Technology has changed the way wars would be fought and won. In the 20th century, wars were fought on three battlefields, namely, land, air and sea. In this century, three more battlefields have been added — space, electromagnetic, and cyber. Since China lagged far behind the United States and Russia (the successor state of the Soviet Union) in the traditional battlefields and a catch-up was not possible, Beijing has focussed on the new battlefields to challenge Washington. India’s technological capabilities in comparison to China’s are extremely modest.
Take space for instance. It begins at 40km above the earth where the atmospheric limit ends. In 2007, China demonstrated its anti-satellite capability by destroying its own legacy satellite with a land-based interceptor. This alarmed the US. Considering that the US has hundreds of military and commercial satellites in space, it desires good space situational awareness. China’s anti-satellite capability could smash satellites into smithereens, leaving clouds of debris, which would adversely affect much-needed situational awareness. While this cannot be construed as an act of war, it would play havoc with space supported Command, Control, Computer and Intelligence (C3I) systems. Moreover, in 2013, China launched three small satellites into orbit as part of Beijing’s covert anti-satellite warfare programme. These satellites have the capability to co-orbit, or enter into the orbit of other satellites, and with a retractable arm, they can be used for a number of things — to gouge out, knock off, or grab passing satellites. This is part of a Chinese ‘Star Wars’.
This is not all. Since the dividing line between atmosphere and space has blurred — with the global militaries referring to it as aerospace — China, like the United States and Russia, is working on a new type of weapon called a DF-ZF hypersonic glide vehicle, which recently had its fourth test-firing. This will be able to travel at more than 7,000 miles per hour, and manoeuvre erratically to avoid anti-missile defences, and, given its speed, will have high energy on impact to achieve equivalent effects of nuclear weapons. Unlike a ballistic missile which travels in a parabolic arc and enters space, the hypersonic vehicle will glide within the atmosphere once separated from its booster rocket. The hypersonic vehicle will make the requirement of nukes and contact war — the hallmark of the traditional battlefields — unnecessary.
Regarding air battlefield, China has an impressive array and probably the largest number of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (more than the US) in the world. It is also developing hypersonic UAVs and unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs) for both near-space earth orbit mission, as well as for Perdix autonomous armed and unarmed UAVs missions. The latter are a swarm of smart drones capable of course correction by a collective ‘brain,’ which can guide each UAV towards its tactical mission. On the electromagnetic battlefield, China has made massive strides in directed energy and electromagnetic weapons like railguns. Instead of chemical explosives or gunpowder, railguns will use electromagnetic force to propel projectiles to hypersonic speeds, potentially up to ranges of several hundred miles. This will give the People’s Liberation Army a cheaper and higher volume of fire and a less risky alternative to ballistic and cruise missiles, as well as air strikes.
The cyber battlefield is perhaps the most ironic one. While the US invented the internet, China took early advantage of it to challenge the US in asymmetric war by developing cyber offensive capabilities. The Chinese reckoned that since the US’ military command, control, communication and intelligence was its mightiest strength, paralysing it or corrupting information systems would thwart US’s victory. With this strategic objective in mind, the PLA has been actively creating Information Warfare militias, recruited from universities, research institutes, and commercial IT companies, especially telecom firms. Above all this, the PLA, as a part of President Xi Jinping’s 2016 military reforms, has formed a new Strategic Support Force to bring all space, cyber, electromagnetic and technical assets, which are critical for information warfare, under one roof. These will be in support of combat operations both for continental defence and for expeditionary forces.