In 2020, India and China came closest to war since 1962. There were unprecedented fatal and non-fatal causalities due to clashes in Galwan and Finger 4. Infantry and armour were in eyeball to eyeball confrontation mode. There were tactical moves and counter moves. Some firing was reported on the Kailash Range. We were shown multiple videos of Chinese firepower – Mounted Gun Systems, Air Defense Guns, Multiple Rocket Launchers being inducted and employed en-masse in Tibet. However, we never saw Artillery deployed for battle. Wherever Artillery came up in satellite photos, guns were seen parked neatly in prim straight lines. What did it tell us?
It always told us that the Chinese were either unprepared for war or were reluctant to up the ante by deploying Artillery. No one goes to war with just mounted guns and rockets in the Himalayas. All firepower videos were part of a coercive deterrence doctrine, enabled by their IW and propaganda machinery. It told us something more. Indirect firepower represents a higher pedestal in the Chinese deterrence and escalation matrix. Their operational philosophy envisages a greater role for firepower. Juxtapose this with our thinking where firepower is in a support role to Infantry and Armour! We are stuck in the fire ‘support groove’ of the second world war. Our mutual approaches are as different as chalk to cheese.
There is a fundamental difference in our politico-military approach. In our perception, a future Sino-Indian conflict involves a physical battle for territorial control and sovereignty. In PLA terminology, physical battles occur in combat space. However, the Chinese see war between nations in geopolitical terms of war space. It encompasses the physical and non-physical domains of war including the political, economic, diplomatic, and informational spheres.
Chinese military strategists also envision that the tangible combat space is shrinking while the intangible war space has expanded into new domains because of new technologies. Our firepower and war equipment philosophy has followed the territorial thought process. Chinese capability development has been based on an expansive politico-military thinking. I understood this dichotomy after I read two Rand publications which have out lined PLA’s operational concepts. (System confrontation and Systems Destruction Warfare and Peoples Liberation Army Operational Concepts). I have drawn heavily from these publications to the extent of plagiarisation. I sincerely thank the authors for their extensive research.
Three factors have guided the development of PLA’s operational concepts. Firstly, they have not fought a war since the last one with Vietnam. Hence, they have no experience of their own to develop upon. The have had to depend on others’ experiences to develop military capabilities and concepts. Secondly, the quick and decisive victories of the US led coalition forces in the Gulf and Kosovo Wars drove home certain points.
Systematic degradation and dislocation of the enemy by information dominance, stealth technologies and precision-guided weaponry renders enemy capability useless in battle. This was more important to achieve victory rather than annihilating enemy forces. Annihilation ceased to be a precondition of operational success. Hence emphasis on information dominance and long-range precision strikes is a recurring aspect in modern Chinese military thinking. They consider these to be critical in winning current and future wars. The third factor is political as it is always with China. This needs more understanding in detail.
The PLA is a political force born in the crucible of Mao’s ‘People War’. Mao fought an attritional battle to achieve power. His ‘Long March’ traded space for time. Later, as the PRC stabilised and became a nuclear state, he guided the PLA to prepare to fight ‘imminent war, major war and nuclear war’ [早打,大打,打核战争]. Ever since then it is the politically oriented ‘CCP military guiding theory’ [党的军事 指导理论] which guides PLA on warfare.
Chinese leaders from Mao Zedong to Xi Jinping have given explicit direction and guidance in capability development and operational orientation of the PLA. ‘People’s War Under Modern Conditions’ came into being in the latter half of 70’s. Till then war was totalitarian in nature.
‘Total wars’ involved large-scale warfare, mass destruction, attacking cities and invading territory to defeat the enemy. The ‘total war’ concept failed in Vietnam. The attrition and protraction of ‘People’s War’ disappeared soon after. Deng Xiaoping started modernising PLA as part of his ‘Four Modernisations’ and guided PLA to conduct ‘Local War Under Modern Conditions’. The emphasis switched from unwinnable and unaffordable ‘Total’ to winnable ‘Local’ wars.
‘Local’ wars were conceived to be limited in scope, extent and nature. ‘Local’ war relies on controlled use of military force to achieve a limited strategic goal through speed, mobility, and lethality. The premise is that limited high-tech conflicts would be more controllable and less escalatory.
In 1993, post the first Gulf War, Jiang Zemin changed the strategic guidelines to ‘Local Wars Under Modern, High-Tech Conditions’. He postulated a concept of ‘three attacks and three defences’ - attacking enemy stealth, cruise missiles, and helicopters, while defending against precision strikes, electronic warfare [EW], and reconnaissance capabilities.
In 2004, based on Western experiences in Kosovo and second Gulf wars, Hu Jintao graduated his guidance to ‘Local War Under Modern Informatized Conditions.’ Accordingly, PLA started developing capabilities and concepts for joint campaigns based on achieving information dominance. In 2005, Hu Jintao, directed the PLA to master the ‘system-of-systems operations.’ The focus was to develop joint operations with integrated command networks which enable key strikes against the combat networks and systems of an advanced adversary. In 2015, Xi Jinping issued revised guidelines to the PLA directing them to win ‘Informatized Local Wars’.
‘Informatized’ wars seek information dominance through cyber, space, and electromagnetic domains. Informatisation employs advanced information technologies to carry out all operational and support activities. Information dominance and networking are visualised as the main enablers for the PLA to conduct long-range precision strikes against an enemy’s critical command, information, and logistics nodes and key power-projection systems.
The presumption is that China will be able to achieve a quick local victory, control and limit escalation to endplay the enemy. It forces the enemy to negotiate or accept Chinese terms and ensures a strategic victory. In essence, the Chinese are looking to win the local ‘combat’ space as a stepping stone to victory in the greater ‘war’ space.
Xi Jinping is also driving PLA to transform from being ‘Informatized’ to ‘Intelligentised’. Intelligentised revolves around big data, deep learning and AI technologies to provide a decisive edge over the enemy operational system. It involves human-computer integration, neural network decision making, cloud brain, virtual warehousing and so on.
In simpler terms Chinese military strategy based on the Xi Jinping school of thought believes that AI applications will be the basis for targeting capabilities in the context of precision strike operations in systems destruction warfare. They visualise advanced cruise missiles; autonomous air, ground, surface and sub-surface drone systems; anti-artillery, air, and missile defence systems; and a range of C2 and other systems to be AI driven to achieve their strategic aims. However, that is in the future.
What is interesting is that the Chinese are now talking of Full Dimensional Warfare. This is a semantic upgradation on Multi-Dimensional Warfare outlined in my article ‘Disruption in Military Affairs ‘ which I wrote in Sep 2020 and was largely ignored by our national and military establishments. I suppose it takes the fashionably foreign Rand Corporation thought to confirm a poor desi thought! That is my India and Atmanirbharta and so much for the PMs directive on indigenisation of military doctrine! No hard feelings.
Operationally, China sees war as a ‘systems confrontation’ [体系对抗] between adversaries. The confrontation is not between units, arms, services, or specific weapons platforms. System confrontation goes beyond the traditional domains of land, sea, and air, to include outer space, cyberspace, electromagnetic, and psychological domains.
In PLA, the operational system gets tailored as per the battlefield and terrain. In general, an operational system [作战体系], is a PLA entity formed and tasked to prosecute war and win conflicts. Although the composition of an operational system varies, it comprises of roughly five main systems: the command system [指挥体系], the firepower strike system [火力打击体系], the information confrontation system [信息对抗体系], the reconnaissance intelligence system [侦察情报体系], and the support system [保障体系]. We will focus on the firepower strike system.
The PLA seeks victory through system destruction warfare [体系破击战]. It seeks to paralyze and/or destroy the critical functions of an enemy’s operational system. The endeavour is to make the enemy ‘lose the will and ability to resist’ by degrading his operational system and rendering it ineffective.
PLA’s integrated combat forces will be employed to prevail in system-vs-system operations which will predominantly hinge on information dominance, precision strikes, and joint operations. PLA intends to deploy an operational system, superior to the adversary. It intends to fight an informatised campaign taking advantage of its lead in digital revolution and disruptive technologies.
Chinese also see their operational system waging war in all domains simultaneously; fully integrated with their three-war strategy. System destruction warfare has four facets. Firstly, it calls for strikes that degrade or disrupt the flow of information within the adversary’s operational system. Secondly, it involves degrading or disrupting essential elements of the adversary’s operational system i.e., command and control, reconnaissance, intelligence firepower, information confrontation, manoeuvre, protection, and support systems.
Thirdly, it advocates degrading or disrupting the operational architecture of the adversary’s operational system, system’s information acquisition and information transmission network, C2 network, and firepower strike network. Fourthly, the aim is to disrupt the time sequence and/or tempo of the enemy’s operational architecture.
PLA needs to be capable of conducting joint informatized operations to destroy the enemy’s systems in all its facets. It is only then that the CCP gets a handle to achieve political victory while controlling the scope and scale of conflict. It is also envisioned that all this is to be achieved by 2035 by which time PLA will be a ‘fully modernized’ force as directed by Xi Jinping.
Precision Strikes and Firepower
Let us now turn attention to the role of precision strikes and firepower in the frame work of system destruction warfare. In the Chinese perception, offensive firepower is expected to achieve military deterrence, crisis escalation through punitive strikes, paralysis or degradation of enemy operational systems, destruction or sabotage of important adversarial military, political, or economic targets, and the undermining of the adversary’s morale.
System destruction warfare, is envisaged to be surgical in nature and not annihilative. Non-contact warfare is gaining traction in their operational thinking. It is viewed as an art of employing ‘all kinds of long-range precision strike forces, with space combat systems as the principal agent, to attack the important targets of the opposing states in order to carry out a highly concentrated and precise sudden assault’. They talk of ‘key target warfare’ wherein vulnerabilities of the enemy system are identified and attacked with speed, precision, and intensity.
Chinese repeatedly and increasingly emphasize the importance of precision strikes. The thinking seems to be that ‘the precise controls the imprecise’. It indicates that precision weapons used surgically will allow them to control the uncertainty of the battle field while creating it for the enemy. This aligns with the thought process to disrupt the enemy’s operational tempo through fire strikes. They also visualise that blending strategic, operational, and tactical activities requires simultaneity and non-linearity on the battle field; which in turn demands a degree of synchronous strikes.
The PLA’s firepower strike system [火力打击体系] comprises of combat platforms and systems to wage kinetic combat in the physical domains of land, sea, air, and space. These firepower assets are designed to dominate the physical domains as also prevent the adversary from doing so.
In this process, the first function of the firepower system to conduct firepower strikes against the adversary’s operational and strategic depth to achieve ‘three superiorities’ i.e., information, air, and maritime superiority. Information superiority is to be achieved by destruction of information entities of the enemy. The second function of firepower warfare is destruction / interdiction of key battlefield targets, disrupting enemy lines of communication, and conducting firepower assaults against enemy undertaking flanking manoeuvres or in retreat.
The firepower strike system consists of the following sub systems.
- Air operational system, which includes air offensive forces— including bombers, combat aircraft armed helicopters, and UAVs, as well as air defensive forces—and SAMs and antiaircraft artillery.
- Space operational system, which includes the ASAT satellite system, ASAT missiles, directed energy weapon system, electromagnetic pulse system, and kinetic energy weapons
- Missile operational system, which includes conventional ballistic missiles and cruise missiles
- Maritime operational system, which includes attack submarines, surface combatants (e.g., frigates, destroyers), and naval aircraft
- Land operational system, which includes long-range artillery and rocket artillery.
PLA is building up capabilities at great pace in Tibet. Border villages are being developed. Reserve formations are being practised. Firepower resources are being inducted. Airfields, logistics, surveillance assets and infrastructure is being rapidly upgraded. There is a long-term plan being put into action as per their operational concepts and on ground experience gained since 2020. One is repeatedly subjected to news about firepower drills and videos of their long-range artillery firing.
A corelation of on ground activities and PLA’s operational concepts, indicates that information and firepower operations are very high priority combat operations for the Chinese. Their capabilities and concepts indicate that firepower is a seamless entity where air and ground based assets will be networked and integrated. They will be deployed and applied based on detailed information and intelligence inputs.
As per their ‘local war’ postulates, they will attempt to build firepower preponderance and dominance. Firepower will be postured and applied accordingly. PLA will attempt to fight the deep and forward battle simultaneously to dislocate our operational system. India, on its part needs to deny space to PLA to carry out its plan. This implies that our current state of firepower disaggregation and asset quality needs a drastic review.
We also have to review our firepower concepts to be able to fight jointly across the entire depth of the battle field and not limit ourselves to the close battle. India needs a broad-based non-contact response capability to deter PLA from any misadventure. The views of the CDS that India needs a rocket force is in some measure the step in the right direction, notwithstanding its nascency.
As it was discussed in the previous Part, PLAAF operations will be limited by Himalayan terrain. This is despite the fact that China is undertaking development of infrastructure for air operations at a feverish pace. Additionally, the weather in the Himalayas is a fickle fiddlestick for air operations. Terrain configuration south of Himalayan crestline is a combination of dense jungles and narrow valleys.
PLAAF pilots will find it difficult to fly if not well trained and spot targets if well camouflaged. All these factors will incrementally limit efficacy of air delivered firepower to a large extent. China will make up this deficiency of firepower with preponderance of rockets and missiles. Rockets and missiles by nature are bulky and ponderous to hide and operate in the given terrain.
An assessment through a joint firepower wargame will tell us their game plan and reveal all the chinks for us to exploit. PLA will depend on quantity of firepower. We need to depend on quality of firepower. To a large extent we are in the same predicament loop which NATO faced when arraigned against USSR during the cold war days. It will do us well to study the concepts of deep operations and air land battles propagated by Don Starry. All this cannot be done if the thought process is that ‘Firepower’ is a support system and ‘Combat’ is limited by Infantry and Armour activities only. We need a broader view and deeper understanding.
Understanding how PLA will operate is 30% of the battle. Hitherto fore we have not really had a handle on how PLA will operate. To that extent the purpose of this analysis is to ultimately appreciate the strengths of the PLA and identify its weaknesses which our joint firepower in particular and combat power in general can exploit. It will also lead us to do gap filling in our joint information and firepower capability. To this end a few more issues need to be understood.
Many of the PLA’s operational concepts are aspirational and based on futuristic technologies. They are untested even in peace, leave alone operations. Some ideas are wishful political thinking. One must take a realistic view of issues. Many capabilities which are built at great cost and with great fanfare have very little effect on the battle field, are unreliable and even largely unemployable in war.
Technology has its limitations. It is extremely costly to go hi-tech. Too much of it leads to failure. The recent US experience in Afghanistan is a rude reminder that full spectrum capability is not a guarantor of victory. Moreover, survivability and utility of untested hi-tech systems in the Himalayas is suspect.
The Himalayas offer a totally different paradigm of war fighting. Last but not the least, there is always a question mark on PLA’s manpower and leadership ability to execute complicated operations in Informatised conditions.
Informatised operations need initiative, decentralisation and directive control which has been the hall mark of the Western forces. The over-centralised Chinese political system is an anathema to such thinking. Also, my personal experience is that the information overload kills intelligence. AI is at the end artificial and does not replace the man on ground. The Himalayan air makes firepower whimsical as I had pointed it out in my previous article.
Artificial intelligence and whimsical firepower are not the best ingredients for victory. Our own fire power should ensure that every combination which PLA throws at us is countered well before it reaches us. It is possible to do so. That is what we will examine in forthcoming articles.
All the images are provided by the author.
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