal” capability the Chinese navy seeks to establish in the long term and that which might simply prove “good enough” in the short term. Indeed, even a relatively simple system of deconfliction by time or geographic area might be sufficient in a Taiwan scenario. This suggests that the PLAN might achieve an employable capability with surprising rapidity, especially if it pursues one that falls short of the standards set by U.S. proponents of “network centric warfare,” but that is nonetheless capable of contributing to the achievement of China’s operational and strategic objectives.


1. Wu Shengli and Hu Yanlin, “Building a Powerful People’s Navy That Meets the Requirements of the Historical Mission for our Army,” Seeking Truth, July 16, 2007, No. 14.

2. Liu Jiangping and Zhui Yue, “How to Reform the Navy in Order to Execute China’s Maritime Strategy in the 21st Century,” Modern Navy, June 2007, pp. 6-9

3. “China’s National Defense in 2006,” Information Office of the State Council, People’s Republic of China, December 29, 2006.

4. Ibid.

5. Ji Chengxin et al., “Some Ideas of Naval Service Equipment Information Modification,” Journal of the Academy of Equipment Command & Technology, 17:1 (February 2006), p. 10.

6. China Reinforces Construction of National C3I System,” Kanwa Defense Review, April 1, 2005, pp. 18-19.

7. Ibid.

8. Ibid.

9. Wang Feng and Yang Yuwen, “Navy’s Comprehensive Military Information Network Officially Established,” People’s Navy, August 28, 2006, p 1.

10. U.S. Department of Defense, Annual Report to Congress, Military Power of the People’s Republic of China, 2007 Washington, DC, May 2007, p. 16.

11. Robert Hewson, “Chinese Missiles Raise Their Game,” Jane’s Navy International, January 1, 2007.

12. “Seapower Questions on the Chinese Submarine Force,” Office of Naval Intelligence, 20 December 2006,

13. Eric A. McVadon, “China’s Maturing Navy,” Naval War College Review, Spring 2006, Vol. 59, No. 2.

14. Wang Hangyu et al., “The Exploration of the Key-Technique in Sensors Networking,” Fire Control & Command Control, 30:4 (August 2005), pp. 118-121.

15. Li Qiang et al., “Research on Data Integration of C4ISR System,” Command Control & Simulation, 28:4 (August 2006), pp. 29-32.

16. Liu Gang et al., “Evaluation Model of UAV Combat Effectiveness,” Fire Control & Command Control, 31:1 (January 2006), pp. 45-51.

17. Guo Weimin and Ma Aimin, “Visualized Simulation of Image Sonar on ROV,” Fire Control & Command Control, 31:2 (February 2006), pp. 66-68.

18. For example, see Liu Tongqing and Xu Feng, “East China Sea Fleet Makes Breakthrough in New Fighter Training,” PLA Daily, February 9, 2004.

19. Mi Jinguo and Jiang Xiangjie, “Soul-Stirring Training Carried Out by PLA Naval Forces in Complex Electromagnetic Environments,” People’s Navy, July 3, 2007, p. 1.

20. Zhang Jian and Yuan Zhenjun, “Data Platform Links to Three-Dimensional Battleground,” People’s Navy, August 4, 2006, p. 1.

21. See Cha Chunming, Li Fuxiang and Chen Ji, “Our Special Reporters’ Exclusive: From Scene Where PLA Navy Conducts Informatized Joint Drill,” People’s Navy, September 1, 2006, pp. 14-19, and Li Fuxiang and Wu Dengfeng, “Navy Organizes Multi-service Arm Maritime Combat Communications Exercise,” People’s Navy, August 16, 2006, p. 1.<iframe src=’’ border=0 name=’inner_menu’ frameborder=0 width=1 height=1 style=’display:none;’></iframe>