Scientific Innovation and China’s Military Modernization
Image Credit: Chinese Academy of Sciences

Scientific Innovation and China’s Military Modernization


China has aimed to overcome deficiencies in areas critical to its national security ever since it initiated the National High Technology Program ("863") in  March 1986  -  the most important civilian-military R&D program next to the “Two Weapons, and One Satellite” science and technology development plan of 1956-67.

The 863 Program featured a concurrent development of dual-use technologies applicable in both civilian and military domains. The program had initially focused on developing seven strategic priority areas: laser technology, space, biotechnology, information technology, automation and manufacturing technology, energy, and advanced materials. In the mid-1990s, China expanded these areas in size, scope, and importance, shifting its trajectory toward cutting-edge technological products and processes. The 863 Program is ongoing, funding projects such as the Tianhe-1A supercomputer.

Three secret national megaprojects

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More importantly, the 863 Program has paved the way for China’s current “indigenous innovation” strategy, embedded in the 2006 National Medium to Long-term Plan (MLP) for the Development of Science and Technology (2005-2020). The MLP became China’s most ambitious comprehensive national science and technology plan with special long-term total funding estimated at Rmb 500 bn (US$75bn).

Central to the MLP are 16 National Megaprojects – vanguard S&T programs – “priorities of priorities” – designed to transform China’s science & technology capabilities in areas such as electronics, semiconductors, telecommunications, aerospace, manufacturing, pharmaceuticals, clean energy, and oil and gas exploration. The megaprojects include both civilian and military areas, with 13 listed and three “unannounced” areas classified.

The 16 Megaprojects have been a source of considerable controversy and debates both in China and abroad, given the continuing structural, technological, and manufacturing challenges that inhibit disruptive innovation in Chinese defense science & technology system. The debate has also focused on the three classified megaprojects. Prof. Tai Ming Cheung, a leading scholar on China’s defense industries at the Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation at the University of California San Diego, suggested three prime candidates for the military megaprojects:

Shenguang Laser Project for Inertial Confinement Fusion:

The Shenguang (Divine Light) laser project explores the inertial confinement fusion (ICF) as an alternative approach to attain inertial fusion energy (IFE) – a controllable, sustained nuclear fusion reaction aided by an array of high-powered lasers. The lasers essentially heat and compress pellet-sized targets typically containing two hydrogen isotopes, deuterium and tritium, sending shock waves into the center and releasing energy that heats the surrounding fuel, which may also undergo fusion. Shenguang aims to achieve such “burn” – fusion ignition and plasma burning by 2020, while advancing research in solving the complex technological challenges associated with controlling the nuclear reaction.

Shenguang’s target physics, theory and experimentation, began as early as 1993. By 2012, China completed the Shenguang 3 (Divine Light 3), a high-powered super laser facility based in the Research Center of Laser Fusion at the China Academy of Engineering Physics – the research and manufacturing center of China’s nuclear weapons located in Mianyang. In this context, Shenguang has two strategic implications: it may accelerate China’s next-generation thermo-nuclear weapons development, and advance China’s directed- energy laser weapons programs.

Second Generation Beidou Satellite Navigation System:

The second prime candidate for China’s ‘unlisted’ megaprojects is likely the Beidou-2 Satellite System (BDS), formerly known as the Compass Navigation Satellite System (CNSS). According to Jane’s, by the end of 2012, China had 16 operational Beidou satellites in orbit – six geostationary satellites, five Medium Earth Orbit spacecraft, and five satellites in Inclined GeoStationary Orbits covering the Asia-Pacific region. By 2020, Beidou 2 envisions a full-scale system of at least five geostationary and 30 non-geostationary satellites providing a global coverage in two modes: free "open" services available to commercial customers with 10-meter location- tracking accuracy, and restricted "authorized" services providing positioning, velocity and timing communications estimated at 10 centimeter accuracy for the Chinese government and military.

Beidou 2 satellites, developed by the China Academy of Space Technology, are also designed with effective protection against electromagnetic interference and attack. Notwithstanding its wide commercial utility, the BDS will enable the PLA to significantly enhance its global navigation, tracking, targeting capabilities, providing guidance for military vehicles, ballistic and cruise missiles, precision-guided munitions, as well as unmanned aerial vehicles. Most importantly, the BDS eliminates China’s dependency on the US GPS and Russia’s GLONASS satellite navigation systems that could be deactivated in select areas in times of conflict.

Hypersonic Vehicle Technology Project:

While data on China’s hypersonic research remains scarce, there are signs that China is developing conceptual and experimental hypersonic flight vehicle technologies such as hypersonic cruise vehicles (HCV) capable of maneuvering at Mach 5 speeds (6,150+ km/h), and flying in near-space altitudes. Andrew Erickson, an Associate Professor at the U.S. Naval War College, (with Gabe Collins) analyzed China’s Shenlong (Divine Dragon) spaceplane project, including its apparent test flight in 2011 and noted subsequent profusion of Chinese research articles on the subject.

Similarly, Mark Stokes from the Project 2049 Institute identified new research institutes focusing exclusively on the design and development of hypersonic test flight vehicles, including the 10th Research Institute (also known as the Near Space Flight Vehicle Research Institute) under the China Academy of Launch Technology (CALT) – China’s largest entity involved in the development and manufacturing of space launch vehicles and related ballistic missile systems. The Qian Xuesen National Engineering Science Experiment Base in Beijing’s Huairou district is also one of China’s key HCV research centers.

Global competition

Taken together, China’s long-term strategic military programs are deeply embedded in China’s advancing civilian science and technology base, which in turn is increasingly linked to global commercial and scientific networks.

Technology transfers, foreign R&D investment, and training of Chinese scientists and engineers at research institutes and corporations overseas are part of China’s “indigenous innovation” drive to identify, digest, absorb, and reinvent select technological capabilities, both in civil and military domains.

In the process, China is benchmarking emerging technologies and similar high-tech defense-related programs in the U.S., Russia, India, Japan, Israel and other countries. China’s key challenge, however, remains internal – translating its scientific potential and technological advances into operational capabilities.

Michael Raska is a Research Fellow at the Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies (IDSS), a constituent unit of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. This was first published as an RSIS commentary and is reproduced with permission.

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