By Commodore R. S. Vasan
China’s penchant for breaching technological barriers has been in the news and is frequently being discussed in many forums. It is obvious that China’s “Peaceful Development” has more to do with preparing for higher levels of war in many theatres while declaring to the world that it means peace. Unfortunately for China there are not many takers for this declaration amongst the comity of nations, where China seems to have more adversaries than friends.
There has been plenty of speculation about whether some of the critical technologies would indeed be game changers in any future conflict. This paper seeks to examine some of the critical technologies where there is demonstrated potential to be game changers. The hype and overestimation of how this would tilt the balance of power in favour of China is largely due to a lack of understanding of the present state of such developments, gestation period prior to operationalisation and the limitations thereof. Let us look at them one by one.
First, ASAT. China shot down its own weather satellite Feng Yun 1 C on January 11, 2007 by using a ballistic missile. The test conveyed that China has the capability to engage spying satellites, remote sensors, guidance and navigation satellites and communication satellites of its adversaries as and when the need arises. All the satellite systems as described above with specific roles are required for conducting ISR missions which increasingly are being structured to be enablers of net centric operations and net centric warfare. While such a capability is not beyond the reach of the advanced technologies, one should not forget that any accidental or intentional shooting down of a satellite of another nation would lead to not just space wars but could spill in to other domains over land, air, sea and cyber space.
The demonstration of such a capability by China five years ago indicates that it is willing to take the future wars to the next level when space wars would precede wars in other domains. The recent report that China would be launching more than 30 satellites annually for both civil and military applications is indicative also of the vulnerability /criticality of its own satellites in space. The demonstration of ASAT therefore is more to convey to the world that it would not be left behind in an emerging space war should someone target its satellites.
Second, ASBM. With the disclosure initially by US Admiral Robert Willard, head of Pacific Command and confirmed by Chinese General Chen Bengde in July last year, China appears well on its way to develop a capability to hit a carrier at ranges up to 2600 kilometers by DF 21 missile. Analysts have been busy trying to see how and under what conditions this would be a threat to forces intent on intervening in South China Sea or Taiwan straits or in any other areas of interest including the Indian Ocean. The analysis thus far indicates that this is an access denial weapon with potential to set others thinking before they commit their expeditionary forces.
What is not much talked about is the fact that the success of ASBM is dependent on many vulnerable links. These are the satellites, over the horizon radars (OHR), UAVs, data links all of which should work in real time to provide the missile flying at Mach 10 guidance to hit a moving target at sea after identification beyond doubts. The ‘tools and techniques’ would need to work without failure to ensure that innocent large merchant ships are not shot down and there is no collateral damage and escalation of war inviting new players in a developing world war IV scenario.
For a technological super power US, it would be foolhardy to assume that they have not figured out as to how to neutralize the threat. Simply put, this is done by having plans in place for removal of one or many of the links that are crucial for the successful attack on a fast moving target. The carrier itself would be altering its course frequently and would also be creating electronic and real decoys for misleading the missile. Just as in the first case, the ASBM attack would not be the end of an attack but the beginning of a full fledged war. China is not yet a match to the US in terms of technology or in terms of fire power that would be brought to bear on the mainland of China and its surface assets at sea, a prospect that China would not be ready to face for a few more years if not decades.
Third, Aircraft Carrier. The Chinese carrier has been in the news since PLA-N acquired Varyag from Ukraine more than a decade ago and embarked on understanding the nuances of carrier construction by refitting/rebuilding the carrier to provide it a blue water capability centered on the Carrier Battle Group fashioned on the same lines as the US. It would be premature and impractical to assume that a few sea trials has equipped the Chinese carrier with the ability to break out from South China Sea and suddenly, it has transformed itself in to Carrier Battle Group (CBG) equipped navy that has interventionist capability.
While the idiom ‘one swallow does not make a summer’ holds good, the truth is that China is slowly but steadily building a capability to operate a carrier to break out of the shackles of the first and second chain of defence. One carrier is not enough as India has found out and it is obvious that more numbers are required for developing a carrier based concept of war. The integration of a carrier in to the fleet would be many years away as the Indian experience has illustrated. Also the integral air component that is on the carrier is not a gen five aircraft but a Russian Sukhoy 27 (and Chinese modifications based on Russian aircraft) which has the ability to operate from the carrier. Other fixed wing and rotary wing aircraft would be required for meeting the requirements of Airborne Early Warning, Search and Rescue, Troop lift, logistic support, etc.,. The induction of the carrier in the PLA-N would come with the challenges of inducting both surface and air units as well as developing the concept of operations that in future would be centered on a CBG. This is something that requires decades of dedicated work up sessions, training of air and deck crew, command teams, planning and proving of concepts in various scenarios in Indo Pacific theatre an emerging center of gravity.
Fourth, Stealth Aircraft. A lot of publicity was given both by the west and China itself to the successful flight undertaken by the stealth aircraft. Despite the denials by the top leadership, it is clear that China followed an old practice of timing events to convey messages.The demonstration flight was undertaken to coincide with the visit of the Defence Secretary Mr Gates.
This like some of the other capabilities discussed would require considerable time and effort for integration in to the war plans. The process involves raising an operational squadron with complete trained crew and Standard Operating Procedures for integration with the missions in mind.
Fifth, Deep Sea capability. The Chinese submersible jiaolong demonstrated its capability to dive up to 5.1 kilometers in the Pacific in July 2011. The intention is to reach a record depth of 7ooo meters this year. China has signaled that it has the means to reach some seventy percent of the world’s ocean depths and mastered the technology of operating deep sea vessels. It may be recalled that the same submersible was used to plant the Chinese flag in the South China Sea to assert its claims over the entire sea bed of South China Sea.
The future applications are both civil and military. The civil use involves the exploration of the deep seabed for mineral wealth as and when the land resources start drying up. The present technology is not yet economical to drill at such depths to obtain huge stocks of minerals and bring up them for commercial use. The success is obviously a result of research in the fields of metallurgy, hydrodynamics, underwater medicine, and other disciplines that need to be integrated for achieving this success. The R&D efforts would also provide inputs on designing future deep sea combat vessels (both manned and remote controlled). The military applications for such a vessel are enormous and could include covert operations, sabotage, mining, clandestine survey, stealth application for weapon launches and such like.
Sixth, Space Station. The Chinese have invested heavily in space explorations including manned space flights and are now embarking on a space station that would provide them vital inputs on the challenges in outer space. While at one level the intention is to demonstrate its ability for manned missions and space stations, at another, it is to keep abreast of the space technology that has spin off benefits for other applications both in civil and military fields. By and large all the missions including manned missions and space walks have been successful and in the long run, China aims to acquire a space capability similar to what US possesses today.
Seventh, Cyber Space. Last but the most important is the Cyber space. This is one area that has assumed increasing importance due to the nature of warfare in the cyber domain. In modern day warfare every activity is intrinsically linked to the cyber space and the vulnerability of information and intelligence systems would prove to be the Achilles heel of a war fighting machinery.
The reported sophisticated cyber attacks by Chinese groups have alarmed the nations around the world as it provides the State with a capability that would provide the needed edge in attacking critical control systems, information nodes, command and control stations, power stations including nuclear power stations, transportation hubs and even everyday activities that depend on robust information and control systems.
In the light of the above discussions, there should be no doubt that China in its long term plans has embarked on acquiring enabling technologies in all the four dimensions including cyber that would be at the fore front of its armour in both civil and military applications . The question to ask therefore is that should the west and rest be worried? The answer is a definitive yes but with a caveat that nothing earth shaking is going to happen in the next five to ten years or so which is the minimum time required to operationalise any concept and prove the system and sub systems prior to integration in the battle plans. By the same yardstick, If China has five to ten years for developing some of these concepts; US and others have the same kind of time that is available to refine their responses. There hardly need be any doubt that some of the counters already exist in the inventory of US forces.
(The author is presently the Head, Strategy and Security Studies at the Center for Asia Studies at Chennai and can be contacted at [email protected])