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[] The PLA's High-Tech Future,


The PLA's High-Tech Future

June 1, 2004
By Richard D. Fisher, Jr.

It is increasingly evident that China's People's Liberation Army (PLA)
devoting considerable resources to the research and development of
high-technology weaponry. An apparent crash program now seeks to build
weapons for a conflict over Taiwan. But, more broadly, this effort
vigilance by the United States because there is the potential that China
could achieve technical breakthroughs that would enable them to exceed
certain U.S. military capabilities.

High technology mobilization programs are not new to the PLA. In 1986
launched its "863 Program" in response to the U.S. Strategic Defense
Initiative, to focus state research efforts on a range of laser, space,
missile, computer and biological technologies. Earlier this year,
emerged in the Hong Kong press--which some U.S. officials take
seriously--that on New Year's Eve 1999, PRC President Jiang Zemin
an expanded meeting of the Central Military Commission to give him
"Assassins' Maces" to bring victory over Taiwan.

The "Assassins' Mace" concept is from ancient Chinese statecraft, in
warring nobles sought secret weapons that would attack their enemies'
weaknesses and bring about their rapid military collapse. In the modern
context, Jaing Zemin could be seeking weapons like new supersonic
advanced naval mines, lasers and antisatellite weapons. What is
is that he pushing the PLA to develop these weapons for a possible war
against Taiwan.

Information on the "Assassins' Mace" program follows several years of
in the PLA over the relevance of the Revolution in Military Affairs
Essentially, the RMA posits that advances in information technology,
combined with other military technical advances, can give new weapons
decisiveness and lethality approaching that of nuclear weapons, but
using to nuclear explosives. Since the late 1980s, the United States has
grappled with the RMA as a means of transforming the way militaries are
structured, how they fight and with what. And so have the militaries of
Russian and China.


A vital insight into China's views on the RMA was given to Dr. Michael
Pillsbury, of the Pentagon's Office of Net Assessments, in the form of
unprecedented collection of until then unknown PLA writings, which he
translated and turned into two books published by the U.S. National
University in 1997 and 2000. The articles in these books, plus numerous
subsequent publications, have stressed the PLA's need to excel in
implementing the RMA, and to develop information warfare, space weapons,
directed energy, very small nano-weapons and unmanned combat craft, to
a few. Some PLA scholars have suggested that China could better
implement a
real RMA because, unlike the United States, it did not have to fund
and expensive conventional forces to meet global political commitments.

When they appeared, Pillsbury's collection of PLA articles on the RMA
criticized as representing the "aspiration" of the PLA, versus the
of a PLA struggling to absorb the operational methods and technology of
1980s, much less transform into a leading 21st century military force.
was scant evidence that the PLA was indeed working on these radical
technologies. China's high-technology sector was viewed as a slow
dinosaur that could not produce innovative military technologies and
that could compete with those of the United States. This is also the
of a RAND Corporation study by Roger Cliff released earlier this year.


However, since the early-to-mid 1990s, when many of the first wave of
Chinese RMA related articles were written, new information has emerged
the PLA's research and development of advanced RMA-like military
technologies. Whether these are at an advanced enough stage to be made
Jiang's Assassin's Maces, is not known. But possible new weapons

--Information Warfare. Here is can be said with some certainty that the
is moving rapidly to harness the PRC's burgeoning civil computer
and software sector to provide high-tech "troops" to wage sophisticated
computer network attack operations. PLA writings indicate that it views
use of viruses and other forms of computer network attack as a means of
sowing chaos in the Taiwanese and U.S. civilian sector. PLA attacks
Taiwan and U.S. military communication, command and logistics computer
networks could seriously impair a response to a PLA attack on Taiwan.

--Directed Energy Weapons. There is now abundant Chinese technical
literature and Western disclosures on PLA research into high energy
high-power microwave, and electromagnetic weapons. All utilize a form of
energy to produce a "soft" kill that merely renders an enemy weapon
ineffective, or a "hard" kill to destroy the enemy weapon. Since 1998
Pentagon has noted that the PLA may have lasers powerful enough to
U.S. satellites. The PLA has sought Russian help for lasers, and for
electromagnetic bombs, which produce an intense burst of electronic
sufficient to fry the complex electronic circuitry in advanced weapons.
an electromagnetic bomb delivered by ballistic or cruise missiles could
render U.S. Navy ships ineffective before they could rescue Taiwan--and
a minimum of casualties.

--Unmanned Combat Platforms. As threats to the viability of manned
aircraft and ships continue to grow, the U.S. Air Force and Navy have
investing heavily in a new generation of unmanned combat platforms.
are highly maneuverable and able to replace manned platforms for certain
high-risk missions. It should not be surprising that the PLA is
suit. At the 2000 Zhuhai Air Show in China the PLA revealed new unmanned
aircraft and computer control elements that could form the basis for new
unmanned combat aircraft. China has also tested an unmanned submarine
to descend to a depth of 6,000 meters.

--Electromagnetic guns. Also known as "rail guns," electromagnetic guns
magnets to accelerate a shell to far greater speeds than possible with
chemical propellants like gunpowder. With such guns it is possible to
artillery shells the range and speed of a tactical ballistic missile,
allowing thousands of long-range artillery rounds to supplement hundreds
missiles. China has been researching electromagnetic guns more
than the United States, and may produce a usable weapon first.

--Micromechanical and Robot Systems. In America, micro-machines and
are a key RMA technology that will enable new small weapons, such as
25-pound "nano" satellites, palm-sized reconnaissance aircraft, or small
robot vehicles that could replace guard-dogs and sentries. Again a the
Zhuhai show, a Chinese company stated their intention to build new
satellites, which some in the U.S. fear could be used for antisatellite
missions. China has also revealed a new 20-millimeter-sized helicopter,
which could form the basis for a microreconnaissance vehicle. In
China has also revealed research to produce intelligent human-sized
that could also in the future help produce robot soldiers.

There is plenty of reason to be concerned that China is succeeding in
developing new weapons consistent with the goals of the RMA; that is no
longer merely an "aspiration" of the PLA. And it may also be dangerous
conclude, as does the recent RAND Corporation study, that China's
military-technology sector is too slow to translate high technology
into advanced weapons. Spurred by the need to develop "Assassins' Maces"
conquer Taiwan, the PLA has a clear requirement to turn advanced
research into next-generation weapons.

Richard D. Fisher Jr., is a senior fellow at the Jamestown Foundation,
the managing editor of Jamestown's China Brief.

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