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China’s Military Modernization: Preparing for ‘Informatized’ Warfare

China’s military modernization, especially after the reforms, has been a subject of heated debate amongst the military, political and diplomatic circles, as well as the think tanks around the world. The US Secretary of Defense, since 2000 has been asked to submit an annual report in both classified and unclassified on military and security development involving People’s Republic of China (PRC). According to Wang Wenrong, the author of Third Modernization of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), the main elements of the PLA modernization are soldiers, weapons and equipments, military doctrine and force structure.

The first modernization according to Wang commenced from the eve of the founding of the PRC till the mid 1980s; during initial years, the modernization was carried under the support and influence of the Soviet Union. China under the stewardship of Mao Zedong conceptualized and implemented a policy of fighting an ‘an early, big and nuclear war,’ advocated the theory of People’s War, and subsequently abandoned the policy of ‘leaning to one side’ of the 1950s. The ‘Cultural Revolution’ (1966-76) brought disastrous effects to the economy, science and technology, industry and agriculture. China’s military modernization suffered considerable damage, and the phenomena of army becoming ‘swollen, loose, extravagant, and idle’ were rampant.  China, nevertheless, made huge strides in missile technology, successfully carried out underground nuclear tests, and launched its first satellite into space.

The second and third modernization drive began in the mid 1980s and 1990s of the 20th century. China’s understanding of the world situation underwent fundamental changes since the Third Plenary Session of the 11th CPC Central Committee; the peace and development became the main concerns of the Party brass; the military strategy of fighting an ‘early, major and nuclear war’ changed back to ‘active defense’ and then to ‘to win a Local War under Modern High Technology Condition’ (LWUMHTC) with ‘crack, integrated and efficient’ force. From the second half of the 1985, the army began a large-scale restructuring and streamlining of the PLA. By the end of 1987, China reduced around a million soldiers. The focus of the downsizing was headquarters of major military regions and the organs directly under their jurisdiction. By 1990, China in all reduced some 3.19 million people. Meanwhile, a large number of obsolete weapons and equipment was also laid down, which included nearly 10 000 pieces of artillery, 1,100 battle tanks, 2,500 aircrafts, and 610 ships. The strength of the military regions was reduced to 7 from 11.

During the early 1990s, in the aftermath of the Gulf War, China realized that the mechanized warfare of the Industrial era would be gradually replaced by the information warfare. The focus of Chinese military modernization should turn to information and hi-tech war. The fundamental factor in China’s military modernization during this phase is to project its power beyond Chinese borders. This includes the goal of transforming the PLA Navy (PLAN) into a blue water navy, acquiring aerial refueling capability, creating a rapid reaction force, and bettering its nuclear arsenal. Therefore, the strategic task of the third modernization of the PLA is to create informatized forces in order to win information warfare. In order to achieve this, China’s Central Military Commission has developed a three-step strategy. During first phase that is between the 15th Five Year Plan and 2010, China must lay a solid foundation for informatized development, and establish  informatized systems of the army; during the second phase (from 2011 to 2020),  achieve significant progress in information technology, and establish a more comprehensive information system for the armed forces; and during third phase (by 2050) basically achieve the goal of informatized army, and reach the average military level of the developed countries. The ultimate goal of the PLA modernization as expounded by Professor Han Xudong, of the National Defense Academy, Beijing is to win a global war on the lines of the US global war strategy. In order to achieve this China must look for military allies; establish overseas military bases; use military means to solve the ‘problem’; and participate in international military efforts so as to enhance the combat capability of the PLA, asserts Han in an article published in Huanqiu Shibao (Global Times) on June 12, 2010.

PLA Ground Forces

The modernization of the PLA Ground Forces (PLAGF) mainly revolves around the reduction and restructuring of its personnel and equipment, which has resulted in a smaller, but more capable army with improved mobility and firepower. After restructuring, the ratio of the PLAN, PLA Air Force (PLAAF) and Second Artillery (SA) increased by 3.8 percent in entire force and that of PLAGF reduced by 1.5 percent according to the Military Academy of Sciences in 2008. On paper, the ground forces totals some 1.6 million men, or about 70% of the PLA’s total strength. However, this figure also includes administrative staff, logistics elements throughout military regions and districts. The size of the actual combat forces could be much smaller albeit could be quickly reinforced by the 800,000 strong reserve force, 660,000 men PLA Armed Police (PLAAP) as well as 10 million militia.

As regards the development of weaponry, the PLA until 1980s primarily developed conventional arms along with its strategic nuclear weapons. Only during the late 1980s, did China point out that it would catch up with developed countries as regards the level of its weapons and equipment and bridge the existing gap. It proposed that China will develop the weaponry such as air defense and anti-tank weapons systems. In the late 1980s, China developed a series of new air defense weapons and equipment, including small size, light weight, easy to use HY-5 and HY-5I, shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles; Hong Qi 7 and 61 air defense missile system. China is upgrading PLAGF units with modern tanks, armored personnel carriers and artillery. Since 2004, the PLA carried out informatized transformation of the traditional equipment. In 2007, China’s first informatized armored division main battle group completed the replacement of new equipments that increased the motor speed two times. The advanced digital tank fire control system and vehicle location system has improved the accuracy of the strike rate by 90% according to military analysts.  During the “North Sword -2007” military exercises this division rolled out hundreds of tanks and operated in accordance with the C4ISR integration system. According to the 2010 Annual Report to the US Congress on China’s military development, the new capabilities acquired or under development by the PLAGF are Type 99 third generation main battle tanks, a new generation amphibious assault vehicle, and 200 mm, 300 mm, and 400 mm multiple rocket launch systems.

PLA Air Force

PLAAF has airborne divisions, surface to air missile divisions (brigades and regiments), antiaircraft artillery brigades (regiments), radar brigades (regiments) and other security forces. In terms of weapons and equipment, the PLAAF currently has approximately over 700 modern fighter jets. China, on the basis of the Russian fighter aircrafts has designed and reproduced its J and F series fighters. According to Xu Qiliang, member of the Central Military Commission and PLAAF commander, in 1963, China replicated MiG-19 and successfully produced J-6 fighters, the fighters were decommissioned only in August 2006. It is believed that the grounded J-6 have been used for informatized training purposes. Later, China developed J-8I, F-7 III and FT-7 trainers. Subsequently, on the bases of F-8 and F 8I, China developed J-8 II aircraft. In the 1990s, China imported from Russia Su -27 and Su -30 fighters, and in the spring of 1998 based on these models, successfully designed third generation fighter planes J-10 and J-11. According to, the current inventory is composed primarily of third and fourth-generation fighters and fighter-bombers, including 800-1,000 J-7 (MiG-21 Fishbed) and J-8II fighters, 76 Russian built Su-27 fighters, 95-116, Chinese assembled J-11 fighters, 76 Russian Su-30MKK multirole fighters, and some 60-80 Chinese indigenous J-10 multirole fighters.

As regards building a strategic PLAAF, China purchased IL-78 refueling tankers; before and after the year 2000 China planned to procure between 16 and 24 of these tankers. However, in 2002 after inducting 4 such aircrafts the plan seems to have been suspended. The plan is likely to resume anywhere in near future. The IL-78 aircrafts will expand the reach and combat capabilities of the Su-27 and Su-30 up to 3000kms. China’s indigenously built fighter jets such as J-10 and J-11 have also been inducted to the combat units, and numbers about 250. The PLAAF currently maintains a fleet of approximately 550 transport aircrafts, of which over half are the single-engine bi-planes.

The PLA Navy

The 225,000 men strong PLAN consists of three fleets (North Sea, East Sea, and South Sea)  and is stationed across 10 main naval bases (Lushun, Huludao, Qingdao, Shanghai, Zhoushan, Wenzhou, Xiamen, Guangzhou, Zhanjiang, and Yulin). The strength of North China Sea Fleet lies in its submarines, while East China Sea and South China Sea Fleets’ driving force is surface ships and anti submarine and air defense ships.

The modernization of the PLAN, especially since 1980s has been driven by various factors such as the forcible unification of Taiwan over the island’s declaration of independence; restoring the so called sovereignty over disputed islands in the South China Sea; growing needs to protect China’s sea lines of communications (SLOC) in order to secure its oversea interests, especially the energy resources; and project its power globally so as to seek an increasingly dominant role in world affairs as it emerges to the status of a strong power from a big power.  At present China has the largest submarine force in Asia consisting of 8-10 nuclear-powered submarines and 50-60 diesel-electric submarines. The second-generation Type 093/Shang Class nuclear-powered attack submarine and Type 094/Jin Class nuclear-powered missile submarine have already entered the service. Older Type 033/Romeo Class and Type 035/Ming Class diesel-electric submarines are being replaced by the newer indigenous Type 039/Song class and Russian-built Kilo Class submarines. The U.S. Department of Defense report on China’s military power for the year 2005 reported that through new procurement and domestic manufacturing, the China is adding three new submarines annually, it is expected that the number will reach around 80 in near future. It further says that once the induction is complete, China will have a real second strike nuclear capability. In addition, China has added 24 SU-30MKK to its sea aviation; JH-7A will also be inducted soon. Currently, the sea aviation is dominated by J-7 and Q-5 models that can hardly project PLAN power. There are plans to procure 150-200 fighter-bombers by the PLAN (U.S. Department of Defense 2005).  New amphibian ships inducted in late 2007 is likely to change the way PLAN operates. The Type 071 ship has been compared to the US navy’s Austin Class LPD. Although capable of projecting power, but PLAN has only one of such vassals in its inventory. Furthermore, China has realized that the ultimate symbol of power projection is the aircraft career. Since 2006, China has publicly stated its desire to possess aircraft carriers. In March 20, 2009, Chinese Defense Minister Liang Guanglie revealed to the visiting Japanese defense minister, Seiichi Hamada that “China is the only major power without an aircraft carrier; China cannot but have aircraft carriers.” In the line with its three-step economic development program for the year 2050, the PLAN has also formulated a similar strategy to turn itself into a major global naval force by the 2050. It is already capable of operating within the first island chain consisting of a series of islands that stretch from Japan to the north, to Taiwan, and Philippines to the south. In the second step, the PLAN aims to operate beyond the first island chain to reach the second island chain, which includes Guam, Indonesia, and Australia.

In the face of the challenges thrown by integration of forces in informatized warfare, in recent years China has been carrying out various joint military exercises. For example in 2001, it carried out PLAGF, PLAAF and PLAN integrated exercises; followed by “Peace Mission – 2005”; “Peace Mission -2007:; “Libing -2008” that involved mechanized troops from Jinan division; “Lianhe 2008”; “2009 Chengdu division large scale air exercises and emergency transportation to Tibet exercises”; “Kuayue -2009” that included four major divisions from Shenyang, Lanzhou, Jinan, and Guangzhou military regions involving nearly 50000 troops; the  objective of the exercises is to enhance the integration of the PLA and joint operational capabilities.


Given the environment of PLA’s modernization, China is of the view that being a powerful growth engine of the world economy, it must play an increasingly important role in the international affairs. The sole purpose of the PLA modernization is to project its power globally, build rapid response forces and win an informatized warfare. Particularly, China’s original 100 army divisions are to be downsized into not more than 33 divisions. China is also building about 12 divisions of rapid reaction force, including an airborne division, four amphibious strike divisions etc. Although the modernization of the PLA has greatly improved its mechanized, informatized joint operation capabilities, nonetheless, due to various bottlenecks present at various levels in all the wings of the PLA, the process of integration and informatization is going to a long and tardy process. According to Liu Huaqing, former vice-chairman of the CPC Central Military Commission, there are many bottlenecks in the PLA modernization. For example: although the Chinese military has the largest number of equipments in the world, but because of insufficient investment, coupled with a sharp rise in prices of military products, it is difficult to induct large numbers of newly designed and manufactured weapon systems into the army. Air Force combat aircrafts fall behind the world standard; though the surface combat warships with the PLAN are abundant, but some of the important equipments such as airborne helicopters, refueling aircrafts are not there. Secondly, microelectronics and information processing technology that will have far reaching impact on the future military technology is China’s major handicap. Thirdly, defense research and defense industry is facing great difficulties as regards the production of high-tech weapons. Finally, for the want of funding, there is a substantial reduction in live ammunition for exercises; training time of the Air Force and naval airborne troops has to be reduced. Most of the funding goes towards raising the armed personnel. Liu is of the view that present modernization of PLA is incompatible with China’s great power status, and China’s still has to tread a long way before it realizes its military modernization.

( The writer, Dr. B R Deepak, is Associate Professor in the Centre of Chinese and Southeast Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. The views expressed are his own.He could be reached at

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