Written by Jeffrey Lin.

China’s military modernization has been characterized by Western observers as being centered on “anti-access/area denial” (A2/AD), which is intended to deny access to sea and air expeditionary forces in the waters near China. But other Asian countries are building their own asymmetric warfare strategies to counter China’s regional power projection capabilities. Japan and Vietnam are increasing their submarine fleets, while Taiwan is in the middle of a decade-long cruise and surface to air missile acquisition program. These regional asymmetric warfare efforts can put vital Chinese power projection missions such as naval operations in the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait at risk. Just as the American military faces difficulty in suppressing asymmetric warfare capabilities, the PLA must also develop its own “Air Sea Battle” concept to ensure operational freedom in regional common spaces. China’s ASB effort involves improvements in three areas: anti-submarine warfare, C4ISR, and precision strike.

C4ISR

Improving situation awareness and C4ISR capabilities is the first step in establishing modern joint operations across the PLA. Intelligence collection for Chinese counter asymmetric warfare efforts spans several intelligence disciplines. Perhaps the most prominent are the “High New” Y-8 series of ELINT/SIGINT aircraft, which can collect foreign radar and datalink signals for identification, analysis and countermeasure development. Another picture of Chinese ASB is airborne early warning and control (AEWC) aircraft like the KJ-2000 and KJ-500, both of which use large AESA radars to track low observable targets like cruise missiles before they hit Chinese bases.

UAVs, especially stealthy ones like the Lijian, conduct long endurance, high volume surveillance of critical targets like missile launchers and warships, as well as offering real time kinetic and electronic attack options. Electronic warfare is another element of the Chinese ASB; JH-7 fighter bombers have been modified as dedicated tactical jammers and “Wild Weasels” for suppressing enemy air defenses, communications and anti-ship missiles.

Expanding C4ISR capabilities gives the PLA both a pre-conflict and expanded real time understanding of enemy capabilities, intentions and operations. The depth of intelligence detail and coverage would make more flexible Chinese responses to enemy asymmetric warfare operations like missile and submarine attacks. Advanced surveillance capabilities would give Chinese commanders accurate information to concentrate air defense and engineering units to block and mitigate the kinetic effects of enemy missiles, as well as gaps in enemy networks.

Anti-submarine Warfare

The most glaring operation deficiency for the PLAN is its weak anti-submarine (ASW) capabilities, which would leave it highly vulnerable to submarine forces in the Western Pacific, such as the USN and JMSDF. However, the PLAN has recently commissioned a wide range of ASW capable warships, such as the Type 56 corvette, Type 054A frigate and 052D guided missile destroyer, all of which possess towed array and variable depth sonars, in addition to submarine hunting helicopters and torpedoes. China’s network of underwater listening stations in the East and South China seabed provide a persistent surveillance over waters crucial to PLAN operations. The ongoing introduction of anti-submarine aircraft such as the Y-8Q maritime patrol aircraft and the Z-18Q heavy anti-submarine aircraft will dramatically improve China’s weak ASW capabilities within the First Island Chain.

Increased ASW capabilities allow the PLAN surface fleet to extend their defensive perimeter against enemy submarines. The ASW expansion would enable various Chinese naval operations such as amphibious landings in the South China Sea, blockade operations in the Taiwan Straits and identification of foreign submarine activities in Chinese water. Long range ASW aircraft such as the Y-8Q can conduct ISR missions of foreign warships such as aircraft carrier and submarines during exercises and weapons testing.

Precision Strike

On the offensive side of the equation, the Second Artillery and PLA’s vast arsenal of heavy rocket artillery can be used to suppress critical enemy infrastructure that threaten PLAN power projection. In the 2015 IDEX arms show in the UAE, Chinese manufacturers mentioned that the M20 short range ballistic missile (SRBM) has a range of 280km and a circular error probability (CEP) of 3 meters. Accurate Chinese SRBMs provide China with a long range strike option that could destroy a tank sized target a few minutes after missile launch. The 2014 Zhuhai Air Show featured multiple Chinese arms manufacturers displaying a wide range of smart munitions, which used laser, radar, satellite navigation and anti-radiation sensors to destroy moving and stationary targets. For example, small glide bombs could be carried by stealth Chinese aircraft to destroy key infrastructure like submarine bases after air defense suppression.

Chinese precision strike will be used for long range attacks against high value targets like enemy C4ISR, hardened infrastructure, air mobile and airborne forces, jamming and EW ground assets. In order to suppress enemy asymmetric warfare systems, China would need to find and target the sensors and command centers of enemy SAMs and AShMs, rather than hunt down each missile launcher. The ballistic missiles would likely serve as “tip of the spear” to destroy and neutralize strategic targets such as fixed radar installations, while air launched glide bombs and munitions would target tactical targets like fast attack craft and SAM batteries.

Integration and Future

To succeed, the Chinese ASB will have to be conducted as part of combined arms, joint operations involving all PLA services and state organs like the Ministry of State Security. In order to disrupt the enemy’s kill chain and go after missile launchers, the PLA will need to conduct rigorous exercises that push and even go beyond the limits of equipment, personnel and joint integration. For instance, a strike on enemy C4ISR would blend kinetic and electronic attacks, as jamming and cyber operations disrupt the operation of enemy sensors and communications, allowing Chinese precision strike to capitalize on the confusion.

The PLA still faces significant challenges to develop the capacity for joint operations against a modern opponent. Chinese military training has improved dramatically in the past decade, especially in technical and platform proficiency, but China has not fought a modern war, or any large scale warfare since 1979. And the Army is still the dominant branch among the PLA services. Just like its American counterparts, China’s ASB will take a lot of existing components and concept, while integrating different service units into one operational command.

Jeffrey Lin is a national security professional in the Washington DC area who also blogs for Popular Science.  He is a graduate of George Washington University (2013) and Bowdoin College (2010), and has professional experience at the Hudson Institute, Brookings Institution and U.S. Senate. Image credit: CC by Green Wong/Flickr.