China’s strategic arsenals in a new era

By Elsa B. Kania | April 20, 2018

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Chinese President Xi Jinping has declared that Chinese national defense and military modernization have entered a “new era.” He has called for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to become a (or perhaps even the) “world-class” military by mid-century. The “China Dream” that Xi seeks to advance—a quest for the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”—includes and is enabled by the “dream of a powerful military” (强军梦).

In this new era of Chinese military power, the PLA is seeking to develop new strategic arsenals that could enhance its future deterrence and war-fighting capabilities. In particular, the PLA recognizes the criticality of “assured retaliation” within its second-strike nuclear posture—and of advancing new capabilities in the space, cyber, and electromagnetic domains, which are seen as new “strategic frontiers” of warfare. Xi has also underscored the importance of new frontiers of military innovation in emerging technologies. Indeed, the PLA is pursuing next-generation capabilities, ranging from hypersonic missiles to counterspace weapons or military applications of artificial intelligence.

In the course of ongoing reforms and reorganization, the PLA has elevated its former Second Artillery Force (第二炮兵部队) and rebranded it as the Rocket Force (火箭军). It has also created the Strategic Support Force (战略支援部队), which consolidates, and enables the integration of, China’s capabilities for space, cyber, electronic, and psychological warfare. Directly under the command of the Central Military Commission, these two forces serve as the tip of the spear for China’s strategic deterrence. In any conflict scenario, the Rocket Force and Strategic Support Force would also serve as critical components of the PLA’s joint operations. Their missions thus extend across deterrence and actual combat (实战).

The core force. The Rocket Force, which controls nuclear and conventional missiles, is considered China’s “core force” for strategic deterrence. To date, the PLA has consolidated all of its nuclear capabilities within what is now the Rocket Force—unlike the US military, in which the nuclear triad is distributed across two services. China’s “lean and effective” (精干有效) arsenal includes conventional, nuclear-armed, and dual-capable (核常兼备) systems. The dual missions of deterrence and war-fighting are reflected in the structure of the Rocket Force.

The Rocket Force has developed a range of dual-capable missiles that it often characterizes as “trump cards” (杀手锏) that could threaten even a “powerful adversary” (强敌) such as the US military. During the August 2017 military parade marking the 90th anniversary of the PLA’s establishment, the Rocket Force displayed weapons systems including: the DF-21D, an intermediate-range ballistic missile with a range of at least 1,450 kilometers, known as the “carrier killer”; the DF-26, an intermediate-range ballistic missile with a maximum range of about 4,000 kilometers, characterized as the “Guam killer”; and the DF-31AG, a modified version of the road-mobile DF-31A intercontinental ballistic missile that is dual-capable, with an estimated range near 11,000 kilometers.

The Rocket Force seems to focus on dual-capable weapons systems because it appreciates their “usability” and versatility, including their ability to introduce next-generation capabilities to nuclear and conventional missile strikes. For instance, the DF-31AG could be armed with multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicle (MIRV) warheads. Future Chinese hypersonic weapons would likely be dual-capable systems intended not only to enhance Chinese nuclear deterrence but also to respond to Washington’s pursuit of conventional prompt global strike. The PLA is also pursuing “intelligentization” (智能化) in missile development, a goal that entails the introduction of more advanced automation and artificial intelligence into weapons systems.

China’s future triad. Looking forward, the PLA is on track to create a full nuclear triad, developing new nuclear-armed submarines and a new nuclear bomber. The future delineation of roles and responsibilities among the Rocket Force and the PLA’s Air Force and Navy remains to be determined, but these developments reflect a significant evolution of China’s nuclear arsenal and posture.

The PLA is actively advancing nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarines (of the Jin-class, or Type-094). By some accounts, such next-generation submarines could possess “AI-augmented brainpower,” potentially in the form of machine learning technology such as convolutional neural networks applied to acoustic signal processing or decision support. These future submarines could even leverage quantum navigation to enable independence from GPS and its Chinese equivalent Beidou, while attempting to actualize quantum communications under water.

At the same time, the PLA is in the process of developing a long-range, dual-capable strike bomber to enhance China’s strategic deterrence and war-fighting capabilities. This was first revealed in 2017 remarks by former PLA Air Force Commander Ma Xiaotian. According to recent reporting by The Diplomat’s Ankit Panda, China has been testing a nuclear-capable air-launched ballistic missile, along with a new long-range strategic bomber modified from variant H-6s.

The new “trump cards.” The PLA’s Strategic Support Force is intended to serve as an “incubator” for new strategic capabilities. Designed for dominance in new strategic frontiers of warfare, the Strategic Support Force could enable PLA information dominance and enhance information support for joint operations and power projection. Concurrently, the Strategic Support Force’s space, cyber, and electronic warfare capabilities, under its Network and Space Systems Departments, could be leveraged for coercion and deterrence. The Strategic Support Force constitutes an apparent innovation in force structure. If successful, it could enable China’s military to adopt an integrated approach toward capabilities across these domains and disciplines, with the ultimate aim of achieving critical synergies among them.

The Network Systems Department (网络系统部) combines a critical mass of forces for cyber, electronic, and psychological warfare. In this regard, the Strategic Support Force reflects an organizational realization of the PLA’s concept of integrated network-electronic warfare (网电一体战), combining disciplines and capabilities that were previously stove-piped. Indeed, the “Cyber Corps” (网军) associated with this department is designed to operate within a domain where the boundaries between peacetime reconnaissance and wartime offensive operations are highly blurred.

The Space Systems Department (航天系统部) has consolidated space-based and space-related capabilities. As an “information umbrella” for the PLA, it provides the space-based information support that is critical for joint operations and power projection, including Rocket Force missile strikes. This consolidation of space systems may be superior to the US model—at least from the perspective of certain PLA commentators—because it reduces stove-piping and redundancies, enabling greater integration of these systems. This new “Space Force” will likely leverage non-kinetic counterspace capabilities, such as directed energy weapons, and may also exercise control over the PLA’s emerging kinetic antisatellite capabilities—though the Rocket Force may also be fighting for control of these systems.

Pursuit of transformation. Beyond its traditional endeavors in military modernization, China is increasingly pursuing a new agenda of military innovation, seeking to “leapfrog” ahead through rapid innovation in strategic emerging technologies. Significantly, Xi has called for the People’s Liberation Army to “accelerate the development of military intelligentization” (智能化). This new concept represents a progression beyond the PLA’s existing strategy for informatization (信息化), which has involved the development of capabilities in command, control, communication, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR).

The new concept will leverage emerging technologies recognized as integral to military power in future “intelligentized” (智能化) warfare. The frontiers for AI in warfare may include applications in C4ISR—ranging from AI-enabled decision support for commanders to uses in intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance.

The Strategic Support Force could also be a pioneer in Chinese advances in military applications of artificial intelligence in information operations. In particular, the Strategic Support Force may focus on cognitive electronic warfare and greater automation in cyber operations. For instance, several researchers from the Strategic Support Force have highlighted (link in Chinese) the importance of machine learning in future electromagnetic spectrum warfare. The new Military-Civil Fusion Cyberspace Security Innovation Center (军民融合网络空间安全创新中心), led by the cybersecurity company Qihoo360, intends to focus on AI in cyber defense.

New era of Chinese strategic deterrence. In the aggregate, the “new era” and traditional capabilities that the Rocket Force and Strategic Support Force command will enhance Chinese military power and elevate the PLA’s strategic deterrence capabilities. This integrated approach is consistent with PLA strategic concepts that characterize military and strategic deterrence as including nuclear deterrence, conventional deterrence, space deterrence, and information deterrence. The PLA’s notion of deterrence (威慑), however, is often characterized as closer to coercion, which may shape the employment of these capabilities.

In the course of its modernization, the PLA has thus created a range of instruments for military deterrence with the precision and flexibility to defend against threats and advance core interests. Taken together, space, nuclear, and cyber capabilities—along with newly emerging technologies—could act as a “new triad” for this new era. These new strategic arsenals will enhance Chinese military power, disrupting the strategic balance within and beyond the Asia-Pacific. Going forward, Beijing will leverage its military might both to defend national interests that are becoming global and to project influence on the world stage.

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Topics: Analysis

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