Publication: China Brief Volume: 1 Issue: 4

By Richard D. Fisher, Jr.

It is increasingly evident that China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is devoting considerable resources to the research and development of advanced high-technology weaponry. An apparent crash program now seeks to build new weapons for a conflict over Taiwan. But, more broadly, this effort warrants vigilance by the United States because there is the potential that China could achieve technical breakthroughs that would enable them to exceed certain U.S. military capabilities.

High technology mobilization programs are not new to the PLA. In 1986 China launched its “863 Program” in response to the U.S. Strategic Defense Initiative, to focus state research efforts on a range of laser, space, missile, computer and biological technologies. Earlier this year, reports emerged in the Hong Kong press–which some U.S. officials take seriously–that on New Year’s Eve 1999, PRC President Jiang Zemin exhorted an expanded meeting of the Central Military Commission to give him “Assassins’ Maces” to bring victory over Taiwan.

The “Assassins’ Mace” concept is from ancient Chinese statecraft, in which warring nobles sought secret weapons that would attack their enemies’ vital weaknesses and bring about their rapid military collapse. In the modern context, Jaing Zemin could be seeking weapons like new supersonic missiles, advanced naval mines, lasers and antisatellite weapons. What is disturbing is that he pushing the PLA to develop these weapons for a possible war against Taiwan.

Information on the “Assassins’ Mace” program follows several years of debate in the PLA over the relevance of the Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA). Essentially, the RMA posits that advances in information technology, combined with other military technical advances, can give new weapons decisiveness and lethality approaching that of nuclear weapons, but without using to nuclear explosives. Since the late 1980s, the United States has grappled with the RMA as a means of transforming the way militaries are structured, how they fight and with what. And so have the militaries of Russian and China.


A vital insight into China’s views on the RMA was given to Dr. Michael Pillsbury, of the Pentagon’s Office of Net Assessments, in the form of an unprecedented collection of until then unknown PLA writings, which he translated and turned into two books published by the U.S. National Defense University in 1997 and 2000. The articles in these books, plus numerous subsequent publications, have stressed the PLA’s need to excel in implementing the RMA, and to develop information warfare, space weapons, directed energy, very small nano-weapons and unmanned combat craft, to name a few. Some PLA scholars have suggested that China could better implement a real RMA because, unlike the United States, it did not have to fund large and expensive conventional forces to meet global political commitments.

When they appeared, Pillsbury’s collection of PLA articles on the RMA were criticized as representing the “aspiration” of the PLA, versus the reality of a PLA struggling to absorb the operational methods and technology of the 1980s, much less transform into a leading 21st century military force. There was scant evidence that the PLA was indeed working on these radical military technologies. China’s high-technology sector was viewed as a slow socialist dinosaur that could not produce innovative military technologies and weapons that could compete with those of the United States. This is also the thrust of a RAND Corporation study by Roger Cliff released earlier this year.


However, since the early-to-mid 1990s, when many of the first wave of Chinese RMA related articles were written, new information has emerged on the PLA’s research and development of advanced RMA-like military technologies. Whether these are at an advanced enough stage to be made into Jiang’s Assassin’s Maces, is not known. But possible new weapons include:

–Information Warfare. Here is can be said with some certainty that the PLA is moving rapidly to harness the PRC’s burgeoning civil computer hardware and software sector to provide high-tech “troops” to wage sophisticated computer network attack operations. PLA writings indicate that it views the use of viruses and other forms of computer network attack as a means of sowing chaos in the Taiwanese and U.S. civilian sector. PLA attacks against Taiwan and U.S. military communication, command and logistics computer networks could seriously impair a response to a PLA attack on Taiwan.

–Directed Energy Weapons. There is now abundant Chinese technical literature and Western disclosures on PLA research into high energy lasers, high-power microwave, and electromagnetic weapons. All utilize a form of energy to produce a “soft” kill that merely renders an enemy weapon ineffective, or a “hard” kill to destroy the enemy weapon. Since 1998 the Pentagon has noted that the PLA may have lasers powerful enough to dazzle U.S. satellites. The PLA has sought Russian help for lasers, and for electromagnetic bombs, which produce an intense burst of electronic energy sufficient to fry the complex electronic circuitry in advanced weapons. Such an electromagnetic bomb delivered by ballistic or cruise missiles could render U.S. Navy ships ineffective before they could rescue Taiwan–and with a minimum of casualties.

–Unmanned Combat Platforms. As threats to the viability of manned combat aircraft and ships continue to grow, the U.S. Air Force and Navy have been investing heavily in a new generation of unmanned combat platforms. These are highly maneuverable and able to replace manned platforms for certain high-risk missions. It should not be surprising that the PLA is following suit. At the 2000 Zhuhai Air Show in China the PLA revealed new unmanned aircraft and computer control elements that could form the basis for new unmanned combat aircraft. China has also tested an unmanned submarine able to descend to a depth of 6,000 meters.

–Electromagnetic guns. Also known as “rail guns,” electromagnetic guns use magnets to accelerate a shell to far greater speeds than possible with chemical propellants like gunpowder. With such guns it is possible to give artillery shells the range and speed of a tactical ballistic missile, allowing thousands of long-range artillery rounds to supplement hundreds of missiles. China has been researching electromagnetic guns more intensively than the United States, and may produce a usable weapon first.

–Micromechanical and Robot Systems. In America, micro-machines and robots are a key RMA technology that will enable new small weapons, such as 25-pound “nano” satellites, palm-sized reconnaissance aircraft, or small robot vehicles that could replace guard-dogs and sentries. Again a the Zhuhai show, a Chinese company stated their intention to build new “nano” satellites, which some in the U.S. fear could be used for antisatellite missions. China has also revealed a new 20-millimeter-sized helicopter, which could form the basis for a microreconnaissance vehicle. In addition, China has also revealed research to produce intelligent human-sized robots that could also in the future help produce robot soldiers.

There is plenty of reason to be concerned that China is succeeding in developing new weapons consistent with the goals of the RMA; that is no longer merely an “aspiration” of the PLA. And it may also be dangerous to conclude, as does the recent RAND Corporation study, that China’s military-technology sector is too slow to translate high technology research into advanced weapons. Spurred by the need to develop “Assassins’ Maces” to conquer Taiwan, the PLA has a clear requirement to turn advanced technology research into next-generation weapons.

Richard D. Fisher Jr., is a senior fellow at the Jamestown Foundation, and the managing editor of Jamestown’s China Brief.