China has used the newly established Strategic Support Force (SSF) to build advanced space and offensive cyber capabilities. The SSF’s Space Systems Department has consolidated military space functions, including rocket launches, telemetry, tracking, control, satellite communications, space intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance.
The Network Systems Department has integrated and strengthened signals intelligence, cyber espionage, computer attack, electromagnetic warfare, and psychological operations, making the SSF a formidable offensive force.
According to the US intelligence community, China’s cyber espionage operations have included compromising telecommunications firms such as Huawei and ZTE, which have provided opportunities for intelligence collection abroad.
For instance, in April 2019, the telecommunications company Vodafone Group revealed that it had found security vulnerabilities with Huawei equipment deployed for its fixed-line phone network in Italy. These vulnerabilities potentially gave Huawei unauthorised access to the carrier’s internet traffic and call data.
Likewise, in August 2020, a report from the Australian government and Papua New Guinea’s National Cyber Security Centre noted that the latter’s National Data Centre, built by Huawei in 2018, was marred by weak cybersecurity, which exposed confidential government data for stealing.
Drones and unmanned aerial and underwater capabilities
China has pursued R&D of drones and unmanned aerial and underwater capabilities with an eye on its benefits during combat and reconnaissance. It has had some notable successes: the PLAAF recently unveiled its largest drone, the WZ-7 “Soaring Dragon” high-altitude, long-range drone. It has also developed and deployed a fleet of underwater Sea Wing drones in the Indian Ocean for naval intelligence purposes.
Currently, China is developing a supersonic drone WZ-8 as well as swarming drone capability. Research initiatives like these funded by China’s tech ecosystem, which is blended with the military system, ensure that the PLA has the edge over the other militaries in the region and beyond.
Software-first dual-use technologies
In a similar vein, through fair means and subterfuge, China has made great strides in software-first dual-use technologies such as artificial intelligence, deep learning, and facial recognition. Besides its own laboratories, the PLA has also utilised its domestic technology giants such as Alibaba, SenseTime and Megvii for developing the needed algorithms.
The CCP has deployed these technologies for external defence as well as internal security purposes. For instance, many of these companies have been used for targeted facial recognition, artificial intelligence, big data, and genetic testing against its Uighur population in Xinjiang.
Implications of China’s military modernisation for the region
Ever since the CCP undertook military reforms, Chinese foreign policy has increasingly taken an assertive tone vis-a-vis its neighbours — Bharat, Taiwan, Japan — and the southeast Asian neighbours such as Vietnam.
The military reforms and modernisation of the PLA strengthen China’s coercive capabilities. The reforms give the PLA the ability to fight decisive wars, and in some cases as cyber, cripple the enemy without firing a shot. This adds to the already large power differential between the Chinese military and other regional militaries, including Bharat.
US strategic analysts Joel Wuthnow and Phillip Saunders speculate that the transformation set off by the military reforms might prove “sufficiently disruptive” to reduce the PLA’s ability to launch and sustain major combat operations. But Bharat’s experience with China in the last five years has proved otherwise.
Since the ascent of President Xi Jinping, Bharat has seen PLA’s increased assertiveness beginning with the 2013 Depsang Valley incursion in Ladakh, which peaked with the ongoing border stand-off in Ladakh.
During this ongoing stand-off, PLA’s enhanced effectiveness in executing joint combat operations and moving logistics is evident by the rapid deployment of upgraded versions of armoured vehicles, self-propelled howitzers, and heavy rocket launchers, along with a host of radar systems through the combined air defence system.
Similar Chinese aggression is also evident in the case of other neighbours of China — Taiwan; the southeast Asian neighbours with whom China has a maritime dispute in the South China Sea; and Japan, over the Senkaku islands. In response to China’s military reforms as well as the global trend of militaries moving towards jointness and information-based operations, Bharat has commenced its own set of military reforms.
These include the setting up of the tri-service Defence Cyber Agency and Defence Space Agency in 2019, appointment of the Chief of Defence Staff in 2020, and the proposed move towards theatre commands. These reforms have a longer gestation period. They will also necessarily have to tackle the protracted rivalry among the three services and the inherent resistance such jointness evokes from the services.
China’s military modernisation has created an enhanced PLA Navy presence in the Indian Ocean, as seen by the regular reports of repeated docking of PLAN nuclear submarines at the Colombo port in Sri Lanka and the Gwadar and Karachi ports in Pakistan. China has also augmented its presence in the Indian Ocean by participating in anti-piracy operations. Between 2008 and 2018, China dispatched 30 anti-piracy task forces in the Indian Ocean, established an overseas military base in Djibouti in 2016, and enhanced its blue-water naval capabilities.
With these, the PLA can project its power far beyond the Chinese mainland. China has utilised these to protect its investment under the Belt and Road Initiative and citizens overseas as acknowledged by the 2019 white paper. According to the US Department of Defence, China may be considering opening additional overseas bases that will enable the PLA to project and sustain power at greater distances.
In response to China’s growing submarine operations in the Indian Ocean, the Indian Navy has substantially augmented its anti-submarine warfare capabilities — beginning 2013, it acquired the P8i maritime reconnaissance aircraft and in 2021, the MH-60 anti-submarine helicopters from the US.
Enhanced malicious cyber activities
China’s augmented cyber capabilities through the SSF is its increased offensive cyber operations, which has amplified in recent years. Bharat and other neighbours of China have been at the receiving end of the expanded Chinese malicious cyber activities, mainly directed against its critical infrastructure.
The only way for Bharat to protect itself is to enhance capabilities through investments in cyber security and emerging technologies. Bharat has made cyber security a policy priority and is raising necessary safeguards to better protect itself. But the persistence of Chinese malicious cyber activities requires an even greater effort and enlisting like-minded partners in the Indo-Pacific.
Conclusion: The road ahead for Bharat
Bharat’s first Chief of Defence Staff, General Bipin Rawat, had remarked that China is the “biggest security threat” facing Bharat. Bharat will have to take a long view of China’s transformed military power and expedite and adjust its defence reforms to achieve the same results.
Implementing such reforms requires a greater political management of the forces and lesser interference of the civilian bureaucracy. Moreover, optimising the limited budgetary resources, Bharat must intensify its ongoing force restructuring initiatives, including integrating the three services and adding to its power projection capabilities.
Keeping in view China’s focus on reducing the role of the ground forces, Bharat too must invest more in aviation and naval assets because they will afford Bharat enhanced power projection capability. At the heart of China’s military reforms and modernisation is its robust defence-industrial base in the aerospace, missiles and shipbuilding sectors.
Domestic defence-industrialisation, therefore, has a critical role in Bharat’s own military advancement. The government has been encouraging a greater involvement of the private sector in defence manufacturing. To encourage them more, Bharat will have to expedite its defence procurement process and expand support innovation in emerging technologies.
(The story has been published via a syndicated feed with minor edits to conform to HinduPost style-guide.)