At the turn of the year, and officially launched by President Xi Jinping at this beginning of the week, China announced a series of major comprehensive reforms for the People's Liberation Army (PLA) that will likely shape China's military modernisation trajectory for the next decade.

The underlying rationale for the overhaul is to redefine the roles, missions and authorities of the PLA services, consolidate Party control over the nearly autonomous military branches, and ultimately attain new levels of combat effectiveness conceptualised under a new set of military guidelines of fighting and winning 'local wars under informationised conditions.'

The first wave of official announcements included changes in the organisational force structure, starting at the highest echelons of command. Specifically, the creation of a new command structure; a joint staff under the Central Military Commission that integrated the previous four general departments. The CMC will now manage the PLA through the Joint Staff Department comprised of fifteen departments, commissions and offices.

The second significant measure is the inauguration of three new services: PLA Ground Forces, PLA Rocket Forces and PLA Strategic Support Forces. The previous Second Artillery Corps, in charge of China's nuclear and conventional ballistic missiles, has been upgraded to the PLA Rocket Force, a full service branch on par with the navy, air force, and, for the first time, the army.

The third major military reform measure, announced on 1 February, is the reorganisation of the major Chinese military commands from the previous seven 'military regions' to five 'major war zones' or theatre operations. These are the Northern, Eastern, Southern, Western, and Middle or Central theaters, which are comparable to the US concept of Combatant Commands.

Changes in the PLA's organisation force structure complement its gradual technological advances. Indeed, the PLA under President Xi Jinping has seen many accomplishments: from the introduction of next generation of supercomputers, to aviation prototypes such as the J-16, J-20, J-31, new helicopters and UAVs, to the ongoing construction of a second aircraft carrier, as well as record number of commissioned ships such as Type 054A, 056 frigates and 052C destroyers.

In the next five to ten years, China is expected to transfer many experimental models from R&D to the production stage, including a number of systems in what the PLA calls 'domains of emerging military rivalry': outer space, near space, cyber space, and under water. 

These include next generation ballistic missiles, nuclear and conventional, long-range precision-strike assets such as hypersonic vehicles, offensive and defensive cyber capabilities and new classes of submarines, supported by a variety of high-tech directional rocket rising sea mines with accurate control and guidance capacity.

PLA Strategic Support Forces

Of all the newly established units, the PLA Strategic Support Forces (SSF) represents perhaps the most significant development. While details remain hidden under a veil of secrecy, semi-authoritative sources and press reports indicate that the SSF will consist of three independent branches: 'cyber force' with 'hacker troops' responsible for cyber offense and defense; 'space force' tasked with surveillance and satellites; and 'electronic force' responsible for denial, deception, disruption of enemy radars and communications systems. 

The SSF integrates the previous PLA General Staff Headquarters Third and Fourth Departments, responsible for technical reconnaissance, electronic warfare, cyber intelligence and cyber warfare, as well as absorbing the Foreign Affairs Bureau of the former PLA General Political Department, tasked with information operations, propaganda and psychological warfare.

This corresponds to PLA writings on future conflicts such as Science of Military Strategy that emphasise a holistic perspective toward space, cyberspace and the electromagnetic spectrum that must be defended to achieve information dominance (zhi xinxi quan). This is the ability to gather, transmit, manage, analyse and exploit information, and prevent an opponent from doing the same as a key prerequisite for allowing the PLA to seize air and naval superiority. 

To this end, the PLA recognises the importance of controlling space-based information assets as a means of achieving true information dominance, calling it the 'new strategic high ground.' Consequently, establishing 'zhi tian quan' (space dominance) is an essential component of achieving 'information dominance.'

Strategic Implications

Ultimately, the key question is this: will the reforms in the PLA's organisational force structure will be reflected in its operational conduct, particularly in the PLA's capabilities to exploit cyber-kinetic strategic interactions in its regional power projection, as well as responses in potential crises and security flashpoints in East Asia?

On one hand, China's political and military elites believe that a new wave of the global Revolution in Military Affairs is gathering pace, led principally by the US, and China must therefore accelerate the pace of its military development. Internally, however, the reforms are designed primarily to close the PLA's inter-service rivalries, interoperability gaps and the dominance of the ground forces.

In other words, significant capability gaps will continue to exist.

In the long-term the coordinated exploitation of space, cyber-space, electromagnetic spectrum and strategic information operations will likely enable four critical missions for the PLA:

  1. Force enhancement to support combat operations and improve the effectiveness of military forces such as ISR, integrated tactical warning and attack assessment, command, control and communications, navigation and positioning and environmental monitoring;
  2. Counter-space missions to protect PLA forces while denying space capabilities to the adversary;
  3. Information operations to direct influence on the process and outcome in areas of strategic competition, and;
  4. Computer network operations targeting adversaries data and networks. 

Consequently, the PLA's growing military-technological developments may significantly alter both the strategic thought and operational conduct of major powers in East Asia, including the US and its allies such as Australia.

The resulting broader military innovation debates will converge on how to attain long-term credible cross-domain attack and defence in-depth capabilities, while sustaining joint operational capabilities in select contested areas in the Asia-Pacific, and simultaneously mitigating a range of escalatory risks.

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