China’s PLA: new weapons, new approaches
For Henry Boyd and Meia Nouwens, China’s 2019 national day parade placed the military within a broader context, highlighting the importance of leveraging both military and civilian talent to progress towards becoming a military that can fight and win wars.
China’s 2019 national day parade, held in Beijing on 1 October to mark the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic, was the first public outing of several new weapons platforms and systems. Historically, China is believed to have only paraded systems that had begun to be delivered to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), so these new systems have understandably generated quite a lot of interest – and some over-excitement – among Chinese and international observers of the PLA.
Given that many of the armoured vehicles and aircraft displayed had already been showcased in official Chinese media, and at previous parades or public events, the Rocket Force’s ballistic and cruise missiles, as well as the Air Force’s uninhabited aerial vehicles, have attracted the most attention.
Systems on show reveal China’s strategic priorities
The Rocket Force section of the parade included the first public outings of the long-awaited DF-41 road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), the DF-17 hypersonic glide vehicle/medium-range ballistic missile combination, and the supersonic CJ-100 cruise missile
The DF-41 and the previously displayed DF-31A(G) ICBM are both believed to be in the process of entering service with new brigades, which were formed in central China in the wake of a major reorganisation of the PLA in 2017. The parade included 16 launch vehicles each for both – if all of these are in operational service, either now or in the near future, this would represent a doubling of the PLA’s road-mobile ICBM force when compared with 2015. In addition, both the DF-41 and the DF-31A(G) are reportedly capable of carrying multiple-independent re-entry vehicles, or a large number of jammers and penetration aids, suggesting that this extra capacity is seen by the PLA as a necessary move to counter the deployment of more sophisticated missile defence systems and to retain the credibility of their nuclear force.
While capacity seems to have been the key area of focus for nuclear systems, for conventional missiles the PLA has been putting considerable emphasis on improving speed and precision. Again, this is presumably because these characteristics have been identified as important when dealing with the current and future missile defence systems of the United States and other regional states.
The existence of new super and hypersonic missiles itself is, therefore, not overly surprising, but the timing of the public unveiling of the DF-17 and CJ-100 emphasises the extent to which China’s development work in these areas has progressed. The DF-17 is the first hypersonic glide vehicle system to be publicly displayed by any major military. While the systems shown at the parade might reasonably be inferred to be models as opposed to the actual missiles themselves, the DF-17 can now reasonably be assumed to be approaching operational service in eastern China.
Faster theatre weapons, such as the DF-17 and CJ-100, will put additional pressure on the PLA’s long-range reconnaissance collection and dissemination capabilities, and at least one of the new uninhabited aerial vehicles (UAVs) at the parade appears to have been developed with this in mind. The high-speed dart-shaped design (rumoured to be designated WZ-8) was first publicly noted in open source on a 2018 satellite image of the 178th UAV Test Brigade in western China. It appears to be liquid-fuelled and intended for launch from a modified H-6 bomber. Images of serial numbers on the two air vehicles in the display suggest that they have now entered operational service. The other low-observable design displayed is a tailless flying wing, broadly comparable to the US X-47B demonstrator, and might be the PLA’s first operational uninhabited combat aerial vehicle intended for combat operations in contested airspace. When it first flew in 2013 it was known as 利剑 or ‘Sharp Sword’, but appears to now have the PLA designation GJ-11.
New equipment just one element of modernisation challenge
It is important to remember that the newer weapons systems shown in the parade were intended to be partly symbolic in nature, signalling China’s ambitions as to the type of military it wants to become and as a deterrent to challengers of the country’s rise. It is also important to remember that new equipment is only part of the challenge facing a modernising PLA, and that new concepts of warfighting will be more difficult to instil than perhaps designing and manufacturing military technology. The successful introduction of new weapons can only take place in conjunction with changes to personnel, training and professionalisation. The PLA of a new era is not only concerned with innovation in technology, but also in strategy and doctrine, and leverages both military and civilian talent to progress towards becoming a military that can fight and win wars.
Xi Jinping’s 2015 military reforms highlighted that the PLA should become capable of conducting integrated joint operations. The parade honour guard was accordingly displayed in integrated groups from all of the PLA’s services, and comprised both men and women. Further jointness was also highlighted in the Strategic Support Force (SSF) contingent of the parade, which included officers from the SSF Ground Forces, Navy, Army and Rocket Force. Similarly, the Joint Logistics Support Force also included representatives from the Ground Forces, Navy and Air Force. The addition of logistics forces is also a first for the national day parade, a reflection of the importance placed on addressing the PLA’s current warfighting weaknesses.
Another major change in the 2015 reform was the division of labour between the service HQs, now responsible for procurement and administration, and five newly created Theatre Commands that are responsible for combat readiness and warfighting. The uniforms worn by the participants in the parade reflect this, with the service branches wearing dress uniform and the theatre commanders wearing battle dress. By contrast, in the 60th anniversary parade, all participants (including cadets) wore battle dress, with the sole exception of the honour guard. The political commissars who would normally appear side by side with the Theatre Commanders were notably absent from their respective Commander’s side in this year’s parade.
Though difficult to demonstrate concretely for the domestic audience, the parade included a nod to the military’s progress towards an information-based warfighting capability by including an information battle group. A stream of early warning radars and electronic warfare equipment showcased China’s investment in capabilities integral to high-precision strike capabilities. The parade also included scientists from the PLA’s National Defense University, University of Defense Technology and Academy of Military Sciences, a first for the national day parade.
Making China a high-tech superpower is a cornerstone of Xi’s presidency, as was demonstrated by his science and technology float during the civilian section of the parade. While the PLA’s military modernisation programme has received a great deal of attention, it is perhaps too easy to overlook Xi’s other agenda priorities, which were highlighted in the civilian parade that followed. From a political standpoint, this year’s parade clearly stood out from past anniversary celebrations because it placed the military within a broader context. While previous parades were led by flagbearers only holding the PLA flag, this year’s parade was led by three sets of flagbearers: one for the Party, one for the Nation and lastly, one for the PLA. Though modernising, the PLA is no longer an institution built on silos, but is instead moving towards becoming more joined up. It has become imbued with a sense that it serves a higher purpose and is seen as central to achieving the China Dream of national rejuvenation.