Chinese Whispers

Norm Wade, The Chinese Military
Norm Wade’s new book on the Chinese military is an important addition to the body of literature examining this large, yet opaque, force. The work contains some excellent analysis of how the Chinese army deploys tactical communications with the manoeuvre force.

An important new book sheds much-needed insight on the People’s Liberation Army’s manoeuvre force tactical communications posture.

Armada is a fan of the books published by The Lightning Press. We have interviewed Norm Wade, its publisher and primary author, in a previous Armada Electronic Warfare Podcast. No surprise then that we were delighted when a brace of new works from Mr. Wade arrived in the Armada editorial office. Of particular interest was his new book on the Chinese Military. Clearly and concisely written and well-illustrated, the volume is a must for anyone interested in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

The work contains important information on how the PLA’s Ground Force (PLAGF) deploys tactical communications with its manoeuvre formations. Mr. Wade says that manoeuvre force radio communications are a relatively new capability for the PLAGF. As these were rolled out across the manoeuvre units they were initially deployed at the divisional level. Battalions would have radios, but subordinate units would not. The latter would have to stay physically close to their headquarters and use dispatch riders to move traffic between dispersed units.

Mr. Wade states that the army writ large is now performing an overarching modernisation of its radio communications. He continues that the force’s “desired end state is likely to have every squad or patrol equipped with a secure, reliable radio communications capability”.

Networks and Hardware

From a hardware perspective, existing tactical radio designs owe much to military radios procured from the United States in the 1970s and 1980s, says Mr. Wade. The manoeuvre force can use the People’s Republic of China’s domestic telecommunications network to move voice and data traffic. That said, these domestic conduits would only be used for Chinese domestic military operations.

Indigenous military Satellite Communications (SATCOM) suffers bandwidth limitations, Mr. Wade writes, being reserved for “the highest priority networks”. However, these limitations could be relieved in the coming years. The Chinese military is expanding the size and scope of its military SATCOM constellations meaning that satellite communications could be expanded to the lowest tactical echelons.

Company- and battalion-level command posts house backpack and/or vehicular radios hosting encrypted networks. These transceivers include the TBR-121 radio also used by platoon commanders. This radio is similar to Single Channel Ground-Airborne Radio System transceivers used by US and allied militaries. Mr. Wade adds that PLAGF tactical networks primarily provide encrypted voice communications with limited data carriage.

He continues that tactical networks furnishing artillery and forward observer networks typically use the TBR-142 system. This is not a radio per se but instead a system-of-systems creating an artillery and observer tactical network. These link upwards from battalion to brigade level. Mr. Wade says that the tactical networks supporting artillery brigades tend to carry heavier data traffic. Networks like these move information between artillery and rocket batteries.


Mr. Wade argues that the roll-out of advanced tactical communications across the PLAGF is a work in progress: “The expansion of modern communications capabilities to lower echelons has been challenging”, he asserts. This has been somewhat alleviated by incoming young and tech-savvy recruits comfortable operating the advanced communications systems the PLAGF is inducting. That said, the force continues to struggle with communications challenges commonplace to all land forces: “Roadblocks will likely include everything from dealing with frequency management issues in a contested electronic environment to a lack of batteries at lower tactical echelons”.

He adds that China’s development of tactical datalinks like the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation’s Link-16 “is still in its infancy”. Moreover, communications capacities remain unequal across the manoeuvre force. Higher echelons enjoy access to SATCOM and troposcatter radios, but such non-line-of-sight assets do not appear widely deployed to subordinate echelons. Integration between sea, land and air assets “is poor to non-existent”. As Mr. Wade notes, this will place a major brake on the PLA achieving much-desired levels of jointness unless urgently addressed in the future.

by Dr. Thomas Withington