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 repeatedly
emphasized the importance of naval modernization. Most prominently, CCP
General Secretary, President and Central Military Commission (CMC)
Chairman Hu Jintao in a December 2006 speech to People’s Liberation
Army Navy (PLAN) officers underscored the need “to build a powerful
People’s navy that can adapt to its historical mission during a new
century and a new period” (International Herald Tribune, December 26,
2006). Similarly, PLAN Commander Wu Shengli and Political Commissar Hu
Yanlin promoted the importance of naval modernization in an article
that appeared in the authoritative CCP journal Seeking Truth [1]. This
growing sense of urgency about naval modernization appears to be a
function of increasing concern about maritime security issues,
particularly Taiwan, the protection of maritime resources and energy
security. These missions drive the PLAN’s requirements, not only for
new platforms, but also for command, control, communications, computer,
intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (C4ISR) capabilities.

the PLAN’s information technology and communications capabilities is
thus seen as critical to the success of Chinese naval modernization.
According to one recent article in Modern Navy, a PLAN magazine, “[t]he
informatization of shipboard weapons and equipment is the core of
maritime joint combat … the Chinese Navy should vigorously build data
links for maritime military actions and fundamentally change the way to
carry out tasks in the future,” ultimately creating a “networked fleet”
[2]. Reaching this goal hinges on narrowing the gap between the PLAN
and the world’s most advanced navies through the development,
acquisition and integration of advanced information technology.
PLAN “Informatization”
PLAN is undergoing an unprecedented transformation from what was
essentially a coastal defense force to a more offensively oriented
service capable of executing a variety of regional missions. As part of
this impressive modernization program, a number of new surface ships
and submarines have entered service in recent years. China’s new
surface ships include Russian-built Sovremennyy guided missile
destroyers (DDGs), indigenously developed Luzhou and Luyang I and II
DDGs as well as Jiangkai I and II guided missile frigates (FFGs), in
addition to Houbei-class PTG wave piercing catamarans. Among the PLAN’s
new submarines are Kilo-class diesels acquired from Russia and the
domestically developed Shang nuclear-powered and Song and Yuan
conventional attack submarines. With the addition of these new
platforms, the PLAN is improving its surface warfare, undersea warfare
and air defense capabilities. The PLAN also appears poised to become an
increasingly important part of China’s nuclear deterrence posture with
the addition of several Jin-class SSBNs, which will be armed with JL-2
SLBMs. According to China’s 2006 Defense White Paper, the PLAN “aims at
gradual extension of the strategic depth for offshore defensive
operations and enhancing its capabilities in integrated maritime
operations and nuclear counterattacks” [3].
leaders perceive their nation to be confronting a strategic environment
in which “[m]ilitary competition based on informatization is
intensifying” [4]. This view both highlights the growing importance of
information technology in military modernization and places a heavy
premium on striving for information dominance in any future conflict.
Indeed, many Chinese analysts write about the role of information in a
style 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 main
sources of combat power” [5].
PLAN C4ISR Systems
many years, the entire PLA, including the PLAN, faced major
shortcomings in its C4ISR capabilities, but Beijing has embarked on a
massive effort to modernize, upgrade and expand its communications
infrastructure. One of the key results of this communications upgrade,
which has been bolstered by the rapid development of China’s civilian
information technology and telecommunications industries, was the
construction of a national fiber-optic communications network that
provides the PLA with much greater communications capacity, reliability
and security. According to one source, “in the coastal military
commands, a gigantic optic-cable communication network has been set up,
which guarantees the optic-cable communication among the headquarters
of each military command. Meanwhile, satellite communication has been
applied more widely, which ensures smooth communication between the top
commanding organ and the headquarters at different levels of the
military commands” [6]. Chinese research institutes have also
“developed a VSAT [Very Small Aperture Terminal] communication system
consisting of mobile vehicle-borne components” as well as new microwave
and troposcatter communication systems [7]. Additionally, China is
upgrading some of its traditional HV, VHF and UHF communication systems
[8]. Improving military computer networks and making them available to
more and more units also has been a priority for the PLA as it expands
its communications networks, another key “informatization” development
that has major implications for the PLAN. Indeed, recent reports
indicate that all PLAN units at the division level and above are now
connected to military computer networks, and that current plans focus
on extending coverage to lower-level units [9].
has likewise intensified its efforts to improve its space-based C4ISR
capabilities, which are particularly crucial for naval informatization.
Navigation and positioning has been another major area of emphasis with
implications for military modernization and the informatization of the
PLAN. In addition to using GPS and GLONASS and working with the EU on
the Galileo navigation satellite system, China has deployed the
indigenous built Beidou Navigation System-1 comprised of four
satellites, and plans to develop a larger system called Compass (or
Beidou-2) comprised of thirty-five satellites. Chinese developments in
small satellites and maritime observation satellites are also of
particular interest from the perspective of naval informatization. In
addition, the PLAN is improving the capabilities of its ocean survey
and reconnaissance ships, which are responsible for a number of tasks,
including surveying, gathering meteorological and hydrographic
information, laying and repairing undersea cables, and intelligence
Trends in C4ISR Research and Development and Naval Training
major area of emphasis appears to be the development of C4ISR
capabilities required to implement an access denial strategy. According
to the 2007 Department of Defense report on Chinese military
capabilities, “[t]o prevent deployment of naval forces into western
Pacific waters, PLA planners are focused on targeting surface ships at
long ranges … One area of apparent investment emphasis involves a
combination of medium-range ballistic missiles, C4ISR for geo-location
of targets, and onboard guidance systems for terminal homing to strike
surface ships on the high seas or their onshore support infrastructure”
[10]. China is already developing the capability to target U.S. ships
with ballistic missiles, such as the DF-21 MRBM [11]. “China is
equipping theater ballistic missiles with maneuvering reentry vehicles
(MaRVs) with radar or IR seekers to provide the accuracy necessary to
attack a ship at sea,” according to the Office of Naval Intelligence
[12]. If supplied with accurate real-time target data from China’s
growing constellation of ISR satellites or other sources, terminal
seekers and maneuvering warheads could threaten targets such as
airbases and aircraft carriers [13].
researchers also emphasize the importance of linking platforms together
into an integrated whole, suggesting that this will continue to be a
major focus of defense R&D programs. This is considered
particularly important for the PLAN. According to an article by Wang
Hangyu, a researcher at the PLA’s Naval Engineering University, “[a]
platform-centric navy cannot bring into full play the potentials of its
sensors and weapons,” but “effective networks formed with multiple
platforms and multiple sensors can enable the resources of military
strength to grow steadily” and “resource sharing among various
platforms and coordinated allocation of the resources of all
operational forces can enable the currently available resources of
military strength to be fully utilized” [14]. According to an article
by Li Qiang, a researcher affiliated with the PLA’s Academy of
Equipment Command & Technology, “[i]n order to effectively fuse all
C4ISR system elements and achieve a seamless connection from sensors to
shooters it is necessary to solve the problems of data integration”
reconnaissance systems appear to be another area of emphasis in Chinese
C4ISR-related research. Indeed, recent technical articles indicate that
Chinese scientists and engineers are conducting research on various
types of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) [16]. Chinese researchers are
also working on unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs). For example, one
recent article by PLAN researchers addresses the sonar capabilities of
remotely operated vehicles (ROVs), which could have applications in ISR
and a number of other maritime warfare mission areas [17].
PLAN’s focus on technological developments notwithstanding, Chinese
planners realize that rapid improvements in hardware will not be fully
effective without corresponding increases in the ability of military
personnel to operate them under realistic combat conditions. In keeping
with recent PLA-wide guidance from the General Staff Department that
stresses making training more realistic and challenging, the PLAN has
emphasized making training approximate the actual battlefield
environment as much as possible. Official sources indicate that the
PLAN is striving to make training more rigorous [18].
reports frequently highlight the importance of conducting training
under “complex electromagnetic conditions,” which necessitates such
activities as jamming, electronic attacks, reconnaissance and
electronic deception [19]. The PLAN is also conducting opposing forces
training featuring “Blue Force” detachments playing the role of enemy
units and making extensive use of modeling and simulation to enhance
training. Another area of emphasis for the PLAN is joint training.
According to one recent article in the PLAN’s official newspaper, “[a]s
profound changes take place in the form of war, future warfare will be
integrated joint operations under informatized conditions. Training is
the rehearsal for war, and what kind of a war we fight determines what
kind of training we should conduct” [20]. Articles in the same official
newspaper highlight the PLAN’s recent involvement in “informatized”
multi-service training activities, some of which have focused
specifically on enhancing joint communications capabilities [21].
Conclusion: How Good is Good Enough?
China’s naval capabilities is a key component of China’s military
transformation, as reflected by recent leadership statements and the
development of several new classes of surface ships and submarines.
Moreover, informatization is clearly a central aspect of PLAN
modernization and naval C4ISR modernization will have important
implications in areas such as joint operations and command and control.
Chinese C4ISR modernization has become a top priority and PLAN
informatization appears to have made some impressive progress in recent
years. It remains unclear, however, how close the Chinese actually are
to achieving the so-called “informatized force.” The PRC’s 2006 Defense
White Paper established a goal of being able to fight and win
informatized wars by the mid-21st century. This reflects a perceived
gap between the Chinese armed forces and the world’s most advanced
militaries, which Chinese writers often suggest will take decades to
overcome. At the same time, however, it also raises the issue of
distinguishing between the “ideal” capability the Chinese navy seeks to
establish in the long term and that which might simply prove “good
enough” in the short term. Indeed, even a relatively simple system of
deconfliction by time or geographic area might be sufficient in a
Taiwan scenario. This suggests that the PLAN might achieve an
employable capability with surprising rapidity, especially if it
pursues one that falls short of the standards set by U.S. proponents of
“network centric warfare,” but that is nonetheless capable of
contributing to the achievement of China’s operational and strategic