PLA Navy Modernization: Preparing for “Informatized” War at Sea

By: Andrew S. Erickson
In recent years, senior Chinese Communist Party(CCP) leaders and high-ranking military officers have repeatedlyemphasized the importance of naval modernization. Most prominently, CCPGeneral Secretary, President and Central Military Commission (CMC)Chairman Hu Jintao in a December 2006 speech to People’s LiberationArmy Navy (PLAN) officers underscored the need “to build a powerfulPeople’s navy that can adapt to its historical mission during a newcentury and a new period” (International Herald Tribune, December 26,2006). Similarly, PLAN Commander Wu Shengli and Political Commissar HuYanlin promoted the importance of naval modernization in an articlethat appeared in the authoritative CCP journal Seeking Truth [1]. Thisgrowing sense of urgency about naval modernization appears to be afunction of increasing concern about maritime security issues,particularly Taiwan, the protection of maritime resources and energysecurity. These missions drive the PLAN’s requirements, not only fornew platforms, but also for command, control, communications, computer,intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (C4ISR) capabilities.

Enhancingthe PLAN’s information technology and communications capabilities isthus seen as critical to the success of Chinese naval modernization.According to one recent article in Modern Navy, a PLAN magazine, “[t]heinformatization of shipboard weapons and equipment is the core ofmaritime joint combat … the Chinese Navy should vigorously build datalinks for maritime military actions and fundamentally change the way tocarry out tasks in the future,” ultimately creating a “networked fleet”[2]. Reaching this goal hinges on narrowing the gap between the PLANand the world’s most advanced navies through the development,acquisition and integration of advanced information technology.

PLAN “Informatization”

ThePLAN is undergoing an unprecedented transformation from what wasessentially a coastal defense force to a more offensively orientedservice capable of executing a variety of regional missions. As part ofthis impressive modernization program, a number of new surface shipsand submarines have entered service in recent years. China’s newsurface ships include Russian-built Sovremennyy guided missiledestroyers (DDGs), indigenously developed Luzhou and Luyang I and IIDDGs as well as Jiangkai I and II guided missile frigates (FFGs), inaddition to Houbei-class PTG wave piercing catamarans. Among the PLAN’snew submarines are Kilo-class diesels acquired from Russia and thedomestically developed Shang nuclear-powered and Song and Yuanconventional attack submarines. With the addition of these newplatforms, the PLAN is improving its surface warfare, undersea warfareand air defense capabilities. The PLAN also appears poised to become anincreasingly important part of China’s nuclear deterrence posture withthe addition of several Jin-class SSBNs, which will be armed with JL-2SLBMs. According to China’s 2006 Defense White Paper, the PLAN “aims atgradual extension of the strategic depth for offshore defensiveoperations and enhancing its capabilities in integrated maritimeoperations and nuclear counterattacks” [3].

China’sleaders perceive their nation to be confronting a strategic environmentin which “[m]ilitary competition based on informatization isintensifying” [4]. This view both highlights the growing importance ofinformation technology in military modernization and places a heavypremium on striving for information dominance in any future conflict.Indeed, many Chinese analysts write about the role of information in astyle reminiscent of U.S. publications on “network centric warfare.”For example, according to one recent article by three PLAN researchers,“[i]n the information age, information has become one of the mainsources of combat power” [5].

PLAN C4ISR Systems

Formany years, the entire PLA, including the PLAN, faced majorshortcomings in its C4ISR capabilities, but Beijing has embarked on amassive effort to modernize, upgrade and expand its communicationsinfrastructure. One of the key results of this communications upgrade,which has been bolstered by the rapid development of China’s civilianinformation technology and telecommunications industries, was theconstruction of a national fiber-optic communications network thatprovides the PLA with much greater communications capacity, reliabilityand security. According to one source, “in the coastal militarycommands, a gigantic optic-cable communication network has been set up,which guarantees the optic-cable communication among the headquartersof each military command. Meanwhile, satellite communication has beenapplied more widely, which ensures smooth communication between the topcommanding organ and the headquarters at different levels of themilitary commands” [6]. Chinese research institutes have also“developed a VSAT [Very Small Aperture Terminal] communication systemconsisting of mobile vehicle-borne components” as well as new microwaveand troposcatter communication systems [7]. Additionally, China isupgrading some of its traditional HV, VHF and UHF communication systems[8]. Improving military computer networks and making them available tomore and more units also has been a priority for the PLA as it expandsits communications networks, another key “informatization” developmentthat has major implications for the PLAN. Indeed, recent reportsindicate that all PLAN units at the division level and above are nowconnected to military computer networks, and that current plans focuson extending coverage to lower-level units [9].

Beijinghas likewise intensified its efforts to improve its space-based C4ISRcapabilities, which are particularly crucial for naval informatization.Navigation and positioning has been another major area of emphasis withimplications for military modernization and the informatization of thePLAN. In addition to using GPS and GLONASS and working with the EU onthe Galileo navigation satellite system, China has deployed theindigenous built Beidou Navigation System-1 comprised of foursatellites, and plans to develop a larger system called Compass (orBeidou-2) comprised of thirty-five satellites. Chinese developments insmall satellites and maritime observation satellites are also ofparticular interest from the perspective of naval informatization. Inaddition, the PLAN is improving the capabilities of its ocean surveyand reconnaissance ships, which are responsible for a number of tasks,including surveying, gathering meteorological and hydrographicinformation, laying and repairing undersea cables, and intelligencecollection.

Trends in C4ISR Research and Development and Naval Training

Onemajor area of emphasis appears to be the development of C4ISRcapabilities required to implement an access denial strategy. Accordingto the 2007 Department of Defense report on Chinese militarycapabilities, “[t]o prevent deployment of naval forces into westernPacific waters, PLA planners are focused on targeting surface ships atlong ranges … One area of apparent investment emphasis involves acombination of medium-range ballistic missiles, C4ISR for geo-locationof targets, and onboard guidance systems for terminal homing to strikesurface ships on the high seas or their onshore support infrastructure”[10]. China is already developing the capability to target U.S. shipswith ballistic missiles, such as the DF-21 MRBM [11]. “China isequipping theater ballistic missiles with maneuvering reentry vehicles(MaRVs) with radar or IR seekers to provide the accuracy necessary toattack a ship at sea,” according to the Office of Naval Intelligence[12]. If supplied with accurate real-time target data from China’sgrowing constellation of ISR satellites or other sources, terminalseekers and maneuvering warheads could threaten targets such asairbases and aircraft carriers [13].

Chineseresearchers also emphasize the importance of linking platforms togetherinto an integrated whole, suggesting that this will continue to be amajor focus of defense R&D programs. This is consideredparticularly important for the PLAN. According to an article by WangHangyu, a researcher at the PLA’s Naval Engineering University, “[a]platform-centric navy cannot bring into full play the potentials of itssensors and weapons,” but “effective networks formed with multipleplatforms and multiple sensors can enable the resources of militarystrength to grow steadily” and “resource sharing among variousplatforms and coordinated allocation of the resources of alloperational forces can enable the currently available resources ofmilitary strength to be fully utilized” [14]. According to an articleby Li Qiang, a researcher affiliated with the PLA’s Academy ofEquipment Command & Technology, “[i]n order to effectively fuse allC4ISR system elements and achieve a seamless connection from sensors toshooters it is necessary to solve the problems of data integration”[15].

Unmannedreconnaissance systems appear to be another area of emphasis in ChineseC4ISR-related research. Indeed, recent technical articles indicate thatChinese scientists and engineers are conducting research on varioustypes of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) [16]. Chinese researchers arealso working on unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs). For example, onerecent article by PLAN researchers addresses the sonar capabilities ofremotely operated vehicles (ROVs), which could have applications in ISRand a number of other maritime warfare mission areas [17].

ThePLAN’s focus on technological developments notwithstanding, Chineseplanners realize that rapid improvements in hardware will not be fullyeffective without corresponding increases in the ability of militarypersonnel to operate them under realistic combat conditions. In keepingwith recent PLA-wide guidance from the General Staff Department thatstresses making training more realistic and challenging, the PLAN hasemphasized making training approximate the actual battlefieldenvironment as much as possible. Official sources indicate that thePLAN is striving to make training more rigorous [18].

Chinesereports frequently highlight the importance of conducting trainingunder “complex electromagnetic conditions,” which necessitates suchactivities as jamming, electronic attacks, reconnaissance andelectronic deception [19]. The PLAN is also conducting opposing forcestraining featuring “Blue Force” detachments playing the role of enemyunits and making extensive use of modeling and simulation to enhancetraining. Another area of emphasis for the PLAN is joint training.According to one recent article in the PLAN’s official newspaper, “[a]sprofound changes take place in the form of war, future warfare will beintegrated joint operations under informatized conditions. Training isthe rehearsal for war, and what kind of a war we fight determines whatkind of training we should conduct” [20]. Articles in the same officialnewspaper highlight the PLAN’s recent involvement in “informatized”multi-service training activities, some of which have focusedspecifically on enhancing joint communications capabilities [21].

Conclusion: How Good is Good Enough?

EnhancingChina’s naval capabilities is a key component of China’s militarytransformation, as reflected by recent leadership statements and thedevelopment of several new classes of surface ships and submarines.Moreover, informatization is clearly a central aspect of PLANmodernization and naval C4ISR modernization will have importantimplications in areas such as joint operations and command and control.Chinese C4ISR modernization has become a top priority and PLANinformatization appears to have made some impressive progress in recentyears. It remains unclear, however, how close the Chinese actually areto achieving the so-called “informatized force.” The PRC’s 2006 DefenseWhite Paper established a goal of being able to fight and wininformatized wars by the mid-21st century. This reflects a perceivedgap between the Chinese armed forces and the world’s most advancedmilitaries, which Chinese writers often suggest will take decades toovercome. At the same time, however, it also raises the issue ofdistinguishing between the “ideal” capability the Chinese navy seeks toestablish in the long term and that which might simply prove “goodenough” in the short term. Indeed, even a relatively simple system ofdeconfliction by time or geographic area might be sufficient in aTaiwan scenario. This suggests that the PLAN might achieve anemployable capability with surprising rapidity, especially if itpursues one that falls short of the standards set by U.S. proponents of“network centric warfare,” but that is nonetheless capable ofcontributing to the achievement of China’s operational and strategicobjectives.
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