Open Sources Analysis:Chinese Thinking on Nuclear War And Information Operation

G.D. Bakshi, Officer, Indian Army


A Chinese Glasnost?

In recent years there has been a spate of Chinese writings on military and security subjects. These are characterised by a surprising degree of candour and openness. It is obvious that the Chinese have taken to heart the central dictums of deterrence. For deterrence to be effective, it must be "communicable", it must be "credible" and it must be clearly "feasible". It is obvious that in undertaking such a glasnost in security affairs, the Chinese are primarily addressing the issue of communicability. The Chinese have established a National Defence University in Beijing. Some of the prolific sources of output on Chinese military writings are:

(a) The Institute of World Economics and Politics (affiliated to the Academy of Social Sciences, Beijing).

(b) Committee of Science, Technology and Industry.

(c) Strategic Department, Academy of Military Sciences, Beijing.

(d) Most important of all, serving officers of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) General Staff and Logistics Department have been authoring a series of important articles in the various newspapers and academic journals. Michael Pillsbury and the American National Defence University have rendered yoeman service in translating a series of such Chinese articles on military strategic issues and compiling them in book form (Chinese Views on Future Warfare, Lancers, 1997). These provide a series of primary sources on Chinese thinking in the critical spheres of strategy and military technology. This fresh crop of articles is characterised by a surprising degree of candour and openness. It marks a striking contrast to the earlier Maoist era, where military issues were discussed in terms of analogies, metaphors and allusions to classical or historical texts which in themselves constituted a code that had to be unravelled by the uninitiated. (Thus, for example, debates on linear defences would be conducted in terms of veiled criticisms of the Great Wall of China that made little sense to the uninitiated, but served to focus attention onto a current military debate.)

The Maoist theory of People's Revolutionary Warfare, provides a stellar example of a creative and innovative military doctrine that was developed by an ancient First Wave civilisation to use its massive human resources to counter the military-industrial superiority of its Western and Japanese interlocutors. It employed the paradoxical approach to turn weakness to strength and sought to counter Western technological superiority by lengthening out the conflict in space and time and using human resource mobilisation to counter industrial mobilisation. In so doing, it altered the very basic Western paradigm of conflict. With the passing away of Mao Ze Dong, an era of great historical significance ended in China. The rise of Deng Xiaoping marked the transition of a great First Wave civilisation to the Second Wave of massive industrialisation. Today, China has a boom economy. Its Gross National Product (GNP) has been growing at an average rate of almost 10 percent per annum for almost a decade. It has unleashed its four great modernisations and is deliberately unfolding a superbly thought out blueprint to superhood in the next 50 years. It is an unparalleled example of perspective thinking that spans half a century in its sweep. No wonder the American military establishment today places just one country in the peer group league: "The People's Republic of China."

The Post-1949 Evolution of Chinese Military Thought

The Maoist dogma of People's Revolutionary War was evolved out of almost 30 years of non-stop civil war between the Kuomintang and the Chinese Communists and the brutal war with Japan which cost China almost 13 million lives. By 1949, China's civil war was finally won by the Communists. The PLA launched an energetic programme to consolidate its hold over the far flung provinces of Tibet and Xinjiang and the Mongolian frontier. China has assumed a size that surpassed the span of all the previous empires of Chinese history. In 1950, the Korean War started and the combat-hardened PLA took on the American and Western armed forces in infantry predominant combat. Much of Chinese current thinking on "People's War Under Modern Conditions" draws inspiration from this seminal conflict. It marked the transition of the PLA from a First Wave foot mobile Army of gargantuan proportions to a Second Wave Army with heavy doses of Soviet equipment. The subsequent Cold War with the USSR saw a freezing of the Chinese military at the technological levels of the 1950s. The Chinese armed forces became the largest repository of outdated military equipment in the world with a tank fleet of almost 18,000 to 20,000 tanks and 4,000 to 5,000 jet aircraft of Korean War vintage. The Chinese tried to upgrade this archaic fleet by reverse engineering of Soviet models. They relied upon quantity to overcome the qualitative disadvantage. In 1969, China went nuclear and this put on hold any threats of even a major conventional war between China and either of the two superpowers.

The Post-Vietnam War Analysis

Another seminal event in recent Chinese military history was the 1979 border war with Vietnam. The PLA set out to teach a lesson. Over 34 divisions were thrown into combat, but at the end of it, the vast Chinese military machine ended up learning quite a few lessons of its own. The Maoist era had ended. The great chaos unleashed by the Cultural Revolution was just beginning to settle down. Deng Xiaoping, the pragmatist, used the lessons of this war to capitalise on his drive for the four modernisations. Very pragmatically, the Chinese showed a clear grasp of geo-economics. Military modernisation was placed last in the order of national priorities as Deng unleashed the drive to make China an economic superpower. A decade later, the engines of the liberalised Chinese economy were booming at unprecedented rates of growth. Such rates of growth in the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) had heralded the rise of the USA in the arena of world politics in the early decades of the 20th century. By the beginning of the 1990s the Chinese once again focussed on military modernisation and while the rest of the world disarmed and downsized, the Chinese military began to modernise and its defence budget shot up by unprecedented percentage levels. China announced a 22.5 percent increase in its defence budget of 1994. In 1995, the increase was 22 percent. (This year, the increase has been over 20 per cent above the 1996-97 budget.) Even as the gargantuan manpower was downsized from 4.2 million to 3 million and below, the GDP allocations to defence went up (they now stand at over 9 percent of the overall government expenditure). In doctrinal terms, the central tenet became the conduct of People's War Under Modern Conditions. This period also saw the steady rise in primacy of the PLA-Navy (PLAN). The Chinese Navy's road to dominance was paved by the Chinese Mahan, Admiral Hauquing, the former Chief of the Chinese Navy who became the Vice Chairman of the powerful Central Military Commission. Huaquing has drawn up a long-term blueprint for a blue water Navy (Yuanjong Hayung) which the Chinese are following with single minded devotion. The quest for energy resources to power the booming Chinese economy and the desire to reunite Taiwan is fuelling this Chinese blueprint to Blue Water.

The Gulf War of 1990

The Gulf War of 1990 came as a great cultural shock to the Chinese military hierarchy. They realised the obsolesence and irrelevance of a vast and antiquated Army equipped largely with the technology of the 1950s. The decimation of the Iraqi war machine had a salutory effect on Chinese military thinking and has outlined a clear cut determination to catch up with the West. It underlines a desire to transmit from the Second Wave to the Third Wave. The current crop of military writings that are being analysed in this paper are all products of this Third Wave thinking in Chinese warfare. They represent a distinct and new stylistic development and change which has a very significant import for the Indian armed forces. This new thinking in the Chinese armed forces needs careful thought and analysis in this country. So far, the Indian armed forces had a distinct technological edge over the Chinese. Our arms inventory was largely of the 1970s and 1980s vintage. What we need to monitor is the Chinese quest for military modernisation--not just in equipment but in thought and doctrine.

The Strategic Landscape in the Next Millennium

Maj Gen Yu Qifen of the PLA in his insightful paper on the "International Military Situation in the 1990s" provides an insight into the Chinese understanding or interpretation of the global strategic landscape. Yu Qifen opines that the USA has changed its strategy from containing the expansion of Communism to expanding global democratisation and has changed its military strategy accordingly.

The Key Change in Strategy

Gen Yu Qifen highlights the key change in American military strategy from "preventing the Soviet Union from launching a wide scale war to dealing with regional conflicts in the Third World and preventing the rise of new opponents". The Chinese threat perception is succinctly enshrined in this analysis. Thus, in 1993, Qifen analyses the changes initiated by US Secretary of Defence Cheney as the strategy for regional defence wherein a forward deployment stance has been changed to forward presence and reinforcement (especially in the critical oil zone of the Middle East).

Situation of No Big Wars-Constant Small Wars

In a similar vein, Gao Hey, Research Fellow of the Institute of World Economics and Politics (Academy of Social Science, Beijing) in his perceptive paper on "Future Military Trends" talks of a situation of "No Big Wars-Constant Small Wars". He identifies ongoing small wars in the Balkans, Caucasus, Africa, Central and South Asia as ceaseless zones of conflict and identifies the South China Sea as a dangerous hot spot. Major powers will fuel these local wars by heavy export of arms and Japan will complete preparations for becoming a nuclear power. Hey talks of indirect military competition between Russia and the USA over Central and Western Europe. These papers provide a direct insight into Chinese threat perceptions and their analysis of the future strategic landscape that fuels their current doctrine of "Local Wars Under Modern Conditions."

The Chinese Nuclear Strategy

The most important source document is a paper by Maj Gen Yang Huan (Deputy Commander of China's Second Artillery Corps, its Strategic Nuclear Strike Force). Yang, in his excellent paper on "China's Strategic Nuclear Weapons" spells out the role and task of China's Second Artillery Corps. "China's Second Artillery Corps, a strategic troop of the PLA," he says "has the task of strategic nuclear counter attack". He spells out that China's strategic nuclear weapons were developed because of the belief that hegemonic powers will continue to use nuclear threats and nuclear blackmail. China was compelled to conduct nuclear tests and develop nuclear weapons, he says, in order to break the nuclear monopoly. (It is a pity that the Chinese have ignored their earlier formulations justifying their nuclear arsenel while criticising India for exercising its legitimate rights of self-defence and preserving its national security). Gen Yang Huan traces the historical development of nuclear weapons in China. On October 16, 1964, China exploded its first nuclear device. On October 27, 1966, it had conducted its first nuclear missile trial and on July 13, 1967, it exploded its first hydrogen bomb. The Chinese Special Artillery Corps had been set up way back in 1958. On July 1966, it was converted into the Second Artillery Corps with the approval of the Central Military Commission. Over the last 20 years, Gen Yang claims that considerable work has been done on command systems, battlefield construction, weapon tests and maintenance systems. Weapons quality has been improved.

Yang says, "The R&D of our first generation nuclear weapons was a great success. But there is still a great distance between the world's advanced level of technology, and our historical experience has shown that for the sake of our national security interests and for world peace and stability, we must develop strategic nuclear weapons and keep pace with advanced world levels."

Gen Yang Huan's paper is an excellent primary source material for research scholars and analysts. He clearly highlights the future directions of R&D in the nuclear field in China. In particular, he stresses the following:

(a) Improve Survivability. Yang says, "We should improve survivability of our strategic nuclear weapons. Weapons survivability is an important factor in waging a nuclear counter strike." He points out, "We should strengthen research on small, solid fuel and highly automated mobile missiles and on the technology of invisibility (stealth) for revamping defence works against nuclear or non-nuclear strike and improve survivability of the missiles before launch and in flight."

(b) Improve Striking Power. Yang calls for improving the striking ability of strategic nuclear weapons. Accuracy and power are the chief factors used to judge weapon striking power. "To increase the credibility of limited nuclear deterrence, we should work to improve accuracy and our new generation of strategic weaponry should be of higher precision."

(c) Improve Penetration Technology. The third thrust area in R&D highlighted by Gen Yang Huan pertains to improving penetration technology of strategic weapons. Huan says, "Strategic weapons can be used in actual fighting only when they can penetrate enemy defences and reach and strike the target. This is a necessary condition to protect itself and destroy the target." In an allusion to strategic and space based anti-ballistic missile defences now under development, he says, "In an era when space technology is developing rapidly and a defence system with many new methods and many layers is appearing, we should pay particular attention to breakthrough technology."

Concluding his brilliant article, Maj Gen Yang Huan says, "We should strive to build a small in number but effective strategic Missile Corps with Chinese characteristic. In future development, the advanced quality of strategic weapons will rely to a large degree on the development of high technology and reflect the comprehensive power of a country." To achieve this Yang recommends, "We should develop a limited number of high quality strategic nuclear weapons that could be used effectively to strike back against an enemy using nuclear weapons to attack us."

In a parallel article, Maj Gen Wu Jianyo says that between the 1960s and 1970s, the role of nuclear weapons was inappropriately exaggerated. He adds, "We, however, cannot believe that because of their extremely gigantic destructive power, nuclear weapons have totally negated their PROSPECT OF USE."

Gen Jianyo has carried out a survey of recent developments in the nuclear field to include:

(a) Small Sized Ground Penetrating Nuclear Weapons. With an equivalent of 10 tons of TNT, these explode 10-15 metres beneath the ground surface and are ideal for destroying command posts and all underground defence works. These could also be used against enemy air fields for creating huge radioactive craters.

(b) Small Sized Anti-Missile Nuclear Weapons. With an explosive equivalent of 100 tons of TNT, these could stop incoming nuclear tipped missiles.

(c) Small Sized Ground or Air to Ground Nuclear Weapons. With a yield equivalent of 1,000 tons of TNT, Jianyo says, such tactical nuclear weapons could have stopped the retreat of Dunkirk. This provides an interesting insight into the Chinese thought processes on nuclear issues.

Jianyo's most brilliant conception pertains to the unintended nuclear fallout of conventional wars in which nuclear reactors and similar sites are attacked. Jianyo says, "In a high technology conventional war, a nuclear environment may still emerge even if nuclear weapons are not used". The world's dependence on atomic energy is bound to rise, says Jianyo. In a future high-tech war, if an enemy intentionally or unintentionally attacks nuclear power plants or other facilities using nuclear energy with high-tech conventional weapons, the secondary nuclear radiation produced would likewise do unmeasurable harm. Jianyo goes on to assert that nuclear deterrence will be used in local wars. He says, the local wars that broke out after World War II were mostly carried out under the conditions of nuclear deterrence and cites the case of Korea and Vietnam. More pertinently, he cites Gen MacArthur's threat/proposal to bomb China's north-east coastal strategic targets with nuclear weapons. In 1969, he says, Brezhnev had considered the use of nuclear weapons against Chinese nuclear facilities. In particular, he cites that the Multi-National Forces (MNF) had deployed 800-850 tactical nuclear weapons on three sides of Iraq even though they possessed the trump card of high-tech weaponry.

The views of these two serving Chinese Generals are significant and merit indepth analysis in our country.

Chinese Information War Theories

Actualising an Ancient Civilisational Concept

Six centuries before the birth of Christ, the celebrated Chinese military theorist, Sun Tzu, had said, "For to fight and win all your battles is not the acme of excellence. Supreme excellence lies in subduing your enemy WITHOUT FIGHTING." Chinese military theories have long recognised the non-physical dimensions of the defeat mechanism. Defeat is not a physical state. It is ultimately a state of the MIND. The mind today is increasingly taking on an electronic and informational character. Hence, the Chinese swing towards information war is totally in keeping with their civilisational context. In actual practice, this is the product of the intense military intellectual ferment caused in China by the Gulf War of 1990. The defeat of the large Second Wave Armies of Iraq set in motion considerable Chinese interest and speculation in Third Wave warfare. There is a host of Chinese papers and articles on this subject which display a chilling grasp of this genre of operations. China is striving hard to catch up in electronic warfare and information operations and these writings display the march of the Chinese civilisation towards a Third Wave future as it were. Chang Meng Xiong, a member of the Chinese Committee on Science, Technology and Industry has written a fascinating paper on "Weapons of the 21st Century". He talks of information intensified weapons to include precision guided munitions (PGMs), guided bombs, artillery shells and cluster bombs, cruise missiles, target guided missiles and anti-radiation missiles. The circular error probability (CEP) of these weapons will be close to nil. The quest for weapons that make full use of information will intensify between the period 2010-2020 as per Chinese prognostication.

Command and Control in the Information Era

The Chinese recognise four styles of command:

(a) Centralised Command.

(b) Echelon-by-Echelon Command.

(c) Trans-Echelon Command.

(d) Combined Command.

Highly centralised command is becoming an anachronism in the present Information Age. Chang says that Iraq's centralised command system was unsuited to high-tech warfare. He speaks of Combining High Centralisation with High Initiatives. Crystal gazing into the future, he predicts that the 21st century soldier will be equipped with small lightweight, multi-media information equipment (including personal radio communication system, Global Positioning System (GPS), Direction Finding (DF) function, Network Functions, Night Vision Functions and IFF). He even speaks of personal flight platforms. Soldiers will be able to receive orders direct from their divisional commanders (thus combining high centralisation with high initiatives). This is a fascinating Chinese formulation of the paradoxical relationship between centralisation and initiative in the Information Age.

21st Century Land Operations

Colonels Xiao Jiangmin and Maj Bao Bin of the Strategic Department of the Academy of Military Sciences in Beijing, have, in a brilliant paper on "21st Century Land Operations," analysed the impact of information warfare on land operations. They assert: "In 21st Century Land Warfare, the primary objective of battle will be destruction of enemy command and control and weapon systems through a combination of counter information and fire power attack and not destruction of enemy forces." In the earlier phases of war, destruction of enemy transportation systems and supplies was used to create better conditions for the destruction of enemy forces. Col Jiangmin and Maj Bao state that with the development of electronics technology, armed forces can interfere with an enemy command system through electronic jamming and can destroy the coordination among enemy forces, creating even better conditions for their destruction. Information superiority, therefore, will become the focal point in the battlefield. These Chinese officers talk of hard and soft kill options for neutralising information nodes and talk of land air operations integration and joint operations. They also talk of the impact of digitisation in the future land operations.

Such writings are not just confined to academics and middle piece officers. Maj Gen Wang Pufeng (former Director of the Strategic Department in the Academy of Military Sciences, Beijing) has written an incisive paper on "The Challenge of Information Warfare" in the China Military Science journal (Spring 1995). He exhorts that China must not fall behind the times and must keep pace with the new theories of information warfare. A practical combination of information warfare and Marxist and Maoist military thoughts must be used to guide information warfare.

In specific, he talks of:

(a) Key information weapons, including PGMs.

(b) Reliable reconaissance and remote sensing systems.

(c) Information weapon systems employing AD weapon systems, offensive tac guided military attack systems, electronic warfare equipment and underwater mine laying systems.

These will give China over the horizon, high precision, concealed sudden "defensive attack" capability. Gen Pufeng exhorts the Chinese Army to establish battlefield information networks and battlefield data bases.

Chinese Definition and Theoretical Aspects of Info War

Senior Colonels Wang Bawarn and Li Fei, in their papers published in the June 13 and June 20, 1995, issues of the Liberation Army Daily, have laid down a very extensive theoretical basis for information warfare. They define information warfare as: "Combat operations in a high-tech battlefield environment in which both sides use info-tech equipment or systems in a rivalry over the power to obtain, control and use information. Information warfare is a combat aimed at seizing the battlefield initiative with digitised units as its essential combat force."

Thus, the seizure, control and use of information is the essence of information warfare. Information war in its narrow sense of battlefield information war is basically command and control warfare and uses five main elements:

(a) Substantive Destruction. The "hard kill" of enemy HQs, command posts and command control and intelligence centres.

(b) Electronic Warfare. To induce electronic jamming or use of electromagnetic devices to attack enemy information and intelligence collection systems such as communications and radar.

(c) Military Deception. The use of operations such as tactical fients to shield or deceive enemy intelligence collection systems.

(d) Operational Secrecy.

(e) Psychological War. To include use of TV, radio, leaflets to undermine enemy morale.

The two broad or general areas of info war are:

(a) Info-Protection

(b) Info-Attack

In its broad sense, information warfare has many manifestations such as

(a) Computer Virus Warfare

(b) Precision Warfare

(c) Stealth Warfare. All future war will be a combat between stealth and detection.

The Chinese Colonels have spelt out graphic details of the digitised battlefield of tomorrow with its informationised Army. In tomorrow's war, information dominance will be critical. It will expand the implication of war, reach out to outer space because key information systemsóspace monitoring, positioning and communication systemsówill be deployed there. It will critically shorten the time of battle. Land, sea and air and space warfare will be highly integrated. Combat lines among services arms will be hard to distinguish and the lines between strategy, campaign and tactical levels will be blurred.

Chen Huan, writing about "The Third Military Revolution" talks of:

(a) Long Range Combat.

(b) Outer Space Combat.

(c) Paralysis Combat.

(d) Computer Combat.

(e) Radiation Combat.

Maj Gen Zheng Quishing writing in the Liberation Army Daily of July 16, 1996, talks of local wars under high-tech conditions and the need to enhance:

(a) Calculation Capacities.

(b) Volume of Telecommunication.

(c) Reliability of Information.

(d) Real-time Reconaissance Capability.

There is thus, a substantive body of Chinese military writings on the subject of information war. In idiom and language of expression there is little to distinguish between the Chinese writings and modern Western (especially American) literature on the subject.


There is a vast body of Chinese military literature now available on the esoteric subjects of nuclear weapons and information war. These writings are characterised by a surprising degree of candour and openness and display a very sophisticated understanding of the nuances of these subjects. The idiom is very similar to modern Western literature on the subject and does throw up some unique Chinese insights. This new crop of Chinese military writings comprise excellent primary sources that need to studied and analysed in great detail. They provide excellent insights into Chinese military thinking on these futuristic subjects.