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Advances in PLA C4ISR Capabilities

C4ISR (Command Control Communication Computer and Intelligence
Surveillance Reconnaissance) systems are a key measure of military
capability, and an area in which the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is
steadily advancing. Determining how strong PLA capabilities in this
area are presents some analytical challenges, as unlike other areas of
PLA military growth, C4ISR has received little public exposure. The
Chinese military’s ISR systems are more easily surveyed due to the
wealth of published imagery, but technical detail on most is scarce and
must often be dissected by engineering analysis of antennas or other
visual features.

C4 Versus ISR – Analytical Challenges

modern C4ISR systems can be broadly divided into the “back end” or C4
components, comprising the command and control systems, and the
networks and computers supporting them, and “front end” or ISR
components, comprising the orbital, airborne, maritime and fixed or
mobile ground-based sensor systems, which collect raw data for the
“back end” components.

The traditional division of C4ISR
systems into strategic, operational and tactical is becoming
problematic, as the flexibility of modern digital systems permits many
such components to be concurrently employed for all three purposes.

are good reasons why the PLA has not widely advertised its C4ISR
capabilities. The first is that Western, especially U.S. military
doctrine, emphasizes early and intensive attacks on an opponent’s C4ISR
systems to create confusion and paralysis at a tactical, operational
and strategic level. As many C4ISR systems are fixed and difficult to
harden, wide public disclosure presents opportunities for opposing
intelligence analysis and collection against a critical national
vulnerability in times of conflict.

Another consideration is
that footage or imagery of racked computer and networking equipment has
much less public relations appeal, compared to fighter aircraft,
ballistic missiles, guided bombs and other more traditional symbols of
national military power.

From a technical analysis perspective,
study of C4ISR systems also presents challenges due to the pervasive
and usually distributed nature of the technologies used to construct
them, the complexity of networked systems, and the now global
propensity to share transmission channels, such as satellites, optical
fibers, copper cables, and microwave links between civilian and
military users, making it difficult to determine where the military
capability starts and ends. Often high-quality HUMINT (human
intelligence) is the only means of determining the ground truth in such

Airborne and Land Based ISR

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

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

PLA has advanced considerably in air defense capabilities, and the
C4ISR components have been prominent. Wide and diverse ranges of modern
radars of Chinese and Russian origin are progressively displacing
legacy Chinese designs. Notable examples are the Russian 64N6E Big Bird
battle management radar, used recently in S-300PMU2/SA-20B Gargoyle
ATBM trials, and the new Chinese developed Type 120, 305A and 305B
high-mobility acquisition radars. These are supplemented by mobile
ground-based passive emitter locating systems such as the CETC YLC-20
series [2].

PLA ground forces are now introducing tactical UAVs
(Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) to support maneuver force elements, with
these displayed prominently during the 60th anniversary parade. While
the PLA UAV force is immature by Western standards, considerable effort
is being invested to develop this sector. For instance, systems in
development or early service include the W-50 fixed wing UAV and Z-3
rotary wing UAV, as well as the CH3 modeled on the U.S. Predator. These
supplementary conventional battlefield ISR assets are like the new CAIC
WZ-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 emulate
the full spectrum of Western ISR systems is not confined to aerial
systems, with two UGVs (Unmanned Ground Vehicles) with ISR potential,
the ASENDRO and the CHRYSOR in development (See “New Advances in PLA
Battlefield Aerospace and ISR,” China Brief, January 22, 2009).

C4 – The Connectivity Challenge

is less clear is the system-level integration and networking intended
for what will become a very modern and diverse fleet of tactical and
operational level ISR systems. The latter problem has bedeviled Western
military operators for two decades, and definitive technological
solutions remain to be found.

China is deploying an extensive
grid of terrestrial fiber optic links to support its civil
infrastructure, which as noted by various U.S. government reports,
provide for a significant dual use capability to support the Chinese
military’s C4ISR needs. Buried fiber optic cables provide high
bandwidth and are inherently secure from remote SIGINT (signals
intelligence), hardened against electromagnetic and radiofrequency
weapons and jamming.

PLA thinking on wide operational level
connectivity is evidenced by two new systems displayed at the 60th
anniversary parade. These are a family of fully mobile tactical
satellite terminals, using characteristic dishes with boom feeds, and
tropospheric scatter communications systems, easily distinguished by
paired dish antennas.

While the PLA’s SATCOM (satellite
communication) terminals reflect global trends, the deployment of
troposcatter (or tropospheric scatter) communications equipment is much
more interesting. The mature U.S. equivalent AN/TRC-170 system was a
mainstay of U.S. operational level connectivity during the Desert Storm
and Iraqi Freedom Campaigns, providing advancing land forces with high
data rate “backbone” connectivity to rear areas.

systems are unique in that they provide non-line-of-sight over the
horizon connectivity without the use of a satellite or airborne relay
station, this being achieved by bouncing high-power microwave beams off
of refractive gradients in the upper atmosphere. As such, a pair of
mobile troposcatter terminals can provide multiple Megabits/second data
rates to ranges of 100 – 150 miles. The U.S. Army and Marine Corps have
employed troposcatter systems for conventional land force long haul
data and voice communications applications [3].

appears to be using troposcatter terminals to support Russian supplied
S-300PMU2 and indigenous HQ-9 mobile air defense missile batteries,
this permitting a battery to maintain a high data rate channel to any
fixed fiber optic terminal within a 150 mile range [4]. As a result,
these mobile missile batteries can continuously redeploy in a “shoot
and scoot” manner to evade opposing ISR systems, while maintaining
connectivity with the centralized fixed air defense C4 system [5]. The
wealth of recent high-quality Chinese scientific research papers on
advanced troposcatter techniques suggests this technology will become
pivotal in PLA C3 operations [6].

There is no direct evidence to
date of the troposcatter system being deployed to support mobile Second
Artillery Corps (SAC) ballistic and cruise missile batteries (SAC is
the strategic missile forces of the PLA). But given that the “shoot and
scoot” operating doctrine for these assets differs little from that of
air defense missile batteries, the future employment of troposcatter
terminals to provide C3 support for SAC units should not come as a
surprise if it happens.

Maritime C4ISR Challenges

Navy has historically relied heavily on its fleet of 1,500 nautical
miles range H-6D maritime strike aircraft to provide ISR capability for
surface fleet elements, emulating Soviet and NATO Cold War doctrine.
This is now changing with the doctrinal shift to the “Second Island
Chain” strategy, in which the PLA Navy and Air Force assume
responsibility for controlling a much larger geographical area,
following an arc from the Marianas, through Northern Australia, to the
Andaman Islands [7].

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

To date China’s maritime
C4ISR model has emulated Soviet Cold War thinking, reflecting the
geo-strategic realities of a continental power seeking to control
vulnerable maritime sea-lanes. Unlike the Soviets, however, China’s
heavy dependency upon energy and raw materials imports by sea presents
an additional vulnerability, more akin to that of the Western powers.

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

China is currently deploying a number of coastal
OTH-SW (Over The Horizon Surface Wave) and OTH-B (Over The Horizon
Backscatter) radar systems, which provide ISR capabilities against
surface shipping systems and aircraft [10]. This technology can provide
prodigious detection ranges compared to coastal microwave radars, but
is limited by atmospheric conditions, and typically lacks the required
accuracy to target a terminally guided weapon, thus providing an
effective tripwire ISR capability out to the Second Island Chain, but
not the precision targeting capability required to support air and
missile strikes.

Implementation of the Second Island Chain
strategy will drive the PLA Navy inevitably in the direction of long
range UAVs, aircraft and satellites for the provision of targeting ISR,
and most likely GeoStationary Earth Orbit (GEO) SATCOM for C3
capability to support aircraft, UAVs and warships performing maritime
strike operations.

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

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

If the PLA exploits existing and
developing satellite technology effectively, it will be capable of
fielding an effective orbital C4ISR segment to support the Second
Island Chain strategy over this decade, including a credible RORSAT
capability. Existing dual use capabilities may be improvised to provide
a limited near-term capability.

Contemporary Western ISR
doctrine sees the penetration of hostile computers and networks as the
cyberspace segment of a nation’s ISR capabilities. China’s
well-documented, albeit officially denied, activities in penetrating
foreign, especially U.S. government, computer systems and networks
indicate a strong appreciation of the value of cyberspace as an ISR


In the final analysis, while much
of the PLA’s C4ISR capability remains opaque, what is abundantly clear
from what is known is that the PLA has an acute understanding of the
value of advanced C4ISR in modern conflicts and is investing heavily in
this area, emulating specific capabilities and doctrine developed in
recent decades in the West and in Russia. Numerous instances
demonstrate robust indigenous capability to develop key C4ISR
technologies, and apply these technologies in unique and original ways.
If the observed trends in PLA C4ISR doctrine and technological
capabilities continue unabated, the PLA will have a world-class C4ISR
capability in place by the end of the coming decade.