The Chinese military (People’s Liberation Army, or PLA) has been receiving growing coverage and media interest over the past decade as China’s national profile has grown and as new weapons systems have progressively become unveiled. However, the nature of tracking new Chinese weapons developments – or “PLA watching” as it is sometimes called – is not a straightforward task for new military enthusiasts, and more than a handful of journalists and professional academics publish information on the PLA that may be out of date, or even outright false in some instances.
This piece will seek to provide a foundation and structure for beginners interested in testing the waters of PLA watching, and is primarily oriented for individuals with English as their primary language. The recommendations provided will reflect this author’s own experiences over the past decade of PLA watching, and in the absence of other similar guides, it will be significantly anecdotal in nature. While not exhaustive, the system described below is one that this author himself practices and has found great utility in.
The first question often posed by burgeoning PLA watchers is where to go for good quality sources.
Chinese weapons development is often notoriously opaque, and is far less transparent even compared to projects from Russia or India, let alone nations in Western Europe or North America. Nations with more transparent weapons development and procurement can often depend on a degree of official military or government disclosure for new systems. However, the Chinese government and Chinese military rarely even officially acknowledge the existence of new projects until they are approaching the later stages of development. When serious acknowledgement is made of a project known to be in the works, it is often interpreted with significant gravity.
It is worth noting that some Chinese language media and even some Chinese language state media will reference reports of PLA weapons development from foreign English language media. However, such articles should not be interpreted as an official government or military endorsement of the details of a project or even of a project’s existence, given Chinese state media range from official government mouthpieces (such as Xinhua or People’s Daily) to more casual tabloid-like outlets (such as Global Times) that tend to enjoy wider leeway in terms of content and credibility.
Generic, low barrier websites such as Wikipedia are often the go-to first port of call for beginners to PLA watching. While such “encyclopedia” sites can provide a generic understanding of which systems and weapons exist, they are often incorrect or out of date for details around capabilities, numbers, and sometimes even designations.
The sourcing of outlets like Wikipedia (or at least the English language version of Wikipedia) tends to draw on English language websites. For PLA related topics and weapons, these sources include large multinational English language news media companies, as well as English language defense news media, and sometimes national security/policy type outlets as well. These websites tend to be held up as “credible” or “reputable,” as many are longstanding, established publications or companies with a documented track record covering other types of news stories or defense stories.
Unfortunately, there are few established English language publications that are able to release leading edge updates of PLA weapons systems, primarily due to the language barrier. Unsurprisingly, the most demonstrably up-to-date and leading edge sources of PLA developments tend to be Chinese language sources, many of which exist on social media or internet forums. Therefore, access to that vital resource requires both an ability to read and understand the Chinese language, as well as an ability to discriminate reliable Chinese language sources and rumors from significant background noise.
Rumors and Rumors
The aforementioned opacity of Chinese weapons development and lack of disclosures via traditional means that are common in other countries leaves non-traditional sources as the only consistent producer of information. Chinese language internet forums and Chinese language social media are the primary venues to observe, usually acting as the first outlets to post pictures and information that later percolate down to the rest of the world’s media.
Information on new PLA developments is inevitably classified as rumors, as the veracity of said information is often impossible to confirm. However, the weight placed on some rumors versus others is significantly dependent on the individual user providing them. Users who have demonstrated a track record of providing exclusive new information that has later been confirmed are placed in much higher regard than random nobodies touting outlandish theories. Some established users may also provide evidence for their credentials, as there are also a handful of individuals who have been involved in PLA procurement or Chinese state aerospace firms and provided evidence of their role as well.
The ability to identify and discriminate credible rumors from background noise is vital to make PLA watching a viable process; however, the role of the PLA watching community is arguably just as important. PLA watching communities on Chinese language forums and social media as well as English language communities generally all share the same goal of seeking accurate and up-to-date information on PLA weapons developments. Therefore, as new rumors make their way through the grapevine, they are assessed by the collective skepticism and knowledge base of the PLA watching community.
While this process is not foolproof, it is relatively self-correcting as new hypotheses (rumors) must be tested against the preexisting base of knowledge in the community, allowing more credible rumors to continue to percolate while the less credible rumors are ignored. As new rumors emerge over months and years for a particular project, they can gradually coalesce into greater understanding for certain projects ranging from anything as rudimentary as confirmation of a new project’s existence to the key characteristics and parameters for new ship or aircraft.
This author has observed and participated in the community’s application of this process across many PLA weapons that have emerged from the mid-2000s to present, ranging from small arms to surface combatants to stealth aircraft. Indeed, when new weapons emerge and receive coverage by English language media, it is not uncommon to find information first established by the PLA watching community included in their content.
It is possible to envision a general cycle or timeline that most new PLA weapons undergo, from initial unsubstantiated rumors all the way to being confirmed projects with photo evidence of their existence and characteristics. The cycle below should be thought of as a continuum rather than well demarcated episodes; however, for the purposes of easy consumption, we can describe five general stages:
Pre-rumor: this stage often is the first and earliest circulation of a new weapon, and when it first emerges it is often difficult to separate from other unsubstantiated rumors. Pre-rumors often only describe a new weapon or system in very brief and vague terms, usually without a timeline and lacking well defined characteristics. If certain details are included in a pre-rumor, more often than not they will be refined and corrected in time with subsequent stages.
Pre-rumors are often difficult to substantiate when they first emerge. Only later, when a project’s existence is confirmed, is one able to retrospectively acknowledge the initial mutterings from prior years in the past. For the purpose of burgeoning new PLA watchers, the pre-rumor stage can be ignored, as it is included here more as a formality than as a practical stage to be actively in search of.
Rumor: this is the stage when a new weapon begins to receive traction, usually by the mention of one or more established insiders. At this stage, the rumors surrounding new weapons still lack significant detail. There is often no timeline for when a new project can be expected to emerge either. However being acknowledged by established insiders – even in passing – means a new weapon or project is placed on the community’s radar. Therefore, the rumor stage of the cycle can be thought of as the first true instance of being noticed by the community.
Credible Rumor: the difference between this stage and the prior is primarily one of magnitude. Credible rumors can generally emerge as a greater number of established insiders acknowledge the existence of a project over time, and continue to acknowledge the existence of a project. At this stage, new details of a project can emerge – for example, rough characteristics of a ship’s displacement and armament, or the general role and powerplant of an aircraft, or the weight of a main battle tank, or so on.
A limited number of leaked documents such as academic studies pertaining to a project may also emerge, as well as vague references in snippets of leaked official state documents that could relate to a particular project (terms such as “new type weapon” or “new type fighter aircraft”). Sometimes, blurry, low quality pictures of models or milestones may also be released, but cannot definitively be linked to a new weapon, yet add weight to the Credible Rumors that exist.
Near-confirmation: as credible rumors build up, eventually tangible evidence of a new project will begin to emerge in a more public way. Blurry satellite pictures of modules for a new ship under construction or poor quality photos of a new tank or rifle under testing may emerge. The community’s eyes will seek to verify whether a picture has been doctored or modified, and even if a picture is agreed to be authentic, the exact content of a picture is not always obvious. For example, an aircraft carrier’s first initial keel modules can be hard to discern from that of any other large ship in early stage of construction.
However, by this stage the established and credible insiders will often acknowledge (or deny) the contents depicted in a picture even if it is blurry or early stage. Near-confirmation is a stage where additional details, projected timelines for confirmation, and certain characteristics become more firm and concrete, such that it would be a surprise if any major details of a weapon or system ended up being demonstrably different to what is projected here. At this stage, the role of the community becomes one of expectation. English language defense and/or national security type outlets may begin to cover a new PLA project by this stage of the cycle.
Confirmation: there are various ways to define this stage depending on the weapon type, but generally speaking it relies on clear photographic or video evidence confirming the existence of a new weapons type. For an aircraft it can mean its first clear appearance taxiing and flying from a runway in images taken at multiple angles. For a ship it can mean multiple pictures confirming its key design characteristics in the late stages of assembly before launch. For a new rifle it can mean being fielded in some limited form by soldiers and documented by video or photo.
The key tenet of the confirmation stage is for the existence of a new weapons system to be confirmed beyond reasonable doubt. Occasionally, certain weapons systems will be officially covered by Chinese state or military media in a more open or transparent manner at its unveiling (such as a maiden flight or ship launch or parade appearance). But it is also common for a new weapons system’s existence to only be gradually confirmed over the course of days, weeks, or even months as new photos and videos are slowly released.
Usually, it is at this stage that mainstream English language news media will cover a weapon.
After a new weapons system is confirmed to exist, the cycle of tracking it becomes one of trying to document its various milestones in terms of testing, trials, and service activity. Keeping track of production numbers, weapons and sensor integration, and in-service bases is also part of the long post-confirmation period.
However, for the purposes of trying to identify new and upcoming PLA weapons prior to verifiable publicly available evidence, the PLA watching community can sometimes give advanced notification of a weapons systems’ existence, years in advance of that which traditional established English language media and defense media can provide.