01 March 2008

PLA Navy Modernization: Preparing for ‘Informatized’ War at Sea

Andrew S. Erickson and Michael S. Chase, “PLA Navy Modernization: Preparing for ‘Informatized’ War at Sea,” Jamestown China Brief 8.5 (29 February 2008): 2-5.

In recent years, senior Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leaders and high-ranking military officers have repeatedly emphasized the importance of naval modernization. This growing sense of urgency about naval modernization appears to be a function of increasing concern about maritime security issues, particularly Taiwan, the protection of maritime resources and energy security. These missions drive the PLAN’s requirements, not only for new platforms, but also for command, control, communications, computer, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (C4ISR) capabilities. Enhancing the PLAN’s information technology and communications capabilities is thus seen as critical to the success of Chinese naval modernization.  Reaching this goal hinges on narrowing the gap between the PLAN and the world’s most advanced navies through the development, acquisition and integration of advanced information technology.

Enhancing China’s naval capabilities is a key component of China’s military transformation, as reflected by recent leadership statements and the development of several new classes of surface ships and submarines. Moreover, informatization is clearly a central aspect of PLAN modernization and naval C4ISR modernization will have important implications in areas such as joint operations and command and control. Chinese C4ISR modernization has become a top priority and PLAN informatization appears to have made some impressive progress in recent years. It remains unclear, however, how close the Chinese actually are to achieving the so-called “informatized force.” The PRC’s 2006 Defense White Paper established a goal of being able to fight and win informatized wars by the mid-21st century. This reflects a perceived gap between the Chinese armed forces and the world’s most advanced militaries, which Chinese writers often suggest will take decades to overcome. At the same time, however, it also raises the issue of distinguishing between the “ideal” capability the Chinese navy seeks to establish in the long term and that which might simply prove “good enough” in the short term. Indeed, even a relatively simple system of deconfliction by time or geographic area might be sufficient in a Taiwan scenario. This suggests that the PLAN might achieve an employable capability with surprising rapidity, especially if it pursues one that falls short of the standards set by U.S. proponents of “network centric warfare,” but that is nonetheless capable of contributing to the achievement of China’s operational and strategic objectives. …