Extending China’s Reach - A People’s Army Evolves into a Modern, Net-centric Force
By Wendell Minnick
August 01, 2007
China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is transforming itself into a modern force that can challenge the U.S. military in conflicts that could include naval and air clashes over the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, territorial disputes in waters claimed by Japan or a war over Taiwan.
Toward that end, China has devoted an enormous amount of energy and resources to the construction of a “world-class C4ISR capability” and has “made substantial progress in this direction,” said Richard Fisher, vice president of the Washington-based International Assessment and Strategy Center.
“Inside the Chinese mainland it is possible to conclude that the central command authority and all regional command levels possess modern digital automatic command facilities that are trebly linked via space, HF radio and broadband connections,” he said. “Mobile units, land, air and sea also have radio and space coms, and troposcatter for fixed sites, too.”
Despite the best efforts by the PLA to embrace modernization, for the most part the PLA is not yet a uniformly high-technology force. Larry Wortzel, commissioner of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, believes there are a number of systems able to work at sophisticated levels, but across the spectrum of its military systems, the PLA cannot field a fully digitized force.
“The PLA is working to apply network-centric warfare concepts, but lacks a comprehensive set of the data transfer systems necessary to field a force that employs these technologies in a uniform way,” Wortzel said. “It may be two to five years until, in the Asia-Pacific region, the PLA achieves anything close to the level of networking that U.S. forces can apply globally today.”
China’s military theorists watch the U.S. military’s C4ISR technology and how it is applied in real combat environments with an almost obsessive manner. This obsession is partly due to China’s belief that the U.S. is the most likely military threat in the near term, and dealing with and countering U.S. capabilities is a high priority.
The White Paper on National Defense prepared by China’s State Council in December stated that “a revolution in military affairs is developing in depth worldwide,” noting “military competition based on ‘informationalization’ is intensifying.”
Wortzel believes that China has developed a means to attack and counter joint U.S. data systems and communications. By consulting dozens of corporate Web sites and tactical data link operator guides, as well as NATO and U.S. military manuals, he said, China has produced a virtual guidebook for electronic warfare to disrupt critical U.S. cooperative target engagement and C4ISR data links.
“To engage in modern war the PLA must be able to attack the enemy’s knowledge systems and such high-value targets as communications, carrier battle groups and aviation warfare units,” Wortzel said.
Bernard “Bud” Cole, a China military specialist at the National War College in Washington, D.C., also points to China’s growing ability to protect and manage C4ISR capabilities.
“During the past decade China has laid miles of buried land lines to carry communications, which greatly increases communications and data transfer security,” Cole said.
Cole also believes that another important development, one much harder to evaluate, is the degree of autonomy given to subordinate military commanders. “The PLA is very much the child of the Soviet system of extreme centralization of military planning and decision making, even at the tactical level,” he said. “Since the early 1990s it’s been moving away from that degree of centralization.” As centralization decreases, he said, “the PLA will increase its operational proficiency very significantly.”
China has fielded a national automated command-and-control system called Qu Dian, which is a redundant military-region system linking the General Staff Department headquarters and the PLA’s services with regional combat headquarters and their subordinate major organizations.
For full effectiveness, however, “the system requires satellite data-exchange support and airborne radio and communications relay, which China still lacks,” Wortzel said.
China has a variety of airborne warning and control system (AWACS) aircraft programs fielded or in the works. An AWACS built around the Russian A-50 aircraft is equipped with Chinese-made phased-array radar, a data link capability, a data processing system, a C3I capability, and a friend-or-foe identification system. This and China’s own Xian Y-8 AWACS aircraft can exchange data with other aircraft and naval ships equipped with compatible data links.
Fisher believes China has built three or four A-50 AWACS for testing and operational transition purposes. “It is not known whether they are now considered operational, but more should be expected to be built,” he said. “This program began as the A-50/Phalcon integration, but the U.S. forced Israel to halt the radar transfer in June 2000.”
“Nevertheless, Taiwanese sources have long stated that the A-50s now flying give a signal profile consistent with that of the Phalcon. So, at a minimum, the Chinese A-50 contains a phased array system. It is estimated that a combination of Chinese, Russian and perhaps Ukrainian engineers helped the Chinese complete the radar installation.”
There are two Y-8 AWACS programs: the Y-8 Balance Beam and the Y-8 Cheek Array. The prototype Balance Beam crashed in 2006, killing 35 Chinese and Pakistani engineers and five crew members. Though the crash devastated the program and literally wiped out its top engineers and program managers, it is still considered extremely important to the PLA.
Fisher said the Balance Beam phased array radar is clearly patterned on the Swedish Ericsson Erieye, although repeated questions to Saab and Ericsson have yielded consistent denials of any connection.
“Its advantage is that it is lightweight and less expensive than the A-50, thus, more can be purchased,” he said. “For regional operations along China’s periphery, this system is ideal for anti-air and anti-ship missions. It is now ironic that Pakistan will likely be operating both the Saab/Erieye combo and the Y-8 Balance Beam.”
The Y-8 Cheek Array was unveiled in 2005 with Premier Wen Jiabao in attendance. It features two large “cheek” phased array antennae. Almost nothing has been publicly disclosed about this system. The radar might be a version of the phased array developed for the navy’s Luyang 2 destroyer.
“This makes sense given the shape of the array on the Y-8,” said Fisher. “If true, then the mission of this aircraft could range from simple AEW to ground mapping to advanced microwave emitter for weapon purposes. All are possible developments of phased array radar technologies.”
There are also indications of a mysterious navy AWACS version under development. Fisher said that in 2005 a “Chinese magazine article inadvertently revealed a corner of what appears to be a model of an E-1 Tracer-sized AWACS [aircraft] during the visit by a Chinese political leader to the design bureau. This would certainly be consistent with PLA carrier ambitions. The real deal, however, has yet to be seen.”
Wortzel points to other PLA combat systems able to act as an airborne command post and assist with combat data exchange. “The enhanced Sukhoi Su-30MKK2 fighter under development for China will be capable of tasking and controlling up to 10 other aircraft on a common [communications] net,” he said. “The model already delivered to the PLA, the Su-30MKK, will control up to four Su-27s.”
Andrei Chang, a China military specialist with the Hong Kong-based Kanwa Information Center, said that judging from the electronic warfare (EW) operational systems introduced by China National Electronic I/E Corp. at IDEX 2007, it is quite obvious that China has attached greater importance to the integration of its EW operation systems, especially the diversification of the means in collecting and analyzing electronic intelligence.
“This latest trend indicates that China is attempting to integrate the EW operation systems to other national-level and combat theater-level C4ISR networks,” Chang said, while acknowledging that defense exhibitions have their limitations.
“China normally only [displays] its C4ISR concepts at international exhibitions rather than the actual C4ISR hardware, so it’s hard to know how effective these systems are in real combat operations,” he said. “But due to the fact that China received assistance from Belarus, its design of EW operational software may be already in the stage of practical application.”
Chang believes the integration of EW operation systems has started to involve reconnaissance, collection and analysis of electronic intelligence in all three services — a break with the past practice of focusing on a single service.
China’s ELINT hardware facilities have also become systematic, and the PLA has so far received the submarine-based SRW209, surface ship-based SRW210, the land-based ERR-107A and DZ9001/2, and the airborne-based KE800 ELINT [electronic intelligence] systems, according to Chang.
“Compared with the systems in the 1990s, China now has quite diversified and automatic ELINT systems for different equipments,” he said. “The antenna of these operational systems alone indicates that those ELINT systems similar to DZ90001/2 have already appeared in the Chinese military exercises many times, and the PLA’s collection of electronic intelligence ... is now automatic, giving it much enhanced mobility.”
As the PLA moves toward a net-centric force, new emphasis is being placed on integrating precision-guided weapons into the larger capability. According to Fisher, this push to integrate weapons control will result in “placing a ‘K’ [for kill] inside C4ISR, allowing the PLA to rapidly compress its sensor-to-shooter loop.”
Wortzel believes that China is close to fielding a C4ISR architecture that will enable it to fight a campaign out to about 2,000 kilometers from the Chinese coast.
“For the United States, this means that we must continue to develop and stay ahead in the areas of kinetic and directed energy weapons, electronic warfare and information warfare,” he said. “When it deploys satellite tracking and data relay systems missiles with maneuverable warheads, the PLA may well achieve its goal of targeting deployed naval battle groups.
“Thus, China is close to achieving a viable anti-access strategy that, as a minimum, would impede U.S. and Japanese military operations. This capability may be only two to five years away.”