Hi-tech weapons require revolution in thinking, analysts say

PUBLISHED : Monday, 01 August, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 01 August, 2011, 12:00am


As China continues down the road of military modernisation, the country has, from time to time, impressed the world with its state-of-the-art weapons and equipment, ranging from its stealth jet fighter to its first aircraft carrier.

However, while that advanced military hardware grabs the world's attention, some analysts have raised concerns over whether officers of the People's Liberation Army are capable of using such equipment - not only technically operating it, but integrating such equipment to be used with other weapons.

China started its military-modernisation programme in the 1990s after the first Gulf war, when the Iraqi army was quickly defeated by US troops. In the following years, sentiment was running high in China that it should reform its military, especially after the Chinese embassy in Belgrade was bombed in 1999 and a Chinese jet fighter collided with a US spy plane in 2001.

'China realised that its military strength was not good enough, and it could be bullied by others,' said Qiao Liang, a professor at the PLA's Air Force Command Academy.

The country started a series of reforms, which included stressing the importance of digitalised warfare, attracting university graduates to the military and downsizing it to keep the formation elite.

Yang Chengjun, a military strategist, said military units and officers were often sent to machinery production plants, explaining that 'the military units are involved in the whole process of the research and production of new machines and weapons. This ensures that once the army gets the equipment, they can immediately use it.'

However, according to Gary Li, a PLA analyst at the London-based private intelligence firm Exclusive Analysis, the PLA has made progress in enhancing the capabilities of its soldiers, 'but they might not be catching up as quickly as they are expected to'.

He said that even though it was attracting university graduates, some recruits of the PLA were still from rural areas, and he noted that the hierarchy of the army still stressed obeying top orders, which discouraged creativity in devising new strategies with advanced hardware.

Modern warfare did not only involve the participation of a single unit, but the use of various platforms in a holistic way, he said. This requires that officers be not only familiar with the tactics they are using, but also with their teammates.

'It is not about two individuals fighting each other. It is more about co-ordinating with other units, and that requires each of them on the battlefield to be equally professional. The whole operation will be affected if even one of them is less professional,' Qiao said.

This co-ordination also required conceptual changes among PLA soldiers, and that was no easy process, he said.

'It takes time for the new machines to be fully integrated with the units. It may take three to five years for officers to fully know how to operate the first aircraft carrier.'

Li said some units of the PLA were making significant progress in integrating new inventions to modern warfare, but other units still did not understand what it took to reform their training methods.

'Some officers are only told what to do from the top,' Li said. 'They get told about some form of new doctrine from the Central Military Commission, but they do not understand what that means, and some just pay lip service to the new doctrines.'

For example, the PLA Daily reported in June of last year that a military regiment in Nanjing had amended the training associated with 'complex electromagnetic conditions' to include drivers who did not need such training, simply because the PLA had said that such training was useful and encouraged it. An unnamed official was quoted as saying this was evidence that the units were following official guidelines just for the sake of following them.

The PLA has since amended the training directions, saying certain people do not need to be trained.

'This was just paying lip service,' Li said. 'They do it because everyone says it will benefit them, but they do not understand what it means. This is a bit worrying.'

The PLA has revamped its training by putting more emphasis on joint operations capabilities. The army has established 16 military-training co-ordination zones in areas such as Jinan in Shandong province. Officers from the army, navy and air force formulate joint strategies and study relevant data together.

Analysts believe this can help establish habitual training relationships among different units.

However, some of the joint military drills were conducted on an ad hoc basis, and there was a lack of scientific criteria to evaluate their effectiveness, the PLA Daily reported.

'It is a long process to become familiar with the technical operation of new inventions and how they can be better utilised in battle. The Chinese army is still exploring the concept of modern warfare,' Qiao said. 'Sometimes, you need to think outside the box. If you keep sticking to the old belief that a war can be won by showing a massive number of soldiers, then it will be difficult for you to fully utilise the new machines.'

However, Qiao stressed that the PLA had made tremendous efforts in better training for its officers, who were becoming increasingly familiar with modern warfare concepts.

Li suggested that the PLA could further strengthen military co-operation and joint military drills with other countries, such as with members of the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation, even though the PLA might be embarrassed by being defeated in such drills.

Including smaller units from different regiments for joint drills would also help soldiers better handle unexpected situations, he said.

He said the PLA should also concentrate more on retaining junior officers and making them more comfortable in making decisions.

'The political control imposed on the forces is still an important factor,' Li said. 'Officers are sometimes reluctant to make their own decision; they are worried this might not be just the wrong tactical decision, but also the wrong political one.'