China’s military modernization has given rise to an enormous Western literature dissecting its scope and progress. Despite this boom, many analysts have paid relatively little attention to recent advances in the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) command, control, communication, computer, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR) capabilities.
The PLA’s growing complement of manned and unmanned aircraft, reconnaissance satellites, and sophisticated ground-based infrastructure comprises the operational foundation of China’s emerging network-centric military. It is also the means by which better-known systems, such as the DF-21D “carrier-killer” anti-ship ballistic missile or the J-20 stealth fighter, could actually fulfill their intended roles during a major regional contingency.
From recent developments in China’s C4ISR infrastructure, it is clear that PLA is well on its way to becoming a sophisticated global military possessing many of the same C4ISR capabilities enjoyed by U.S. forces although it remains to be seen whether organizational barriers will short-circuit this trend.
Much if not most Chinese thinking on C4ISR and military modernization stems from analysis of the United States’ military performance in recent conflicts. For example, learning from the United States’ successful employment of specialized flying C4ISR systems, such as the E-3 Sentry, and the J-8 STARS, the PLA has identified Airborne Early Warning Command and Control (AEWC&C) aircraft as central to waging war against intervening naval and air forces. According to multiple Chinese analyses, a single airborne AEWC&C aircraft is the operational equivalent of roughly ten ground-based systems of comparable sophistication. In addition to facilitating real-time intelligence gathering, border surveillance, and command and control, these systems are expected to make PLAAF and PLAN fighter aircraft less susceptible to detection by affording them enhanced situational awareness without using their own radar systems. Historically, this capability has afforded the U.S. Air Force significant advantages in beyond visual range engagements that may now be lost.
In keeping with the Chinese analyses of their significance, the PLAAF is already fielding advanced systems of this type. The PLAAF’s current top-of-the-line AEWC&C system, the KJ-2000, is believed to be one full generation ahead of U.S. E-3 AWACS and E-2 Hawkeye aircraft. Among other advancements, the KJ-2000 boasts an indigenously produced phased array radar capable of tracking sixty to one hundred aerial targets simultaneously at a distance of up to four hundred and seventy kilometers. Although somewhat less technologically sophisticated, the PLAN’s Y-8J AEW system affords China’s naval air forces a similar upgrade in situational awareness and is reportedly capable of detecting objects as miniscule as a submarine periscope within its effective range of up to one-hundred eighty-five kilometers.
The United State’s unmanned C4ISR capabilities are also being replicated by the PLA. While information beyond mock-ups displayed at China’s annual Zhuhai airshow is sparse, recent disclosures by Chinese official sources suggest unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) will play a major role in China’s emerging C4ISR architecture. According to a PLA statement posted online in July 2011, a ground operator controlled a UAV called the Silver Eagle that participated in South China Sea naval exercises. The UAV reportedly disrupted communications and responded to red team countermeasures while acting as a node for a PLA communications network.
Other modern Chinese UAV’s, such as the Guizhou Aircraft Industry Corporation’s Xianlong long-range UAV and Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics’ BZK-005 UAV are believed to be capable of loitering over a combat zone for roughly forty hours, much like the U.S. Global Hawk. The Chengdu aircraft Design Institute also appears to be developing its own indigenous Global Hawk, the Long Haul Eagle, which was first revealed in 2008. These systems will greatly enhance the PLA’s Broad Area Maritime Surveillance (BAMS) while adding new capabilities.