Information Technology and China's Naval Modernization

By Erickson, Andrew S.; Chase, Michael S. | Joint Force Quarterly, July 2008 | Go to article overview

Information Technology and China's Naval Modernization


Erickson, Andrew S., Chase, Michael S., Joint Force Quarterly


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In recent years, the modernization of the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has become a high priority for senior Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leaders and high-ranking military officers. For instance, CCP General Secretary, President, and Central Military Commission Chairman Hu Jintao in a December 2006 speech to PLAN officers underscored the need "to build a powerful People's navy that can adapt to its historical mission during a new century and a new period." (1) Similarly, PLAN Commander Wu Shengli and Political Commissar Hu Yanlin promoted naval modernization in an authoritative CCP journal. According to Wu and Hu, "Since the reform and open door policy, along with the consistent increase of overall national strength, the oceanic awareness and national defense awareness of the Chinese people have been raised and the desire to build a powerful navy, strengthen modern national defense and realize the great revitalization of China has become stronger than at any other time." (2) Moreover, Wu and Hu contend, "To build a powerful navy is the practical need for maintaining the safety of national sovereignty and maritime rights." (3) Such statements emphasize the importance that China's civilian and military leaders attach to PLAN modernization.

This growing urgency about modernization is focused largely, but by no means exclusively, on a possible conflict over Taiwan. At the same time, Wu and Hu point out that the navy must be prepared for a wider range of missions, including the protection of maritime resources and energy security issues. These missions drive PLAN requirements, not only for the new platforms China is putting into service with the navy, but also for command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance ([C.sup.4]ISR) capabilities.

Within this context, enhancing PLAN information technology and communications capabilities is seen as critical to China's overall naval modernization program. According to one recent article, "The informatization of shipboard weapons and equipment is the core of maritime joint combat. ... [T]he Chinese Navy should vigorously build data links for maritime military actions and fundamentally change the way to carry out tasks in the future," ultimately creating a "networked fleet." (4) Reaching this goal hinges on narrowing the gap between the PLAN and the world's most advanced navies through the development, acquisition, and integration of advanced information technology.

This emphasis on "informatization" derives from the expectation that the People's Liberation Army (PLA) must prepare for local wars under informatized conditions, a theme that was underscored at the 17th CCP Congress in October 2007. Specifically, Hu's report to the Party Congress declared:

To attain the strategic objective of building computerized armed forces and winning IT [information technology]-based warfare, we will accelerate composite development of mechanization and computerization, carry out military training under IT-based conditions, modernize every aspect of logistics, intensify our efforts to train a new type of high-caliber military personnel in large numbers and change the mode of generating combat capabilities. (5)

This guidance applies with particular force to the modernization of the PLAN. According to one recent article, for example, "Informatized warfare is the mainstream trend in the development of future maritime wars." (6)

PLAN "Informatization"

The PLAN is undergoing an impressive transformation from what was essentially a coastal defense force to a more offensively oriented force capable of executing a variety of regional missions in support of China's national security interests. As part of this modernization program, a number of new surface ships and submarines have entered service. New surface ships include Russian-built Sovremennyy guided missile destroyers; indigenously developed Luzhou and Luyang I and II guided missile destroyers; Jiangkai I and II guided missile frigates; and the Houbei-class missile-armed, wave-piercing catamarans. …

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