These debates take place in an environment where potential adversaries continue to accelerate their military modernisation. The fortunes of Russia’s Su-57 Felon multi-role fighter improved in May 2019 when President Putin increased the order in the current State Armament Programme from 16 to 76. It is also moving ahead with the development of faster and wholly new weapons. Its Burevestnik nuclear-powered and nuclear-armed cruise missile, and the Status-6 nuclear armed long-range autonomous underwater vehicle, may have seen only halting progress, but hypersonic plans are firmer. The Avangard system (SS-19 Stiletto mod. 4) was on the brink of service entry at the end of 2019. The Kinzhal air launched ballistic missile has been observed on MiG-31s, while Moscow has spoken of further integrating precision weapons on naval vessels. The `Kalibr-isation’ of the fleet has been noted in recent years; Moscow is now discussing fitting to its naval vessels the 3M22 Zircon high-speed anti-ship cruise missile.
China’s October 2019 military parade, marking the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic, highlighted the breadth of its military modernisation process and showcased systems designed to achieve military effect faster and at greater range than before. The DF-17 hypersonic glide vehicle was displayed at the anniversary parade. China’s system is intermediate range, while Moscow’s Avangard may be intercontinental. Concerns over China’s military modernisation loom large in Washington’s policy considerations, and they are driving many equipment and procurement decisions both in the US and elsewhere.
Systems like these pose additional challenges for air defences. They complicate early detection, target acquisition and successful intercept. Achieving all three is not impossible, though the number of targets that may arrive fast or slow, high or low, perhaps with signature-management features, means that investments will be needed in better radars, interceptors and command and control, all underpinned by ever faster computing power and better coordination with partner countries. These weapons are being integrated in order to rapidly achieve destructive effect but perhaps also because this will help to outpace and undermine an enemy’s decision-making cycle; this might, in turn, have implications for strategic stability.
Both China and Russia continue to modernise their conventional military forces. Moscow is improving its air assault forces’ mobility and striking power and also its artillery capabilities, among other areas. It is more closely integrating UAVs into its artillery find-fix-strike complex. China, meanwhile, stood up the first operational unit with its Chengdu J-20A combat aircraft, and has maintained recent progress in developing and fielding air-launched missiles. It also continues to build increasingly sophisticated naval vessels, which is an important factor motivating other Asian states to do the same. Both China and Russia aspire to improve their military capability by integrating emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence.
States including Israel, the Netherlands, Russia, Turkey and the United States are increasingly seeking to integrate active protection systems (APS) onto their armoured fighting vehicles, either as retrofits to existing designs or as integrated systems for future vehicles. The proliferation of highly capable man-portable anti-tank weapons has increased the demand for protection from this kind of threat in both low- and high intensity conflicts. Many countries are looking to counter these weapons with APS. With many legacy platforms approaching their upper weight limits, these systems offer increased protection for relatively little weight gain, when compared to traditional armour.
China, Russia and the US are all now at various stages of developing, testing and deploying truck-borne gun-howitzer systems. These are more easily transportable, including by air, than traditional tracked armoured systems, and offer integral mobility, potentially making them less vulnerable to counterbattery fire than their towed counterparts. This makes them particularly attractive to light- and medium-weight rapid-response units in need of fire support.
China and Russia appeared to be in the process of deploying hypersonic glide-vehicles as 2019 drew to a close. The US is also expected to put its own hypersonic glide-vehicles and hypersonic cruise-missile systems into operational service in the early 2020s, and a number of other states are currently conducting research in this area. The performance characteristics of these systems further complicate an already demanding environment for missile defences.
The relatively easy availability of uninhabited aerial vehicles (UAVs) for both state and non-state actors has led to renewed military interest in both hard- and soft-kill counter-UAV systems. Both Russia and the US have deployed systems to the Middle East to protect their facilities and/or vessels from attack and are likely to feed the lessons of their experiences into future development work.
Amphibious-warfare capabilities are again subject to close attention, especially in Asia. China is continuing to boost its capacity with more and larger vessels, Japan has established its amphibious rapid-deployment brigade and Australia is developing its navy as a task-group-focused force, centred on its landing helicopter docks. The United States, meanwhile, has issued a new operating concept and is looking to exploit new technologies and systems to enable integrated operations in contested environments.
An officer in the People’s Liberation Army’s Electronic Engineering Institute wrote that `the ultimate purpose of information dominance operations is to influence or destroy an enemy’s decision-making process’. Primary targets, the article continued, should include enemy command-and-control centres, communication nodes, radar stations and computer-network systems. However, China’s 2019 defence white paper is not as fulsome as the 2015 white paper on the centrality of cyberspace as a new arena for international strategic competition, a decision perhaps influenced more by presentational considerations than by any weakening of the momentum towards military cyber power.
China’s military-modernisation process was motivated in part by its observation of the changes in modern warfare since its forces were last involved in major combat; this was in 1979, during the short war with Vietnam that principally involved ground forces. In particular, the 1991 First Gulf War against Iraq and, later, the 1999 NATO intervention in Kosovo provided the PLA with a clear example of how far it had fallen behind modern military forces. The PLA has also studied Soviet and Russian military modernisation.
The PLA had hitherto operated according to the strategy of `People’s War’ and `war under modern conditions’. However, the First Gulf War highlighted that modern technologies could be a force multiplier on the battlefield and that the PLA needed to boost the integration of its military systems and improve joint operations. Chinese thinking reflected this lesson shortly afterwards. Assessments were conducted and in early 1993 a new `strategic guideline’ was adopted by the PLA, indicating it would look to `win local wars under modern high-technology conditions’.
The Kosovo intervention led to a study by China’s National Defence University (NDU). This study, analysts noted, highlighted the centrality of `information superiority’ and paid close attention to how NATO forces used technology to suppress Serbia’s command centre and telecommunications. China’s 2004 defence white paper reflected the lessons drawn from Kosovo, and perhaps also Iraq in 2003. China’s armed forces aspired, it said, to win `local wars under informatised conditions’, giving priority to `building joint operational capabilities’. The assessment of the white paper was that information connects military domains and acts as a force multiplier but could also lead to more integrated force development.
China’s 2015 defence white paper assessed that China’s external environment was going through `profound changes’ and that threats were more diverse – and not necessarily local or indeed short term. China would, it said, take advantage of a period of strategic opportunity to build strong military forces. This white paper highlighted the increasing sophistication of long-range, precise, stealthy and uninhabited weapons and equipment, also noting that outer space and cyberspace were `new commanding heights’ in strategic competition. Ultimately, it noted, `the form of war is accelerating its evolution to informatisation’.
In October 2017, Xi delivered a speech at the 19th Chinese Communist Party Congress in which he set out a timeline for the PLA to achieve its modernisation goals. By 2020, mechanisation should be `basically achieved’, `information technology (IT) application’ should also have progressed and strategic capabilities should have seen significant improvement. By 2035, he said, `basic modernisation of our national defense and our forces’ should be `basically’ complete, and at the same time the PLA should have modernised their `theory, organisational structures, service personnel and weaponry’. By the middle of the next century (perhaps 2049, the 100th anniversary of the People’s Republic), he said the PLA should have fully transformed into `world-class’ forces.
China’s approach to future warfare and military modernisation seems to have heavily leveraged the lessons it observed when studying other modern militaries. Informatisation is similar to that of the US conception of network-centric warfare, utilising the employment of ICT-enabled modern weaponry and equipment, as well as improving C2. The PLA has focused on improving the capability and quantity of its precision-strike systems and its missiles, with emphasis on increased range and improved accuracy. It has pursued developments in the electromagnetic spectrum, in cyber and in space systems. In a way, the thoroughgoing ambition outlined for China’s informatisation process reflects the PLA’s understanding of its position relative to advanced Western militaries.
Discussions have been observed in China, in places such as the Academy of Military Sciences and the NDU, concerning the possible decentralisation of command structures and the potential degree of automation in future weapon systems. But while the drive for informatisation might have led the PLA to consider the need for greater flexibility in its decision-making and military-training requirements, Xi’s tightened grip over the PLA has led to greater centralisation in the CMC. While the process of `informatisation’ may be improving PLA capabilities, in tandem with the development and introduction of more advanced military systems, this does not mean that the PLA is combat ready or that the benefits of informatisation are being felt rapidly. These concerns are borne out by what can be observed of the PLA’s self-reflection as it goes through this process. At the same time, the degree to which the integration of more intelligent capabilities, such as big data and AI, will influence and improve Chinese weapons developments remains unclear. Although concerns have arisen about the degree of automation in Chinese weapons systems, because of centralised decision-making, Chinese discussions seem to still anticipate having a human in the loop. It is possible that the initial benefits of intelligent capabilities may be felt more in areas such as logistics support and C2. It is not yet clear whether `informatisation’ and `intelligentisation’ will give the PLA a comparative advantage over potential adversaries, some of which are modernising in similar ways. As such, the PLA will be careful about the risk of introducing into its own systems the vulnerabilities it looks to exploit or target in others. This may explain reports of China’s forces conducting exercises in a degraded electromagnetic environment.
At the same time, while the PLA has looked to US performance in recent conflicts to inform its military-modernisation plans and objectives, it will in future likely also look towards the military-modernisation programmes of other Asian states that are looking to integrate emerging-technology developments into their military thinking, equipment and forces. For China, however, realising the full potential of these developments will likely take longer than was first envisaged.
Mechanisation: Analysts assess that the term `mechanisation’ refers broadly to ambitions to modernise and replace the PLA’s legacy equipment across all services and branches, though with significant focus on the ground forces. It is also understood to be closely linked to the reorganisation of the PLA Army from 18 to 13 group armies, which was intended to improve quality and military efficiency.
Informatisation: The 2000 defence white paper stated that the PLA should transform from using `semi-mechanised and mechanised weapon systems to automated and informatised systems’. By the time of the 2004 defence white paper, informatisation had `become the key factor in enhancing the warfighting capability’ of the PLA. According to the US Department of Defense (DoD), in its 2019 report on China’s Military Power, the term `informatisation’ is `roughly analogous to the U. S. military’s concept of netcentric capability: a force’s ability to use advanced IT and communications systems to gain operational advantage over an adversary’. China’s view of informatised local wars was, the DoD said, `defined by real-time, data-networked command and control (C2) and precision strike’.
According to PLA Strategic Support Force (SSF) personnel and the Science of Military Strategy publication, informatisation provides the PLA with military capabilities that allow it to `leapfrog’ the capabilities of currently technologically superior adversaries. Space-, cyber- and electromagnetic-warfare capacities have the potential to paralyse a high-tech enemy’s `operational system of systems’ and undermine their command-level `system of systems’.
However, the PLA also intends to harness these technologies to help it better collect, analyse, share and train with data and information. It aims to make `basic progress’ by 2020 by introducing additional information and communications technologies, including cyber capacities, across its theatre commands and forces, in order to improve information-enabled capabilities and to boost command, control and communications. Informatisation is also important to the PLA’s efforts to improve its military education and training.
Intelligentisation: `Intelligentisation’ is a newer concept. China’s 2019 defence white paper said that `intelligent warfare is on the horizon’. It is understood to be based on the premise that military systems will be enhanced by the integration of advanced automation, big data and artificial intelligence (AI). The use of big data has increasingly been highlighted in PLA debates as central to the development of more powerful platforms and systems enabled by AI. Some Chinese sources have also indicated that harnessing these technologies might provide a means by which to `leapfrog’ the capabilities of other military forces.
During a late 2019 forum on military big data, researchers from the Academy of Military Sciences (AMS) discussed aspects of the collection and processing of data, whether derived from reconnaissance, surveillance or intelligence, but also using data from geographic information systems and `human social and cultural data and social media data’. As military forces try to integrate big data into their structures, they said, operations would increasingly be characterised by human-machine interaction, combinations of human-machine intelligence, data-centric analytical processing and, ultimately, independent decision-making and autonomous-attack capabilities. In short, `the key to winning quickly is how to shorten the “OODA [observe, orient, decide, act] loop” and revolutionising C2′. However, while debates in China recognise that big data-driven research and development and AI-enabled technologies will result in the PLA’s acquisition of `smarter’ and more autonomous platforms and systems, the AMS researchers emphasised that `big data and AI technology cannot completely replace people and cannot change their decisive position in war’.
China EW capabilities
China is also overhauling its EW capabilities – perhaps even more so than Russia – as it modernises its armed forces. The US Department of Defense’s (DoD’s) 2018 China’s Military Power report said that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) considered EW a key aspect of modern war and that `its EW doctrine emphasizes using electromagnetic spectrum weapons to suppress or to deceive enemy electronic equipment. Potential EW victims include adversary systems operating in radio, radar, microwave, infrared, and optical frequency ranges, as well as adversarial computer and information systems.’ Cyber actions, meanwhile, could attack an enemy’s C2 system, with the potential to `completely disrupt’ these systems, thereby `gaining battlefield superiority’. They would also be useful for other purposes including espionage. EW features in recent Chinese military exercises designed not only to improve the PLA’s ability to use EW but also to enhance its capacity to operate in a contested electromagnetic environment. Its EW units routinely train, according to the DoD, in order to `conduct jamming and anti-jamming operations against multiple communication and radar systems or GPS satellite systems in force-on-force exercises’. In 2019, meanwhile, reports that the accuracy of satellite-navigation systems was being degraded offshore Shanghai indicate growing Chinese capabilities, possibly in the civil sector as well as the armed forces.