China’s Think and Move Army Service Doctrine Pushes Speed, Info-System Skills To Battle Taiwan, U.S. Protector
By WENDELL MINNICK
TAIPEI — Guided by the doctrinal goals of “informatization” and “mechanization,” China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is upgrading to create a modern, mobile force that could invade Taiwan and defeat U.S. support for the island.
PLA leaders intend to fight limited, local wars involving short, high-intensity conflict with mobility, speed, surprise and long-range attacks. The PLA plans to employ joint operations, including traditional and asymmetrical strategies, with lethal high-technology weapons, such as lasers, electronic warfare and precision strike missiles.
Funded by the strong Chinese economy, the PLA is improving its C4ISR capabilities, by launching communication, surveillance and navigation satellites and improving cyberwarfare capabilities and electronic-warfare technology.
But it’s been more difficult to improve the competency of conscripted soldiers raised in impoverished areas, and boosting the professionalism of the noncommissioned officer corps.
Richard Fisher, vice president of the Washington-based International Assessment and Strategy Center, said training and command and control are improving.
“The PLA Army, like other services, has gone whole hog into new information-system based training capabilities,” Fisher said. “Like their U.S. counterparts, PLA soldiers can learn a range of fighting skills from video games. Disparate units can now link up online to perform a range of command/control, combat and logistics exercises. Headquarters units can perform their own online exercises or recreate the recent experience of live exercises for later instruction.”
But Richard Bitzinger, senior fellow at the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Singapore, said much of China’s efforts to revolutionize the military are disappointing.
“On the informatization side, the PLA ground forces are adding UAVs, night-vision equipment, improved command and control, etc., but this all hardly strikes me as revolutionary. Certainly, the PLA on the whole [including air and naval forces] is improving in areas such as jointness, precision-strike and deployability,” Bitzinger said.
But does this represent a revolution in military affairs?
“Hardly. Does it matter? Probably not. Why? An RMA is supposed to be a discontinuous shift in the way wars are fought — a ‘this-changes-everything’ eureka moment,” Bitzinger said. “What the PLA is doing, especially the ground forces, is rather evolutionary and gradual, even prosaic. I see no leap-frogging, no nonlinear modernization.”
Bitzinger does agree that qualitative improvements have been made to its conventional force structure.
“Its armor is much better, its weapon systems more accurate, and it is, in accordance with what other modern militaries are doing, adding to its C4ISR capabilities at a respectable rate,” he said.
What makes the process of informatization more impressive is how far China’s technology has come, he said.
“It is essentially moving from a 1950s-era to a 1980s or even 1990s level of competency when it comes to communications systems, sensors [UAVs, radars, satellites], and the like. It’s basically ‘catch-up’ ball, but at the same time it is an impressive effort,” he said. “Of course, this process is also not across the board. Many units still lack modern equipment, which impedes the process of informatization and mechanization.”
Focus on Equipment Modernization
Mechanization has proved a far more practical component of the two strategies for the Army.
“In my opinion, you can rather easily separate out land warfare modernization in the PLA from the so-called informatization process,” Bitzinger said. “What the Chinese are mostly doing when it comes to upgrading the PLA ground forces is recapitalizing the force with more modern equipment: new tanks and armored vehicles, new artillery pieces, new antitank weapons, new small arms, etc.”
There are signs of new armor programs in the PLA’s mechanization movement. The T-99A/ZTZ-99A heavy main battle tank, an up-armored development of the T-98, now appears to be in full production.
“Its main outward improvement is a new arrow-shaped turret cheek armor plus new reactive armor. This tank uses a version of the Russian Reflex 5-plus kilometer range gun-launched anti-tank missiles, which can also be used against slow air targets like helicopters,” Fisher said.
“The PLA is also interested in the Russian Arena-E active tank protection system and can be expected to either produce a new T-99 version with it, or develop a version to backfit older tanks. At the same time, the PLA is also interested in the Russian Khrisantema supersonic anti-tank/aircraft missile,” which is fast enough to evade defenses designed against subsonic anti-tank missiles, Fisher said.
The PLA is now producing a family of eight-wheel-drive medium-weight armored vehicles that could in the near future give the PLA the option to fashion their own PLA Stryker brigades.
“PLA sales personnel [at international defense shows] are reluctant to speak about this new wheeled combat vehicle family, but information revealed thus far indicates that the basic infantry carrier version is designated WZ0001 or PF2006, and weighs about 18 tons,” Fisher said.
Fisher said the 105mm tank gun version likely carried the PLA version of the Russian Bastion, which already arms the six-wheel-drive 105mm gun-armed Assaulter, a version of which is being produced for PLA Army mechanized units.
The PLA’s plans to develop a large cargo airlifter, similar to the C-17 within the next 10 years, “plus its current focus on building new medium-weight mechanized units, indicates a PLA ambition to develop a rapid Army expeditionary capability similar to the U.S. Stryker Brigade Combat Team,” Fisher warned.
Another PLA mechanization trend is in the light airborne and special forces units. PLA airborne units are now equipped with the ZLC-2000 family of air-droppable armor vehicles that can carry five armed troops. The vehicle reportedly weighs 8 to 12 tons and is armed with a 30mm turret.
T-Day: The Invasion of Taiwan
The PLA’s main mission would be to invade Taiwan, employing amphibious and airborne operations. The PLA plan, dubbed the “Joint Island Landing Campaign,” would be a complex logistical, electronic warfare, air and naval support nightmare. The success would depend heavily on all components working successfully. If one faltered, the best analogy would be a house of cards.
China has been increasing its amphibious vessel build program and amphibious beach landing drills but does not appear to have enough amphibious landing craft yet to do the job.
The Army would rely heavily on aerial bombardment of Taiwan’s military bases, radar facilities and airbase runways, first using 900-plus short-range ballistic missiles, Dong Feng 11 and DF-15, and then fighter and bomber precision strikes on key targets that survived.
China might also strike U.S. military bases on Okinawa and Guam with DF-21 and DF-31 ballistic missiles. China is also developing the capability of striking U.S. aircraft carriers with ballistic missiles.
China has also been experimenting with eliminating satellites using both lasers and missiles in the hopes of knocking out the eyes and ears of the U.S. military, and is preparing to field a new mobile DF-31A intercontinental ballistic missile capable for the first time of hitting Washington.