September 15, 2017

Chinese Air- and Space-Based ISR

Integrating Aerospace Combat Capabilities over the Near Seas

China’s progressively more potent naval platforms, aircraft, and missiles are increasingly capable of holding U.S. Navy platforms and their supporting assets at risk in the near seas and their approaches. Central to maximizing Chinese ability to employ these systems—and hence to consolidating China’s aerospace combat capabilities over the near seas—are its emerging command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR) capabilities. These systems will enable the Chinese military to strengthen coordination, cueing, reconnaissance, communications, and data relay for maritime monitoring and targeting, as well as to coordinate Chinese platforms, systems, and personnel engaged in these roles. Particularly important will be effective utilization of ISR, the collection and processing of information concerning potential military targets. Many platforms and systems can support such operations; this chapter focuses on those dedicated to such purposes, with the exception of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and helicopters, both of which are growing in importance but on which data are more difficult to verify at this time. The successful achievement of high-quality real-time satellite imagery and targetlocating data and fusion, as well as of reliable indigenous satellite positioning, navigation, and timing (PNT), would facilitate holding enemy vessels at risk via devastating multiaxis strikes involving precision-guided ballistic and cruise missiles launched from a variety of land-, sea-, undersea-, and air-based platforms in coordinated sequence. Emerging space-based C4ISR capabilities could thus greatly increase China’s capacity to assert its interests militarily in, over, and beneath the near seas. Beijing has a clear strategic rationale and corresponding set of programs to master the relevant components, particularly for “counterintervention” operations in and around its near seas. Doing so could finally enable the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to translate its traditional approach of achieving military superiority in specific times and areas, even in a context of overall inferiority (以劣胜优), into the maritime dimension.

China has many ways to mitigate its limitations in C4ISR and target deconfliction for kinetic operations within the near seas and their immediate approaches, and potentially also for nonkinetic peacetime operations farther afield. Conducting high-intensity wartime operations in contested environments beyond the near seas, by contrast, would require major qualitative and quantitative improvements, particularly in aerospace, and impose corresponding vulnerabilities. This chapter reviews dedicated Chinese air- and space-based ISR systems, examines one relevant operational scenario (tracking hostile surface ships in and around the near seas), considers China’s remaining limitations, and concludes by assessing strategic implications for China’s military and the U.S. Navy. China’s C4ISR Foundation and Emphasis The PLA decided that it was necessary to develop “an integrated C4ISR system” in the early 1990s.1 This was motivated by observations of U.S. prowess in Operation Desert Storm, the U.S. role in the 1995–96 Taiwan Strait crisis, and the 7 May 1999 Belgrade embassy bombing. The subsequent development of network-centric warfare added further impetus. In addition to the cumulative impact of these events, it was perhaps physical destruction and damage to sovereignty by the Belgrade bombing that most strongly reinforced Jiang Zemin’s visionary thinking concerning the future of warfare and catalyzed the support of other top leaders for decisive investment to realize this goal. Accordingly, in May 1999, China initiated the 995 Program (995 工程) to support megaprojects for the development of “assassin’s mace” weapons, which promised disproportionate effectiveness vis-à-vis a top military power, such as the United States, despite China’s overall technological inferiority.2 Essential to the integration and employment of the assassin’s mace weapons thus developed since the late 1990s, Chinese C4ISR capabilities have improved markedly in parallel. This has occurred as part of a larger effort at “informatization,” facilitated in part by development in civilian information technology and the telecommunications industry. As of China’s 2008 defense white paper, the PLA aspired to establish a foundation for informatization by 2010, achieve major progress by 2020, and realize informatization by 2050.3 In 2000, the PLA issued a manual, or outline (纲要), detailing the construction of “command automation systems,” or “military information systems that possess command and control, intelligence and reconnaissance, early warning and surveillance, communications, electronic countermeasures, and other operational and information support capabilities with computers as the core.”4 Over the next decade, “the PLA began to develop and field airborne and space-based ISR technologies, and it was during this time that Chinese military analysts began to

consider the requirements and applications of C4ISR systems to be used by the PLA.”5 Today, in Larry Wortzel’s assessment, “China’s military reconnaissance capability is probably similar to the capabilities of Western sensor systems of the 1990s, a location to about ten meters in accuracy, clock geosynchronous signals to within 50 nanoseconds, and velocity to within 0.2 meters per second.”6 The Central Military Commission (CMC) and the General Staff Department (GSD) command center are linked redundantly with alternate command posts, military region headquarters, and subordinate units operating up to, and in some cases beyond, the “First Island Chain.”7 While the PLA has not achieved the level of situational awareness of its American counterpart, which can extend data-sharing to the individuals in many respects, all the PLA Navy’s (PLAN’s) “major combat ships are networked and can share data. In the PLA Air Force, a majority of newer fighter aircraft are able to share data and be part of an information system managed by the PLA’s own airborne early-warning aircraft. For the ground forces, it looks like automation and information age systems have penetrated down to the regimental level.”8 According to the U.S. Department of Defense, as of 2012 “the PLA [was] focused on developing C4ISR systems that will allow the military to share information and intelligence data, enhance battlefield awareness, and integrate and command military forces across the strategic, campaign, and tactical levels. A fully integrated C4ISR system, as envisioned by PLA leaders, would enable the PLA to respond to complex battlefield conditions with a high level of agility and synchronization.”9 More broadly, developing a “high-resolution earth observation system,” to include an “airborne remote sensing system” and a “national satellite remote sensing (ground) network system,” is among sixteen national megaprojects prioritized in China’s Eleventh Five-Year Plan (2006–10) and the “Outline of National Medium- and Long-Term Science and Technology Development” (2006–20).10 This priority guarantees top leadership support and tremendous institutional, financial, and human resources. Near-real/real-time C4ISR is facilitated increasingly by China’s integrated Qu Dian (区电) military C4ISR system, which enables civilian and military leaders to communicate with forces in-theater using secure fiber-optic cables and both high-frequency and very-highfrequency communications and microwave systems, as well as related wireless networks and data links. These latter include airborne radio and communications relay and secure PLA voice/data communications provided by Fenghuo/Zhongxing/Shentong communications satellites. According to China’s 2010 defense white paper, “The total length of the national defense optical fiber communication network has increased by a large margin, forming a new generation information transmission network with optical fiber communication as the mainstay and satellite and short-wave communications as assistance.”11 This system may be the equivalent of the U.S. Joint Tactical Information Distribution....


Peter A. Dutton, Andrew S. Erickson, and Ryan D. Martinson, eds., China’s Near Seas Combat Capabilities, Naval War College China Maritime Study 11 (February 2014).