by Austin Bay
November 25, 2020
In March 2012, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, speaking to the National People's Congress, declared that the Chinese military's most important mission was "to win local wars under Information Age conditions."
Wen's use of "local wars" drew immediate reaction. Given China's territorial claims in Asia, locals such as Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines and Japan heard a threat.
As for the phrase "under Information Age conditions," media took that to mean the internet, interconnected global communications and pervasive information resources -- information's soft power side, to include propaganda to cover a Chinese "gray zone" war.
That was a legitimate but limited interpretation. Chinese military leaders have long pursued what are now called "information-centric" strategies. Sun Tzu (circa 500 B.C.) said the acumen of leadership was to win without combat. Convince an adversary that your army outclasses his -- an information operation -- and you gain a psychological and diplomatic advantage.
However, military analysts pointed out that Wen specified a violent (kinetic) action somewhere near China that must be won. Information Age warfare required integrated electronics and weapons hardware as well as highly trained personnel. National People's Congress delegates knew the People's Liberation Army was no longer an infantry army. China's defense ministry was spending billions to digitize communications, surveillance, and command and control systems. It was also integrating advanced smart weapons into the mix.
For at least two decades, Chinese military leaders have debated the idea that electronic information equipment has become the primary warfighting platform -- not tanks, missiles or ships but the information equipment that connects and directs them.
The need for speedy integration and for the information equipment's ability to integrate data make it the primary platform. Electronic platforms gather and integrate information and intelligence. In real time, they connect smart weapons systems and sensors. Tanks and ships may deliver the rounds and missiles, but integration and information enhance their effectiveness. An individual tank or ship's electronic equipment links to other electronic platforms. The network could include satellites.
The idea has evolved into a warfighting concept, usually translated into English as "Informationized War." As the Cold War ended, the Pentagon was toying with network-centric warfare that enhanced targeting effectiveness. China's Informationized War certainly relies on a vast network. The concept also has broad strokes of the Pentagon's "multi-domain" warfare doctrine.
Official press releases extol the concept. China's 2019 Defense White Paper argued, "War is evolving in form towards informationized warfare, and intelligent warfare is on the horizon."
Intelligent warfare seems to include autonomous decision-making systems and autonomous weapons. That suggests Chinese strategists think Informationized War is a concept and system that trains military planners to integrate autonomous, unmanned systems into full-spectrum warfighting operations -- say, a battle for control of the western Pacific that includes hidden, pre-positioned swarms of robot boats, robot submersibles (capable of knocking out a U.S. Navy nuclear attack sub), autonomous missile systems and autonomous electronic warfare assets.
At the moment, that war scenario is science fiction warfare.
China, however, is trying to move from concept to capability. Breaking Defense recently published an article looking at the PLA's modernization program, noting that for two decades, "the PLA has been described as 'half-mechanized, half-informationized.'" Some PLA units "employ data links, network-centric sensor-to-shooter system-of-systems, and field a variety of ... electronic warfare platforms, and advanced combat capabilities." However, "other units are still in the midst of simply shifting from towed artillery to self-propelled guns ..."
China's latest Five Year Plan's military goal is to prepare the PLA to achieve full mechanization and informationization by 2027. Breaking Defense argued the 2020-2025 plan "reflects broad bureaucratic consensus." This means China's senior leaders take Informationized War quite seriously. We should pay attention. After all, Sun Tzu said you must know your enemy.