China’s Emerging C4ISR Revolution

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China’s Emerging C4ISR Revolution

The PLA has made remarkable strides in its systems and capabilities. But operational challenges remain.

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.

Airborne C4ISR

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.

Space-based C4ISR

China has made still greater strides in its space program and is emerging as a leading space power. Senior PLA and Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leaders have identified space technology as a national priority and allocated significant resources to improving China’s space-related research, development, and launch infrastructure. As part of the PLA’s integrated civil-military space program, counter-space technologies and systems have been a parallel area of focus following China’s landmark 2007 anti-satellite test.

Recent years have seen a number of major advancements in China’s C4ISR related space development programs. The Beidou-2 satellite series, China’s indigenous GPS alternative, has already achieved full regional coverage and is on schedule to achieve global coverage by 2020. With at least 13 successful launches since April 2006, the Yaogan series of electro-optical, synthetic aperture radar, and electronic intelligence satellites have also proven a major success. Apart from these and other satellite programs, such as the somewhat more mysterious Shijian series, China has also successfully modernized and expanded its space launch infrastructure. Under the executive authority of its General Armaments Department, the PLA and its civilian partners now operate three satellite launch centers at Taiyun, Xichang, and Jiuquan, with a fourth large complex under construction at Wenchang on Hainan island.

China’s great leap forward in space and airborne C4ISR capabilities has already impacted the Asia-Pacific military balance. If current trends in technological development, procurement, and satellite launch capacity hold, the next 15-20 years will see the PLA benefit from vastly improved geolocation and precision strike capabilities, persistent global satellite surveillance, and a survivable military communications and data-link architecture. Concurrent improvements in counter-space capabilities will also put U.S. and allied space, air, and sea-based assets at risk, seriously complicating air and naval access to the region.

Organizational Issues

Despite its ongoing technological transformation, it should be noted that the PLA still faces serious obstacles it must overcome before it can take full advantage of its modern C4ISR systems and capabilities. Of these challenges, cultural and organizational problems have proven particularly stubborn.

Many PLA units have proven reluctant to adopt cutting-edge communication and ISR systems due to endemic interoperability problems and lack of experience with modern military technology. Communication and information sharing problems continue to arise in part due to a growing technological mismatch between mainline PLA units, which still employ outdated equipment, and their far less numerous but more sophisticated counterparts. On a broader level, the PLA’s constituent services, and even operational units within the same service, use different and incompatible models and generations of equipment that severely diminish their overall military effectiveness.

In part due to deep-seated inter-service rivalry, PLA joint training still leaves much to be desired. Often, exercises are only joint for certain segments rather than their entirety. Worse, those joint training efforts that do take place are often rudimentary or unrealistic. Consider that one Chinese article praises a joint exercise in which Navy units practiced ship loading and unloading while ground forces practiced loading aircraft onto railcars for the PLAAF. Another document touts the “jointness” of an exercise in which top service leaders communicated via teleconferencing. In addition, as evidenced in these and other exercise reports, no standard metric exists for evaluating joint performance either in C4ISR or other military spheres.


Without breaking down the technological and organizational barriers between its constituent services, the PLA will not be able to implement the “system-of-systems” approach to anti-access operations and C4ISR that its leadership envisions. The PLA has taken some halting actions towards promoting joint operations and information sharing, such as the relatively decisive step of appointing Xu Qiliang, a PLAAF general, to command the deployed force during joint exercises in 2007. This was possibly the first time a PLAAF general was given such a high-profile command, although it hardly constitutes a breakthrough.

Assuming its Central Military Commission successfully limits the tendency of the ground forces to assert control over military doctrine and planning during the next ten to fifteen years, China’s leadership will find that the PLA already possesses most if not all of the C4ISR systems and integrative technologies necessary to complete the PLA’s transformation into a 21st century force.

Shane Bilsborough is an intelligence analyst at the Advanced Technical Intelligence Center (ATIC).