Great Military Leap Projected

Informed sources in Washington tell DEBKA-Net-Weekly that the US National Security Council and the Departments of Defense and State are holding back publication of their annual assessment of Chinese military capabilities and strategic intentions. They fear that this blunt, realistic outline of where growing Chinese capabilities are heading could both complicate Sino-US relations and have a disconcerting effect at home.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s China expert reveals some of the report’s highlights.

China’s massive high-tech modernization effort is increasingly focused on aerospace-defense and dual-use efforts. They are a continuation of the improvements outlined in the three past annual DoD Reports to Congress in People’s Liberation Army (PLA) weapons of mass destruction, aircraft, ground equipment, warships, telecommunications, amphibious and airlift power project, China’s security and military grand strategy, doctrine, and its overall threat to Taiwan.

In June, US Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld declined an invitation to Beijing to discuss resuming military exchanges between the US and China. Instead, he sent Assistant Secretary of Defense Peter Rodman. Bitterness still lingers on both sides from past episodes, such as the Chinese Air Force J-8D ramming in April 2001 of a US Navy EP-3E reconnaissance aircraft, forcing it to land on Hainan Island, and the May 1999 destruction of the Chinese Embassy by a USAF B-2 bomber. Reports of China’s weapons supplies and training facilities for the Taliban and al Qaeda terrorists (first revealed in DEBKAfile Oct. 6, 2001, and DEBKA-Net-Weekly No. 33, Oct. 12, 2001) have resurfaced again recently in the United States.

In March 2002, General Cao Gangchuan, director of the PLA General Equipment (Armaments) Department, reaffirmed China’s need to develop advanced technology to “boost comprehensive strength and its military prowess”. President Jiang Zemin, who is head of China’s powerful Central Military Commission, has reportedly been working closely with General Cao to implement the PLA’s modernization drive, aiming at a capability for “winning a regional war using modern technology, particularly high-technology”.

These urgent efforts have a parallel with China's crash programs in the 1950s and 1970s to develop nuclear weapons, nuclear submarines, ballistic missiles, and space technologies under Marshal Ni Rongzhen. Co-operation with Russia to create a “multi-polar world”, also ultimately aimed at a rapid modernization of the PLA, has run into a snag as Putin leans closer towards the American camp.

The Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) – and how to achieve it – is a very serious matter in China, spurred by a potential confrontation with Taiwan, possibly with US and Japanese intervention, India’s ongoing development of strategic weapon systems, China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea, and ambition to recover lands it “lost” to Russia. The pressure of the last may intensify as China grows economically stronger and Russia weaker – and both become more nationalistic.

Independence movements in Tibet and western provinces with large Islamic populations could also pose serious internal threats that could be exploited by external opponents. However, for at least the near- to mid-term, China’s geopolitical-military center of gravity will likely focus on its south-eastern flank, within its current “Two Island Chain strategy of pushing out its defensive perimeter.

The Chinese are firm believers in the “assassin’s mace” (sha sho jian) – secretly devastating weapons that exploit an enemy’s weaknesses before that enemy can develop countermeasures.

Their evolving RMA doctrine of local war, active peripheral defense, and rapid regional power projection, is underpinned by new strategic concepts and operational techniques.

The strategic frontier entails a full range of competitive boundaries related to the notion of comprehensive national strength – including land, sea and aerospace frontiers – and economic and technological advances.

Strategic deterrence implies the non-violent use of military power to deter war or to achieve national political objectives, and gaining the initiative by striking first, rather than passively waiting for an enemy's first blow.

A Chinese asymmetric RMA strategy will emphasize the development of niches of technical excellence (for instance anti-satellite, anti-stealth, advanced sensors, electro-magnetic pulse weapons, directed-energy weapons, information warfare, and electronic warfare). This targets an enemy's weaknesses, rather than attempting to match a major potential opponent such as the US across the board in all areas of leading defense technology.

Information technology (IT) systems are seen as both an opportunity and a weakness through the use of innovative information warfare (IW) techniques.

Quick, pre-emptive strikes, possibly using ballistic and cruise missiles, are intended to prevent an enemy build-up of strength. It is a common misperception that the PLA will only be capable of Western 1980s-style maneuver warfare by late 2010. The PLA is changing its fundamental military doctrine and paradigm and will leapfrog generations of obsolete equipment within the next decade. However, modern IW and RMA concepts are combined with traditional Chinese military concepts such as those of such respected strategists as Sun-Tzu and Mao Tse Tung.

At the same time, the Chinese army is moving urgently to replace its obsolescent weapons inventory based on 1960s technologies. Nothing but military power commensurate with its growing economic strength will satisfy a nationalistic China bent on becoming a more active regional and global player.

Enhancement is achieved by large-scale technology transfers from the West and Russia – for instance, highly miniaturized integrated circuits, rapid-transmission and large data capacity telecommunications systems, and various types of supercomputers, as well as advanced composite materials, state-of-the-art nuclear power systems, and a broad range of innovative aerospace systems.

China is quietly preparing a few surprises relating to aircraft carriers and other defense systems for those who have tended to ignore the military implications of China’s current technological transformation.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s China expert projects some of Beijing’s military advances in the next two decades, classifying them as Basic, Radical and Breakthrough




?           The PLA with continue to incrementally improve its mobility and transport (for instance heavy airlift), combined-force operations, C4I systems, logistics, and equipment standardization;

?           Major weapons systems to be either improved domestically or procured include combat aircraft, missiles, fighting ships (including aircraft carriers and more advanced surface combatants, and conventional and nuclear submarines), artillery (including guided multiple launch missile systems) and armored fighting vehicles.

?           Elite, relatively small, rapid-reaction combat units (for instance, mechanized, airmobile, marine), for containing regional conflicts, are being developed to increase Beijing’s regional power projection over the next decade. Their equipment and training will match those of modern Western forces.

After these steps, the PLA will overall continue to technologically lag behind the US, UK, Japan and other advanced Western nations by perhaps a decade or more, but still be able to develop the weapons and tactics to invade Taiwan.




This potential could take the form of new capabilities realized through the unique (“with Chinese characteristics”) integration of various ITs, advanced materials and advanced manufacturing systems:

?           A mobilization scenario could include mass units of light infantry equipped with effective, but cheaply manufactured, high-tech weapons, linked together with adequate modern C4I systems (including mobile digital communications systems) – all within a common combat doctrine to permit operational integration with more sophisticated rapid reaction elite “fist units”. The latter could be a high-tech form of “People’s Warfare” through a fusion of conventional and irregular techniques.

?           In combination with the above, the use of various cost-effective innovative technology weapons (for instance IW, large numbers of anti-tank and anti-air portable precision guided munitions, and advanced sea mines), combined with unconventional tactics, could provide an effective asymmetrical warfare capability against superior, more conventionally structured, enemy forces

?           An accelerated domestic development through foreign technology transfer and procurement of advanced aerospace systems such as stealth fighter aircraft, long-range GPS-guided cruise and ballistic missiles for precision deep-strikes together with improved conventional munitions and more flexible mobile launch operations. This is happening now with China’s new Hong Niao series of land-attack cruise missiles.

?           An accelerated qualitative, and perhaps quantitative, build-up of tactical and strategic missile forces armed with conventional, nuclear and possibly chemical-biological warheads (including mobile short-range solid-propellant ballistic missiles of the D-11 and D-15 SRBM terminal guidance series; DF-20 and DF-22 IRBMs; and the DF-31 and DF-41 ICBMs and the new JL-2 SLBM), and related military space-based C4I assets, together with a corresponding shift in doctrine from a counter-value retaliatory to a pre-emptive counterforce strategy.

This more radical program could allow the Chinese armed forces to overtake the most advanced militaries (including Japan) in the next decade at the regional level.




?           Advanced ITs used for various IW and EW applications to provide an overall asymmetrical warfare strategy against superior enemy forces. In particular leveraging relatively inexpensive technologies against costly enemy weapons platforms. This could include specialized radars or other sensors to detect high-tech manned stealth aircraft, which could then be destroyed by PGM or DEW systems.

?           Directed energy weapons (DEWs) such as laser and high-power radio frequency (RF) systems, that could provide broad tactical and strategic advantages for anti-satellite (ASAT), ballistic missile defense (BMD), anti-aircraft, anti-optics, and anti-personnel applications.

?           Procurement and mass production of sophisticated long-range stealth cruise missiles with precision guidance systems (combined inertial/TERCOM/GPS), advanced remotely piloted vehicles (RPVs) and space satellites for reconnaissance and other IW applications. This could be supplemented with a new generation of ballistic missiles, combined with a fusion of advanced sensors such as synthetic aperture radar (SAR), laser radar and over-the-horizon (OTH) and innovative passive sensor systems. The PLA would then move towards an “unmanned missile strategy in which manned combat aircraft would become of decreasing importance – a so-called reconnaissance-strike complex“.

?           Space systems, including some high-value sophisticated manned platforms and vehicles (for instance hypersonic aero-spacecraft). In addition advanced telecommunications, unmanned reconnaissance, surveillance, targeting, ASAT and BMD systems could be used to counter the space-based defense assets that the US and other Western powers are becoming increasingly reliant upon. This could be referred to as a “Tianjun“, or space army with Chinese characteristics

?           The development of some form of a genetically-tailored biological warfare capability is considered a long-shot because of likely political restraints, potential ethical considerations, and intense international opposition. However, this is likely to be technically feasible considering China’s R&D trends in biotechnology.


The Breakthrough scenario is not likely until 2010 or later.

However, when combined with the more near-term Basic and Radical projections, it could have profound implications for China’s aspirations as a global economic and military superpower.

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