China Crisis

The PLA’s Strategic Support Force consolidates the People’s Liberation Army cyber, communications, electronic warfare, information operations, psychological warfare and space assets at the strategic and theatre/operational levels.

Two recent reports evaluate China’s electronic warfare capabilities and their implication for Asia-Pacific security.

The US Department of Defence’s (DOD) annual report to Congress on Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the Taiwanese government’s National Defence Report were both published in November. They provide insights into the place of Electronic Warfare (EW) in People’s Liberation Army (PLA) doctrine. The latter report also gives an overview of planned EW modernisation in the Republic of China (ROC) armed forces.

Both the DOD and ROC reports noted that the PLA continues to see EW as part of a joint approach comprising space and cyber operations supporting operations in all domains. These capabilities are folded into the PLA’s Strategic Support Force (SSF). The DOD report states that the SSF is a theatre-level organisation. It centralises PLA space, cyber, information operations, communications and psychological warfare capabilities alongside EW.

One can assume that in wartime the SSF would employ these capabilities at the operational/strategic levels. Tactical EW would probably remain the preserve of the PLA navy, air force and army. The DOD report says that operational/strategic EW falls under the SSF’s Network Systems Department (NSD). This is alongside cyberwarfare, technical reconnaissance and psychological warfare. Grouping these capabilities under one command “is a crucial step towards realising the operational concept of integrated network and electronic warfare that the PLA has envisioned since the early 2000s.”

The PLA has five Theatre Commands (TC) mirroring their geographical location namely the Western, Southern, Eastern, Central and Northern TCs. The DOD report says that each has an NSD technical reconnaissance base, several signals intelligence bureaux and affiliated research institutes. The NSD provides each TC with a common intelligence operating picture. This thought to be shared downwards to TC sea, land and air units at the tactical level.

This graphic demonstrates how the People’s Liberation Army sees wideband electronic attack being harnessed to support ground forces.

The DOD report assumes that the PLA will use electronic warfare prior to a conflict most likely to deter potential adversaries. EW would also be a key component in any PLA blockade against Taiwan. In particular, the PLA is said to have taken a keen interest in jamming GNSS (Global Navigation Satellite System) signals and fighting in a GNSS-denied environment.

Training emphasises units’ understanding of EW capabilities and how to fight effectively in a heavily congested and contested electromagnetic environment. The DOD report says that these exercises routinely test new EW systems, and electronic warfare tactics, techniques and procedures. The ROC report adds that energetic EW training is observed in the People’s Liberation Army Air Force. Moreover, the collection of Electronic Intelligence (ELINT) by the PLA in the maritime domain is evident. Specifically, the PLA routinely performs maritime ELINT collection in the Taiwan Strait. This is probably to collect ELINT germane to ROC naval and coastal surveillance radar.

The DOD report details the PLA’s pursuit of space EW weapons. It mentions jammers designed to attack uplinks and downlinks used by satellites. The report also highlights the Shenyang J-15D electronic warfare aircraft. This is outfitted with internal and external pod-mounted electronic warfare systems. Media reports in early November stated that the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) has begun testing the J-16D. The aircraft’s main mission is thought to be air defence suppression.

Made in Taiwan

The ROC’s report gives an important insight on how the country will strengthen its EW capabilities. It states that electronic warfare writ large will be enhanced as a key part of Taiwan’s military strategy. This will be done alongside the enrichment of information and communications capabilities. The ROC armed forces see electronic warfare through the joint prism. The report notes that the country’s armed forces have “integrated all capacities to manage … electronic spectrum (data) and analyse electronic parameters.” A robust approach to electronic protection is also being taken. This focuses on “constructing a sound electromagnetic barrier in the vicinity of the Taiwan Strait (and) strengthening our countermeasures against electronic interference.”

From a procurement perspective, the ROC government says it will obtain command and control systems to fuse information and electronic warfare capabilities. New EW pods are planned for the ROC Air Force’s (ROCAF) General Dynamics/Lockheed Martin F-16A/V Fighting Falcon combat aircraft. Meanwhile, existing EW platforms and systems will be upgraded. The ROCAF flies a single Lockheed Martin C-130H electronic warfare aircraft. In June Armada identified a pressing need for new signals intelligence aircraft to replace this C-130H. We also noted that the ROCAF’s existing Thales ASTAC ELINT-gathering pods equipping the ROCAF’s Dassault Mirage 2000-4EI jets need replacing.

New EW capabilities in the offing for Taiwan could include electronic warfare pods to replace the ASTAC systems currently in service with the ROCAF.

Continued PLA investments into EW capabilities, alongside the importance of electronic warfare in PLA doctrine, continues to generate concern within and without the Asia-Pacific. The ROC’s report indicates that Taiwan is taking China’s electromagnetic challenge seriously and is responding in kind. This should prompt other nations in the region to examine their own electronic warfare capabilities and whether they should follow suit given the growing China threat.

by Dr. Thomas Withington