Advances in PLA C4ISR Capabilities

C4ISR (Command Control Communication Computer and IntelligenceSurveillance Reconnaissance) systems are a key measure of militarycapability, and an area in which the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) issteadily advancing. Determining how strong PLA capabilities in thisarea are presents some analytical challenges, as unlike other areas ofPLA military growth, C4ISR has received little public exposure. TheChinese military's ISR systems are more easily surveyed due to thewealth of published imagery, but technical detail on most is scarce andmust often be dissected by engineering analysis of antennas or othervisual features.

C4 Versus ISR – Analytical Challenges

Allmodern C4ISR systems can be broadly divided into the "back end" or C4components, comprising the command and control systems, and thenetworks and computers supporting them, and "front end" or ISRcomponents, comprising the orbital, airborne, maritime and fixed ormobile ground-based sensor systems, which collect raw data for the"back end" components.

The traditional division of C4ISRsystems into strategic, operational and tactical is becomingproblematic, as the flexibility of modern digital systems permits manysuch components to be concurrently employed for all three purposes.

Thereare good reasons why the PLA has not widely advertised its C4ISRcapabilities. The first is that Western, especially U.S. militarydoctrine, emphasizes early and intensive attacks on an opponent's C4ISRsystems to create confusion and paralysis at a tactical, operationaland strategic level. As many C4ISR systems are fixed and difficult toharden, wide public disclosure presents opportunities for opposingintelligence analysis and collection against a critical nationalvulnerability in times of conflict.

Another consideration isthat footage or imagery of racked computer and networking equipment hasmuch less public relations appeal, compared to fighter aircraft,ballistic missiles, guided bombs and other more traditional symbols ofnational military power.

From a technical analysis perspective,study of C4ISR systems also presents challenges due to the pervasiveand usually distributed nature of the technologies used to constructthem, the complexity of networked systems, and the now globalpropensity to share transmission channels, such as satellites, opticalfibers, copper cables, and microwave links between civilian andmilitary users, making it difficult to determine where the militarycapability starts and ends. Often high-quality HUMINT (humanintelligence) is the only means of determining the ground truth in suchsystems.

Airborne and Land Based ISR

The PLA Air Force(PLAAF) has advanced the furthest in atmospheric ISR capabilities, withthe development of the KJ-2000 and KJ-200 Airborne Early Warning andControl systems, which like their Western counterparts, fully integrateactive radar and passive radiofrequency sensors, with a comprehensivedigital and voice C4 system. These airborne systems employ phased arrayradar technology one full generation ahead of the U.S. E-3C AWACS andE-2C Hawkeye. The C4 fit on either system has not been disclosed. Atleast four KJ-2000 systems are claimed operational [1].

Reconnaissancepods and internally integrated sensor capabilities in PLAAF strike andmulti-role aircraft lag strongly at this time against their Westerncounterparts. Targeting pods with ISR potential are only now appearingin operational units, mostly for targeting smart munitions.

ThePLA has advanced considerably in air defense capabilities, and theC4ISR components have been prominent. Wide and diverse ranges of modernradars of Chinese and Russian origin are progressively displacinglegacy Chinese designs. Notable examples are the Russian 64N6E Big Birdbattle management radar, used recently in S-300PMU2/SA-20B GargoyleATBM trials, and the new Chinese developed Type 120, 305A and 305Bhigh-mobility acquisition radars. These are supplemented by mobileground-based passive emitter locating systems such as the CETC YLC-20series [2].

PLA ground forces are now introducing tactical UAVs(Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) to support maneuver force elements, withthese displayed prominently during the 60th anniversary parade. Whilethe PLA UAV force is immature by Western standards, considerable effortis being invested to develop this sector. For instance, systems indevelopment or early service include the W-50 fixed wing UAV and Z-3rotary wing UAV, as well as the CH3 modeled on the U.S. Predator. Thesesupplementary conventional battlefield ISR assets are like the new CAICWZ-10 reconnaissance and attack helicopter, modeled on U.S. and E.U.equivalents (See "New Advances in PLA Battlefield Aerospace and ISR,"China Brief, January 22, 2009).

The established trend to emulatethe full spectrum of Western ISR systems is not confined to aerialsystems, with two UGVs (Unmanned Ground Vehicles) with ISR potential,the ASENDRO and the CHRYSOR in development (See "New Advances in PLABattlefield Aerospace and ISR," China Brief, January 22, 2009).

C4 – The Connectivity Challenge

Whatis less clear is the system-level integration and networking intendedfor what will become a very modern and diverse fleet of tactical andoperational level ISR systems. The latter problem has bedeviled Westernmilitary operators for two decades, and definitive technologicalsolutions remain to be found.

China is deploying an extensivegrid of terrestrial fiber optic links to support its civilinfrastructure, which as noted by various U.S. government reports,provide for a significant dual use capability to support the Chinesemilitary’s C4ISR needs. Buried fiber optic cables provide highbandwidth and are inherently secure from remote SIGINT (signalsintelligence), hardened against electromagnetic and radiofrequencyweapons and jamming.

PLA thinking on wide operational levelconnectivity is evidenced by two new systems displayed at the 60thanniversary parade. These are a family of fully mobile tacticalsatellite terminals, using characteristic dishes with boom feeds, andtropospheric scatter communications systems, easily distinguished bypaired dish antennas.

While the PLA's SATCOM (satellitecommunication) terminals reflect global trends, the deployment oftroposcatter (or tropospheric scatter) communications equipment is muchmore interesting. The mature U.S. equivalent AN/TRC-170 system was amainstay of U.S. operational level connectivity during the Desert Stormand Iraqi Freedom Campaigns, providing advancing land forces with highdata rate "backbone" connectivity to rear areas.

Troposcattersystems are unique in that they provide non-line-of-sight over thehorizon connectivity without the use of a satellite or airborne relaystation, this being achieved by bouncing high-power microwave beams offof refractive gradients in the upper atmosphere. As such, a pair ofmobile troposcatter terminals can provide multiple Megabits/second datarates to ranges of 100 - 150 miles. The U.S. Army and Marine Corps haveemployed troposcatter systems for conventional land force long hauldata and voice communications applications [3].

The PLAappears to be using troposcatter terminals to support Russian suppliedS-300PMU2 and indigenous HQ-9 mobile air defense missile batteries,this permitting a battery to maintain a high data rate channel to anyfixed fiber optic terminal within a 150 mile range [4]. As a result,these mobile missile batteries can continuously redeploy in a "shootand scoot" manner to evade opposing ISR systems, while maintainingconnectivity with the centralized fixed air defense C4 system [5]. Thewealth of recent high-quality Chinese scientific research papers onadvanced troposcatter techniques suggests this technology will becomepivotal in PLA C3 operations [6].

There is no direct evidence todate of the troposcatter system being deployed to support mobile SecondArtillery Corps (SAC) ballistic and cruise missile batteries (SAC isthe strategic missile forces of the PLA). But given that the "shoot andscoot" operating doctrine for these assets differs little from that ofair defense missile batteries, the future employment of troposcatterterminals to provide C3 support for SAC units should not come as asurprise if it happens.

Maritime C4ISR Challenges

The PLANavy has historically relied heavily on its fleet of 1,500 nauticalmiles range H-6D maritime strike aircraft to provide ISR capability forsurface fleet elements, emulating Soviet and NATO Cold War doctrine.This is now changing with the doctrinal shift to the "Second IslandChain" strategy, in which the PLA Navy and Air Force assumeresponsibility for controlling a much larger geographical area,following an arc from the Marianas, through Northern Australia, to theAndaman Islands [7].

The advent of DF-21 derived ASBMs(Anti-Ship Ballistic Missiles), modern coastal battery deployed cruisemissiles like the DH/CJ-10 and C-602, and a range of ASCMs (Anti ShipCruise Missile) carried by PLA Navy strike aircraft such as theSu-30MK2 Flanker, JH-7 Flounder, and the new turbofan powered H-6KBadger, demands accurate and timely C4ISR support to be effectiveagainst opposing maritime forces [8].

To date China's maritimeC4ISR model has emulated Soviet Cold War thinking, reflecting thegeo-strategic realities of a continental power seeking to controlvulnerable maritime sea-lanes. Unlike the Soviets, however, China'sheavy dependency upon energy and raw materials imports by sea presentsan additional vulnerability, more akin to that of the Western powers.

TheSoviets initially performed maritime ISR using long range surfacesearch radar equipped Tu-16K Badger C/D and Tu-95RTs/142 Bear D/F longrange aircraft, which were equipped with data links to relay maritimesurface target coordinates to ASCM armed aircraft, surface combatants,and submarines. As the U.S. Navy increased the reach of its carrierbattle group missile and fighter defenses, the Soviets deployed theSMKRITs (Sistema Morskoy Kosmicheskoy Razvedki I Tseleukazaniya /Maritime Space Reconnaissance and Targeting System) RORSATs (RadarOcean Reconnaissance Satellite), which employed a Molniya satellitecommunications downlink to relay targeting data to maritime strikeassets [9].

China is currently deploying a number of coastalOTH-SW (Over The Horizon Surface Wave) and OTH-B (Over The HorizonBackscatter) radar systems, which provide ISR capabilities againstsurface shipping systems and aircraft [10]. This technology can provideprodigious detection ranges compared to coastal microwave radars, butis limited by atmospheric conditions, and typically lacks the requiredaccuracy to target a terminally guided weapon, thus providing aneffective tripwire ISR capability out to the Second Island Chain, butnot the precision targeting capability required to support air andmissile strikes.

Implementation of the Second Island Chainstrategy will drive the PLA Navy inevitably in the direction of longrange UAVs, aircraft and satellites for the provision of targeting ISR,and most likely GeoStationary Earth Orbit (GEO) SATCOM for C3capability to support aircraft, UAVs and warships performing maritimestrike operations.

China's remote sensing satellite program,characterized by the extant Yaogan-1, -2, -3, -4, and -5, theHaiyang-1B, and the CBERS-2 and -2B satellite systems, have beenidentified by the Pentagon as dual use capabilities [11]. The plannedHJ-1C and HY-3 high resolution radar imaging satellites will havesignificant potential for RORSAT (Radar Ocean Reconnaissance Satellite)operation, and even if inadequate, will provide the technology base fora future PLA RORSAT constellation [12].

China operates a robustnumber of foreign built and indigenous GEO satellites for civiliandirect broadcast channels, and telecommunications transponder services,including the C-band DFH-3, DFH-4 series. In 2000, the PLA launched thefirst of the FH-1 series of military SATCOM vehicles, intended as partof the Qu Dian C4ISR system; the latter is described as similar inconcept to the NATO/US MIDS/JTIDS/Link-16 and Link-22 systems. In 2008,China launched the Tian Lian-1 data relay satellite, intended toprovide expanded communications coverage for orbital assets (XinhuaNews Agency, April 25, 2008).

If the PLA exploits existing anddeveloping satellite technology effectively, it will be capable offielding an effective orbital C4ISR segment to support the SecondIsland Chain strategy over this decade, including a credible RORSATcapability. Existing dual use capabilities may be improvised to providea limited near-term capability.

Contemporary Western ISRdoctrine sees the penetration of hostile computers and networks as thecyberspace segment of a nation's ISR capabilities. China'swell-documented, albeit officially denied, activities in penetratingforeign, especially U.S. government, computer systems and networksindicate a strong appreciation of the value of cyberspace as an ISRenvironment.


In the final analysis, while muchof the PLA's C4ISR capability remains opaque, what is abundantly clearfrom what is known is that the PLA has an acute understanding of thevalue of advanced C4ISR in modern conflicts and is investing heavily inthis area, emulating specific capabilities and doctrine developed inrecent decades in the West and in Russia. Numerous instancesdemonstrate robust indigenous capability to develop key C4ISRtechnologies, and apply these technologies in unique and original ways.If the observed trends in PLA C4ISR doctrine and technologicalcapabilities continue unabated, the PLA will have a world-class C4ISRcapability in place by the end of the coming decade.
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