China planning to step up use of civilian know-how under drive to make military a modern fighting force

Minnie Chan
·6-min read

China is set to step up its plans to integrate civilian and military technology under its drive to modernise the armed forces, according to the latest five-year plan.

The development plan, which was unveiled at this month’s meeting of the National People’s Congress, includes pledges to increase programmes to upgrade its weapons systems, improve its joint combat capabilities and encourage private enterprises to work with the defence industry.

The drive to integrate civilian and military technology has already caused concern in the United States and other countries, but military analysts and insiders said Beijing still plans to up the pace.

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Beijing-based military affairs commentator Zhou Chenming said such integration was needed as China had developed many advanced weapons over the previous five years, but needed to train members of the People’s Liberation Army to use them effectively.

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“Now the PLA has so many new toys, but they don’t have enough qualified people and talent to command and manage the weapons,” Zhou said.

In the past five years, China has launched the world’s first quantum communication satellite, set up the Beidou satellite navigation system – a rival to America’s GPS – and developed some cutting-edge weapons systems. These include its first stealth fighter, the J-20; the Type-55 stealth guided-missile destroyer; the Type 075 amphibious landing helicopter dock and the DF-17 hypersonic missile.

“The upcoming five-year plan will be more specific and focus on some key areas, for example, asking the military and local academia to work together to foster talent, as well as recruit and mobilise resources from state-owned and private enterprises through military-civilian fusion tasks, with cutting costs and saving time being their ultimate aims,” Zhou said.

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Some of the key projects expected for the coming years include preparations to launch at least six aircraft carriers strike groups by 2035 – an ambitious goal trying to equal the US naval strength in the Indo Pacific region.

Beijing is expected to launch its third aircraft carrier later this year. It is the country’s second domestically designed aircraft carrier that will use an advanced electromagnetic catapult launch system similar to that used on the USS Ford-class carriers.

Other projects will focus on future warfare, including the use of artificial intelligence for weapons such as drones and next-generation fighter jets, according to a military insider familiar with China’s weapon and equipment build-up.

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An article published by the National Defence University on Friday said all combat wings of the PLA have undergone major transformations over the past five years.

For example, the PLA Rocket Force has strengthened its nuclear deterrence and second-strike capabilities and accelerated the ability of its medium-range missiles to carry out precision strikes – a capability the US and Taiwan have identified as a key element of any attempt at what the Chinese military calls the “reunification fight”.

The new five-year plan says the country should accelerate its military modernisation programme and ensure the PLA meets one of the country’s three centennial goals by becoming a modern army by 2027, the 100th anniversary of the army’s foundation.

China’s leaders hope to mobilise the tech sector to support the country’s military ambitions. Photo: Xinhua
China’s leaders hope to mobilise the tech sector to support the country’s military ambitions. Photo: Xinhua

The plan also said Beijing will step up efforts to foster its joint-combat command by integrating the different service branches into a unified structure while the military-civilian fusion campaign will cover spheres such as maritime and space technology as well as the use of AI.

Shanghai-based military analyst Ni Lexiong said details of the new five-year plan indicate that China will continue to pour more investment into its defence industry in the coming years because the central leadership feels “a strong sense of insecurity” amid the ongoing confrontations with the United States.

He said the Chinese leadership is aware of the gap between China and the US, particularly in the wake of former president Donald Trump’s restrictions on Chinese companies, especially those in the tech sector.

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“The science and technology gap is a fatal blow to China’s defence industry … The PLA just achieved ‘mechanisation’ after more than two decades of modernisation, but the US military entered the intelligent modern warfare era last century,” he said.

At this month’s NPC China announced a 6.8 per cent of defence budget increase for the 2 million-strong People’s Liberation Army this year, compared with last year’s 6.6 per cent raise.

The Chinese defence ministry said part of the budget would be spent on key projects under the five-year plan to support the PLA’s long-standing goal of catching up with the US military.

In November, the Central Military Commission (CMC) issued new guidelines based on those used by the US military for joint operations, ordering the PLA to improve the integration of different services and command over cutting-edge weapons systems.

“Since the 1991 Gulf war, the PLA has deeply felt … that only joint operations can exert their overall strength because no single-service troop can dominate in modern warfare,” Lin Cheng-Jung, a researcher from the Taipei-based security think tank, the Institute for National Defence and Security Research, wrote in a report explaining the new trial guidelines.

“The joint operations guidelines aim to set the tone for the PLA’s military planning and combat strategy in the [latest] five-year plan, laying the basis for reaching its goal of having a strong army [in 2027].

Since last year, the CMC and the central government have also revised and issued new military regulations.

China’s J-20 is one of the world’s most advanced war planes. Photo: Handout
China’s J-20 is one of the world’s most advanced war planes. Photo: Handout

A new defence law, which took effect on January 1, weakened the role of the State Council – China’s cabinet – in formulating military policy, handing decision-making powers to the CMC, allowing it to have more legislation power for the mobilisation and deployment of troops and reserve forces.

“China’s political system allows the central leadership to recruit and mobilise economic and human resources from both state and private sectors to concentrate on specific key projects,” Ni said, adding that President Xi Jinping had described this as China’s “greatest advantage”.

This article China planning to step up use of civilian know-how under drive to make military a modern fighting force first appeared on South China Morning Post

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