Dynamics of China’s Future Warfighting Potential
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Issue Book Excerpt: China: Threat or Challenge? | Date : 20 Jan , 2017

Military Capabilities

Since middle to late 1990’s China has undertaken a systematic, well funded, and focused programme of military modernisation to support its national strategy, force doctrine and foreign policy. Among these efforts, perhaps the most notable overall systemic improvements include:-48

  • Downsizing and reorganisation of China’s overall force structure.
  • Professionalisation of the officer corps.
  • Modifying its doctrine to exploit technology.
  • Large scale realistic integrated joint training.
  • Emphasis on matching responsive logistic support.
  • Thrust on indigenous R&D and manufacture in the upgraded defence industrial complex.
  • Deployment of increasingly advanced short and medium-range missiles with ground, air and ship launched versions. There include, IRBMs with smaller CEP and sophisticated defence counter-measures. The anti-ship cruise missile (ASCM) and anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBMs).

Command and Control

The PLA has made some progress in implementing its stated doctrinal requirement for integrated joint operations in an effort to develop “systems of systems combat capabilities under informationized conditions”. As China’s 2010 defence white paper states – “The PLA takes the building of joint operation systems as the local point of its modernisation and preparations for military struggle”. This doctrine has been manifested to some degree on an organisational level, as the CMC now includes representatives from all services, and the PLA has established a Joint Logistics Department in each military region headquarter.

In November 2013, the Third Plenum of 18th Party Central Committee announced the decision to “optimize the size and structure of the army, adjust and improve the balance between the services and branches, and reduce non-combat institutions and personnel.” This rebalance was meant to correct the domination of the PLA Army, which with the Second Artillery, currently has 73 percent of the PLA’s total troops, followed by 10 percent for the Navy (PLAN) and 17 percent for the Air Force (PLAAF). The Central Committee also announced creation of a “joint operation command authority under the Central Military Commission (CMC), and theatre joint operation command system” and to “accelerate the building of new combat powers, and deepen the reform of military colleges.”

This involved changes in four main categories:

  • PLA personnel size and force structure.
  • Command organization and structure from the CMC down to the unit level.
  • Modern military capabilities as found in “new type combat forces”.
  • The PLA professional military education system of universities, academies, colleges, and schools.

In November 2015, Xi Jinping declared that the – “current regional military area commands will be adjusted and regrouped into new battle zone commands supervised by the CMC.” A three-tier combat command system from the CMC to theatre commands to units would be created. This system will be separate from the administrative chain of command running from the CMC to the four service headquarters to units. The service headquarters would remain responsible for “construction” functions, such as organizing, manning, and equipping units. These changes are to take place over the next five years through the year 2020.

Consequently, the PLA began its eleventh major reorganization since 1952. Most of the previous reorganizations focused on reducing the size of the infantry and the bloated higher-echelon headquarters. It also included turning over entire organizations, such as the railway corps, to civilian control, and transferring units to the Ministry of Public Security (MPS) and the People’s Armed Police (PAP).

On 31 Dec 2015, Xi presided over the establishment ceremonies for the PLA Army’s leading organ (national-level headquarters – PLAA), the PLA Rocket Force (PLARF), and the PLA Strategic Support Force (PLASSF) and named their respective commanders and political commissars. The Army headquarters was charged with the task to transform from “the regional defensive type to the full-spectrum combat type”. The Rocket Force, identified as China’s “core strategic deterrence power,” was upgraded to a full service from its former status of “an independent branch treated as a service”. It was indicated that Rocket Force units would be the same as the former Second Artillery Force (PLASAF). As a service, the Rocket Force eventually could be expected to have its own distinctive uniform.

On January 11, 2016, a new CMC organization with 15 functional departments, commissions, and offices was announced. The functional sections comprise seven departments (including the important General Office), three commissions, and five directly affiliated offices. The new CMC structure expanded its former subordinated elements though the incorporation of many functions from the former four General Departments, [the General Staff Department (GSD), General Political Department (GPD), General Logistics Department (GLD), and General Armament Department (GAD)].

In the new CMC structure, the biggest loser, organizationally, is the former GSD and its leader, the Chief of the General Staff (CGS). The new Joint Staff Department has lost the GSD’s oversight of military training and education, mobilization, strategic planning, and likely cyber-war and electronic warfare units. The new Political Work Department is responsible for “human resources management,” which implies that it has taken over the GSD’s oversight of enlisted personnel in the former Military Affairs Department. The new Political Work Department will be responsible for all personnel matters concerning both cadre and enlisted personnel.

On February 1, 2016 five new “theatre commands” were established and their commanders and political commissars (PC) announced. The new headquarters are the Eastern, Southern, Western, Northern, and Central Theatre Commands. The new headquarters have been tasked to assist in “safeguarding the overall situations concerning the national security strategy and the military strategy” and in addition.

  • Respond to security threats from their strategic directions.
  • Maintain peace.
  • Deter wars.
  • Win battles.

The theatre commands will have Army, Navy, and Air Force components based, respectively, on the “relevant naval fleets” and air forces of the former Military Regions (MR)—Rocket Forces are not mentioned. Since an objective of the reforms is to improve the “joint operation command authority” of the force, it will be necessary to restructure PLA officer corps appointments to create new opportunities for non-Army personnel to serve in senior joint command and staff assignments.

Space Capabilities

During the past decade, the PLA has been building the space-based infrastructure for what may eventually serve as an integrated communications and command system. China has made significant advances that could potentially facilitate a precision-strike capability. In the realm of command, control and communications the Qu Dian satellites provided the necessary network linking the SSF and service Headquarters with military theatres. China is also in the process of developing a network of navigation satellites known as ‘Beidou’ system. Presently it has 10 satellites deployed, with a goal to create a constellation of 35 satellites with global coverage by 2020. Such an indigenous capability will be crucial for successfully targeting and navigation of a range of commercial military technologies, including its missile assets. China has also deployed a network of date link satellites including three in the Tian Lian-1 series, intended to facilitate the transfer of information (such as targeting imagery) to surface-based assets up to 2000 km off shore, which will be vital in supporting on ASBM.49

In the reconnaissance realm, China has also deployed a network of satellites in the Yaogan series that have substantially improved target imaging. China possesses more that 15 Yaogan and other imaging satellites that operate at 400 miles in space in Low Earth Orbit. The average coverage provided by these satellites increased to four and a half hours per day. Some of the Yaogan satellites have limited capability of electronic and signal intelligence which is essential to conducting sustained scanning of wide areas.

Cyberspace Capabilities

There is very little information available in the unclassified domain with regard to China’s cyberspace capabilities. There is some evidence to suggest that China may already possess the ability to infiltrate essential unclassified networks at the onset of a conflict. Cyber attacks could be launched to cripple enemies C4ISR systems. It would most likely target unshielded, unclassified military networks that are nevertheless crucial for C4ISR. Cyber operations alone would not turn the tide of a conflict as they would not be able to completely cripple tactical operations on the ground.

Nuclear Capability

From a broader stand point, China continues to maintain a minimal deterrence posture that largely precludes the use of its small nuclear force as an instrument of war fighting or coercion. A long-standing “No First Use” policy continues to impose doctrinal and operational constraints on the SAF strategic components, as Chinese nuclear war heads – with the possible exception of the future JL-2 – are not mated with missiles except in times of elevated readiness or in preparation for launch.50 Faced with new advances in convertabilities capabilities, particularly the US, it will need to be seen whether it makes any changes in its declared policy and simultaneous increase the number of warheads held.

Laws of Future High-Tech Wars

The last war China fought was in 1979. Its military transformation and modernisation started more than a decade later. To make radical changes in doctrine and warfighting techniques requires more than mere enunciation of theories. To transpose strategy and doctrine onto the battlefield requires deep visualisation of the likely future battle areas and identification of the criticalities which would need to be addressed so as to “positively design” the battlefield to fight a successful battle. Some of these criticalities are51:-

  • Informatization, the core combat is the fight for control of information and the dominant weapon of combat is the ‘informatized’ weapon. Wars need the inputs of huge amount of knowledge (intelligence), it is the invisible force that plays a decisive role.
  • Non-linearity, the concept of “all in-depth strike” of the PLA, spatially non-linear, simultaneous, non-sequential, loosely controlled and asymmetrical, thus activating the entire battle zone in entirety.
  • No Contact/Minimum Contact, calling for shorter ground engagements and using air power and conventional elements of the Second Artillery for tactical and strategic goals.
  • Technological blind-spots, new high technologies can be turned into combat capabilities at a greatly accelerated pace, generating new means of combat.
  • Unrestricted Warfare pertains to the ‘destruction of rules’ by which the domains delineated by visible and invisible boundaries that are acknowledged by the international community lose significance. Cyber Network Operations (CNO) is the tool for this.
  • Anti Access/Area Denial, the PLA uses the term ‘Shanshoujian’ which in literally means ‘anti-intervention’ strategy. ‘Shanshoujian’ weapons are essentially those, potentially capable of deterring a superior adversary or of being employed to surprise and cripple superior forces at the outset of a conflict.


China has bench-marked its modernisation to counter a US threat. In the process it has sought asymmetrical options to neutralise superior technology possessed by the US. At the same time it has focussed its R&D on developing those technologies indigenously towards which no effort is spared including cyber stealing. For a leadership orchestrating operational art and strategy there is need to understand the nuanced integration and harnessing of all elements of national power by the Chinese to stage-manage the geopolitical environment. The kinetic phase of war is characterised by the tactical battles and campaigns. For India, identifying a clear cut military objective to secure a favourable end state which in turn will lead securing the political aim is imperative. The inherent strategic restrain practiced by India, as an unwritten philosophy imposes the defensive mind set in the armed forces.
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Therefore in a reactive mode, to maximize the chances to seize the initiative can be made possible by having uncommitted reserves pre-positioned at every tactical level. The reality of the long tenuous and venerable lines of communications in all sectors contagious with India’s northern boundary is not conducive for “just-in-time” induction and employment of unwieldy strategic reserves. The mountain strike Corps as strategic reserve is potent only if it can be inducted in time and as a concentrated force that can carry the strategic effort to its logical culmination.

This in reality in the mountains is fraught with gross vulnerabilities. Chinese effort is to bring a war to a quick conclusion. Therefore, two basic strategies (Indian and Chinese) are divergent. The higher direction of war is not about ‘bean-count’ only. Understanding the enemy and creating asymmetries and targeting his vulnerabilities become imperative. China’s development in its ballistic missiles and space based capabilities need to be looked at for suitable counters.

China’s weakness lies in its inability to instutionalise the orchestration of joint operations, its logistic support for the type of operations it is planning, and the higher direction and command and control of forces that are likely to be committed in a contingency in TAR. As a consequence PLA may be forced to address only one or two operationally contiguous areas in a conflict in TAR. India can respond adequately by a strategy of “Deterrence by Denial”. Thereby each sector is, ab initio, strengthened in its requirement of Special Forces, tactical and operational level reserves and firepower. Thus building in an ability to launch a limited offensive in each sector with local level forces available and carry the offensive forward with additional forces on these being inducted which could exploit the initial success and achieve a favourable end-state.


1. www.net_assessment_full.pdf. p. 16.

2. p. 23.

3. Ibid.

4. 01_India_ChinaNA–Full Paper v 15-16 Dec 11-final.pdf. p. 8.

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid.

7. Ibid.

8. Chines-Mil-White-Paper-April-2013.pdf. p.1.

9. Ibid.


11. Jayadeva Ranade, China Unveiled: Insights into Chinese Strategic Thinking, KW Publishers Pvt Ltd, New Delhi, 2002, p. 148.

12. Maj Gen Yu Qifen, The International Military Situation in the 1990’s, p. 3.

13. Leng Feng, Towards The Transformation of PLA Military Training Under Conditions of Informationization, www. p. 8.

14. Ibid.

15. Larry M. Wortzel, The Dragon Extends its Reach: Chinese Military Power Goes Global, Potomac Books, Washington DC, 2013, p. 93.

16. Ibid.

17. Ibid.

18. Op cit. p. 104.

19. Ibid, p. 72.

20. Ibid, p. 104.

21. Ibid p. 105

22. Ibid p. 106

23. Ibid p. 117

24. Ibid.

25. Ibid, p. 118.

26. Ibid.

27. Ibid, p. 120.

28. Ibid.

29. Ibid, p. 52.

30. Ibid, p. 134.

31. Ibid, p. 135.

32. Ibid.

33. Ibid.

34. Ibid, pp. 136-137

35. Ibid, p. 137.

36. Ibid. p. 138.

37. Ibid, p. 146.

38. Mike Ryan India-China in 2013: A Net Assessment of the Competition Between Two Rising Powers October 2012 www. 01_India-ChinaNA-FullPaperV15-16 Dec 11-final.pdf, p. 21.

39. Ibid.

40. Ibid.

41. Op cit, net_assessment_full.pdf. p. 33.

42. Ibid, p. 40.

43. Ibid.

44. Ibid.

45. Ibid, p. 38.

46. Ibid, p. 38.

47. Ibid, pp. 40-41.

48. Ibid, p. 48.

49. Ibid, p. 57.

50. Ibid, p. 59.

51. Lt Gen JS Bajwa, Modernisation of the Chinese PLA: From Massed Militia to Force Projection, Lancer Publishers and Distributors, New Delhi, 2012, pp. 110-111.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Lt Gen (Dr) JS Bajwa

is Editor Indian Defence Review and former Chief of Staff, Eastern Command and Director General Infantry.  He has authored two books Modernisation of the People's Liberation Army and  Modernisation of the Chinese PLA

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One thought on “Dynamics of China’s Future Warfighting Potential

  1. Among the key principles taken from ancient Chinese thought are the use of deception, the importance of surprise in war, and the use of a combination of military economic, and political means to achieve victory.

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