The Future of China’s Military Innovation


Forging China

Forging China’s Military Might: A New Framework for Assessing Innovation, edited by Tai Ming Cheung. Johns Hopkins Press, 2014. 304pp. $24.95

Review by Dr. Jeffrey Becker

Can China’s defense industry take the next step in supporting the country’s military modernization? Can it progress beyond a few well-known pockets of excellence in space and missiles to the point where the industry writ-large is capable of truly radical innovation? The CCP leadership clearly recognizes the importance of developing the nation’s defense science and technology industry, and defense industry reforms appear to be an integral part of the larger ongoing military reform process initiated at the 3rd Plenum of the 18th Party Congress in 2013. One need only look at recent Chinese writings on adjustment to weapons and equipment procurement and a growing focus on civil-military integration to see that the current leadership understands the importance of this issue to China’s future status as a military great power.

It is this context that we should view Tai Ming Cheung’s recently released edited volume, Forging China’s Military Might (2014, Johns Hopkins University Press). The results of a 2011 conference examining the Chinese defense economy held at Berkeley’s Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation, the book tackles the question of how we should view China’s defense industry within a global comparative perspective. While the relatively long time from conference to publication is lamentable, the volume contains many essays which remain highly relevant and cover a range of topics, including analytical models designed to better understand important drivers of innovation, trends in the direction of China’s defense industry development, and detailed case studies examining important organizations within the Chinese military and defense establishment.

The volume is anchored by the theoretical chapter authored by Tai Ming Cheung, Thomas G.  Mahnken, and Andrew L. Ross. The chapter lays out a general model that allows for comparing innovation in national defense industries across countries. The details of the model are far too complex to do justice in the space here, but are certainly worthy of more in-depth examination.  In sum, the model attempts to place national defense innovation on a spectrum ranging from simplistic and duplicative imitation, to disruptive and radical innovation. Where a country falls on this spectrum depends on a number of factors, including the state’s level of technological development, their security situation, and level of global integration. The authors find that most advances in the Chinese defense industry have been more incremental than disruptive to date, a finding likely true in most countries. While this is non-controversial, the chapter also notes that China’s innovative success has been more a function of technological advancements rather than doctrinal reform or organizational change, a point some may argue given the amount of ink spilled over the past twenty years examining PLA reforms in training, organization, and doctrine. 

Of the remaining chapters, two are likely of greatest interest to CIMSEC readers in that they deal directly with issues of concern to the PLA Navy. 

The first is an examination of China’s Military Representative Offices (MROs) by Susan M. Puska et. al. China’s MRO system is the PLA’s attempt to ensure quality at all stages of weapons and equipment production. Like previous studies of this system, the authors find it to be redundant, fragmented, and largely ineffectual. However, the chapter provides useful information on relatively recent (2010-2011) attempts to experiment with changes to the PLAN’s MRO system, with the goal of incorporating them into other MRO systems once they have been deemed successful. 

Like many experiments within the Chinese military and government, reforms to the MRO system appear to have gone nowhere. However, given that the PLA now appears to be undertaking some of the widest ranging and most serious reforms in decades, it will be extremely interesting to see whether they provide an impetus to finally bring the MRO system more in line with the PLA’s current needs and requirements. Added incentive to change how the PLA manages weapons development and procurement has also come from the ongoing anti-corruption campaign, which has already taken down a number of military officials – including those involved in weapons logistics and procurement. 

The second chapter likely to be of greatest interest to CIMSEC readers is the examination of China’s place in the global defense industry by Richard A. Bitzinger et. al. The authors compare and contrast the accomplishments of China’s defense industries in the field of shipbuilding, aviation, and space launch vehicles.  The examination of China’s shipbuilding industry provides some useful detail regarding the sectors’ accomplishments and challenges. Despite the dramatic achievements made over the past two decades, the authors find the continued reliance on foreign technology to be problematic, especially should China need to ramp up production during conflict, when access to needed foreign material and components may be in short supply. The authors conclude that China’s naval shipbuilding has been “remarkable, yet short of impressive,” a more somber assessment which contrasts with some of the more optimistic predictions regarding China’s naval shipbuilding capacity over the near term.   

So what are we to expect from China’s defense industry in the near future? The assessment here is that results are likely to be mixed. Pockets of excellence in areas such as missiles, space and cyber are likely to expand and will continue to improve. Other areas such as aviation – particularly the aero-engine sector – will continue to face challenges. Key for China analysts and those who focus specifically on China’s defense industry will be to identify well in advance those early warning indicators that will allow us to determine the extent to which real change in the industry is occurring, and how to determine how much of an impact it is having on China’s ability to close the defense technology gap. This book helps to advance that conversation by providing a number of ways to look at China defense industry in comparative perspective, which will be of value to anyone seeking to answer these questions for some time to come.

Jeffrey Becker is an analyst in the CNA China Studies Division. Dr. Becker’s published books and monographs include From Peasants to Protesters: Social Ties, Resources, and Migrant Labor Contention in Contemporary China (Lexington Books, 2014), and Behind the Periscope: Leadership in China’s Navy (CNA, 2013). His current research interests include Chinese maritime issues and Chinese foreign policy in the Asia-Pacific. Dr. Becker holds a Ph.D. in political science from the George Washington University, an M.A. in political science from Columbia University, and a B.A. in international relations and Asian studies from Colgate University.

Readers interested in reviewing books for CIMSEC can contact the book review editor at

Where is the Navy Going To Put Them All? (Part One)

Where is the U.S. Navy Going To Put Them All?

Part 1: More Drones Please. Lot’s and Lot’s of Them!

AORH class jpeg

Sketch by Jan Musil. Hand drawn on quarter-inch graph paper. Each square equals twenty by twenty feet.

Recent technological developments have provided the U.S. Navy with major breakthroughs in unmanned carrier landings with the X-47B. A public debate has emerged over which types of drones to acquire and how to employ them. This article suggests a solution to the issue of how to best make use of the new capabilities that unmanned aircraft and closely related developments in UUVs bring to the fleet.

The suggested solution argues for taking a broader look at what all of the new aerial and underwater unmanned vehicles can contribute, particularly enmasse. And how this grouping of new equipment can augment carrier strike groups. In addition, there are significant opportunities to revive ASW hunter killer task forces, expand operational capabilities in the Arctic, supplement our South China Sea and North East Asia presence without using major fleet elements and provide the fleet with a flexible set of assets for daily contingencies.

These sorts of missions provide opportunities for five principal types of drones. Strike, ISR and refueling drones as winged aircraft to fly off fleet platforms, UUVs and the Fire Scout helicopter. So we have five candidates to be built, in quantity, for the fleet. Let’s examine each of the suggestions for what they should be built to accomplish, what sort of weapons or sensors they need to be equipped with and what doctrinal developments for their use with the fleet need to happen.

Strike drone

The current requirements are calling for long range, large payload, and the ability to aerially refuel and are to be combined with stealth construction techniques for the airframe, even if not stealth coated. These size and weight parameters mean this drone will require CATOBAR launching off an aircraft carrier’s flight deck. Which also means it will be supplementing, and to some extent replacing, the F-35C in the air wings for decades to come. The merits of how many strike drones versus F-35Cs, and the level of stealth desired for both, will be an ongoing debate for the foreseeable future.

Given that a strike drone built with these capabilities will be tasked with similar mission requirements to the F-35C, we will assume for now that the weapons and ISR equipment installed will be equivalent, if not exactly the same as the F-35C. This implies that whatever work the U.S. Navy has already done in developing doctrine for use of the long range strike capacity the F-35Cs brings to the fleet should only need to be supplemented with the addition of a strike drone.

It is worth remembering that while these drones are unmanned, since they are CATOBAR they will still require sailors on deck to move, reload and maintain them. Sailors who also need a place to eat, sleep, etc.

And the carriers are already really busy places. However welcome the strike drone winds up being, there is not going to be enough room on the carriers to be add even more equipment. Therefore each drone will be replacing something already there, both physically within the hangar bay and financially within the Navy’s budget.

ISR drone

Most of the current public discussion surrounding an ISR equipped drone is rather hazy about what sort of sensors, range and weapons, if any, are wanted. However, the philosophical debate over mission profile, including a much smaller size, localized range requirement and the presumed emphasis on ISR tasks is revealing. The key points to concentrate on for such a drone are the suggested set of missions to be conducted by an arc of ISR drones around a selected location, sensor and networking capabilities, range and durability requirements and a limited weapons payload.

The traditional use of aerial search capabilities onboard a carrier task force was over the horizon, well over the horizon thank you very much, locating of the opponents surface assets. Over the years the extended ranges of aircraft and the development of airborne ASW assets changed the nature of the search and locate mission and the assets being used to conduct it. Adding space based surveillance changed things once more. The coming improvements in networking and data processing capabilities inside a task force, a steadily rising need for over the horizon targeting information coupled with the need to function within an increasingly hostile A2AD environment has once more altered the requirements of the search and locate mission. Search and locate essentially has become search, locate, network and target.

Being able to fund as well as field large numbers of anything almost always means keeping it smaller, and deleting anything not strictly needed beyond occasional use is an excellent way to accomplish this. For the ISR drone, not arming it with anything beyond strictly self-defense weapons is an excellent way to keep size and costs down. Since the primary missions of the ISR drone will be the new search, locate, network and target paradigm, concentrating funding on those capabilities is an excellent way to limit both development and operating costs.

Particularly since putting a large number of the drones, each capable of at least 24-30 hours on station, supplemented by refueling, in an arc around a task force in the direction(s) of highest concern means that the SuperHornets of the fleet can largely be freed from the loiter and defend mission and return to being hunters.

Since I am assuming the railgun will also be joining the fleet in large numbers some discussion about the range of the search, locate, network and target arc suggested above as it relates to the railgun is in order. The publicly disclosed range of the railgun is 65 miles, so an arc of ISR drones needs to be farther out from the task force than that, quite some way beyond that to provide time to effectively network location and target data developed back to the shooters. In the anticipated A2AD environment the primary threat is very likely to be a missile, mostly subsonic but the potential for at least some of them being hypersonic exists. Therefore, the incoming missiles or aircraft will need to be located, networked information sent to the surface assets armed with railguns and the targeting information processed quickly enough that the bars of steel launched as a result will be waiting for the incoming missile at 65 miles. Precisely how far out beyond the railguns effective range the arc of ISR drones will need to be will almost certainly vary by circumstance and the nature of the opponent’s weaponry. Nevertheless, whether subsonic or hypersonic, missiles move rapidly and this means an effective arc of ISR drones will have to be a long distance out from the task force. The farther out the arc is, a higher number of drones will be needed to provide adequate coverage.

This implies a need for a minimum of 6-8 ISR drones on station, 24/7, in all kinds of weather. Since there are inevitable maintenance problems cutting into availability time, this implies a task force will need take twice that number to sea with it. Particularly if a second arc of two or three ISR drones is maintained just over the horizon, or simply overhead. This inner group can also provide local networking abilities for the ASW assets of the task force. Having at least one ISR drone close in to provide a rapid relay of information around the task force by its sub hunters should also be planned for as a doctrinal necessity.

This arc of ISR drones is a wonderful new capability to have, but…., but fifteen drones are not going to fit on a CVN. Not when an essentially equivalent number of something else needs to be removed to make room for the newcomers. Our carriers are packed as it is with needed airframes and trading out fifteen of them from the existing air wing is not going to happen.

Nor is there room elsewhere in the fleet. The CCGs and DDGs have limited space on their helo decks, but even if the new ISR drone were equipped with the modified VTOL engine from the Osprey program, there still wouldn’t be space for more than a few of them. Once more, it is a case of needing to take something out of the fleet to put the new capability in.

This means we have to build a new class, or classes, of ships to operate and house the quantities of drones desired, including operating space, hanger and maintenance space and sailor’s living spaces.

Refueling drone

A drone primarily dedicated to the refueling mission takes on another of the un-glamorous, but unending tasks involved in operating a task force. Instead of the proposed return of the S-3 Vikings as tankers, a somewhat larger drone can be designed from scratch to be a flying gas station with long range and loitering times, presumably with vastly more fuel aboard and built to only occasionally load weapons or sensors under the wings. It could have ISR capabilities or ASW weapons slung under the wings as distinctly secondary design characteristics. In understanding when to use manned versus unmanned systems obviously any extra weight and space gained by losing a cockpit allows for more fuel carried, longer loitering times and extra range. These advantages need to be balanced against the occasional need for a pilot’s skills on scene.


As for the UUVs in development, much has been made of their ability to dive deeply and search for things as well as their ability to autonomously operate far out in front of a task force, including the possibility of submarine launched missions. While interesting a more incremental use of the roughly six feet long torpedo shaped UUV currently in use for deep diving missions might be more appropriate.

While we wait on further research developments to establish ways to effectively utilize a long range, long duration UUV reconnaissance drone, a more mundane use of what we have right now can readily be used for ASW purposes. We could equip a six-foot UUV with the sensors already in use for ASW purposes and cradle it in open sided buoy in order to hoist the UUV in and out of the water. This buoy could be used over the side, or far more usefully, launched and recovered by helicopter. Wave and say hello Fire Scouts.

Fire Scouts

Any helicopter asset that the U.S. Navy has can be used of course, but without a pilot aboard the Fire Scouts are much better suited for the long hours required to successfully prosecute ASW. Taking off with the UUV cradled inside it’s buoy, the Fire Scout can deploy the buoy, allow the tethered UUV to swim to the thermocline or other desired depth, hover while allowing the UUV to transmit or simply silently listen, wait for the resulting data that is collected to be reported via the tether and broadcast by an antenna on the buoy and then once the UUV has swum back into it’s cradle within the buoy, drop back down and relift the buoy and move it to the next needed position. This redeployment can be hundreds or thousands of yards away at the mission commander’s discretion. This cycle can be repeated as many times as wanted or fuel for the Fire Scout allows. A difficulty that can be resolved aboard the nearest surface ship with a helo deck, leaving the buoy drifting in place, UUV on station and transmitting as refueling takes place. Shift changes by pilots should not materially interrupt this cycle. The most likely limitation that will force the Fire Scout to lift buoy and UUV out of the water for return aboard will be the exhaustion of the power source aboard the buoy being used to operate the reel for the tether and broadcast the data collected to an overhead airframe. Which just happens to be another use for the ISR drone or a ScanEagle.

In the next article we will examine how the Navy can make profitable use of UUVs and buoys, deployed and maneuvered across the ocean by the Fire Scout helicopter, in quantity, in pursuit of the ASW mission.

Jan Musil is a Vietnam era Navy veteran, disenchanted ex-corporate middle manager and long time entrepreneur currently working as an author of science fiction novels. More relevantly to CIMSEC he is also a long-standing student of navies in general, post-1930 ship construction thinking, and design hopes versus actual results and fleet composition debates of the twentieth century.

The Coast Guard and Maritime Strategy

In Prof. James Holmes’s recent CIMSEC review of CAPT Pete Haynes’s splendid new book on U.S. Navy strategic thinking since the end of the Cold War, he called for bringing the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) into the Maritime Strategy narrative.

He’s in luck: The same set of CNA [Formerly Center for Naval Analyses] studies that CAPT Haynes used for his book also addresses that very issue. The CNA studies were written in 2007 in the wake of the publication of the U.S. Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower (CS21) maritime strategy and were completed in 2011, while CS21R (the maritime strategy’s revision) was in gestation. They cover the development of U.S. Navy strategy from 1970 to 2010, the context to same, and include sections on USN relationships with each of the other services, including the USCG.

As designed, the CNA studies are being used as an adjunct to the Navy’s current Strategic Enterprise initiative and as a basis for a burgeoning literature on recent U.S. naval strategy, including CAPT Haynes’s dissertation and book, and Dr. Sebastian Bruns’s masterful dissertation (in English) at the University of Kiel. A copy of the material on USN-USCG relationships, extracted from four of the studies and then integrated as a discrete stand-alone document, is available here.

Peter Swartz is a retired U.S. Navy Captain and for more than 20 years has been with CNA, which includes the Navy’s Federally Funded Research and Development Center (FFRDC). He is the author of the U.S. Navy Capstone Strategies series, a comprehensive analysis of the Navy’s capstone strategy, policy, and concept documents from 1970 to 2010. He has also authored other studies on US Navy and US Coast Guard plans, policy and operations, and is the CNA scientific analyst for the Navy’s OPNAV Strategy and Policy Division (N51).

Sea Control 86 – Journalism and Soft Power

seacontrol2Dean Cheng discusses the development and purpose of Russia and China’s new and growing journalism institutions in general, and specifically how Xinhua is maneuvering to pose a challenge to traditional western news sources. We also discuss how China’s growing news and media market makes some traditionally understood methods of diplomatic signalling less clear. We also gripe a bit about journalism in the US.

DOWNLOAD: Journalism and Soft Power

Host & Production: Matthew Hipple
Music: Sam LaGrone

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