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Aviation Week & Space Technology

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by Richard Fisher, Jr.
Published on November 6th, 2015

Soviet strategists realized in the 1970s that combining accurate conventional weapons with advanced information, surveillance and command systems could achieve destructive effects approaching those of low-yield nuclear weapons. The Soviet term for combining tactical division-level information systems and artillery rockets was “reconnaissance-fire complex,” while combining information and missile/air-strike systems at the operational-theater level was “reconnaissance-strike complex.”

While the U.S. operationalized both concepts in wars in the Balkans, Iraq and Afghanistan, China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) paid close attention and by the early 2000s was assembling its first reconnaissance-fire/strike complex. The PLA is now moving from a first-generation reconnaissance-fire/strike complex, more appropriate for offensive operations at short-to-medium ranges, to a second-generation system with better multilevel surveillance and information systems and capable of lengthy strike campaigns up to intermediate ranges.

Over the last decade, the PLA deployed a formidable C4ISR network with continual improvements. The PLA can access 30 military and civil optical-surveillance satellites, five radar satellites and five constellations of three electronic intelligence-targeting satellites. In October, the PLA launched the Jilin-1 satellite with 0.73-meter (2.39-ft.) imagery resolution and two Lingqiao satellites with 1.3-meter resolution video. Higher-resolution video satellites can be expected and, according to Chinese scientists, could be supported later this decade by the first optical/laser communication-relay satellites. If successful, these could exponentially expand data-transmission rates to enable high-resolution video coverage of multiple global conflicts.

PLA airborne surveillance assets include 16 KJ-2000/KJ-200/KJ-500 Awacs and a growing number and variety of unmanned aerial vehicles. Among the latter are early versions of the twin-fuselage Shenyang Divine Eagle and Chengdu box-wing Soar Dragon, both of which approach the U.S. Global Hawk in size. Chengdu’s MQ-9 Reaper-sized Wing Loong-II, now in testing, has 20-hr. endurance and can be armed with light attack missiles and bombs. Last month China also tested the Dream high-altitude airship, which is intended to be a near-space persistent-surveillance platform.

To transmit data, the PLA has access to 20 military and commercial satellites. By 2020, the 35-satellite Compass navigation system should provide global coverage. For the past 15 years, the PLA has been developing digital command systems to support national, theater and operational command-and-control needs. These facilitate joint service operations and have been improved during the multinational Peace Mission exercises held by the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.

It was during the September 2014 Peace Mission exercise in China that the PLA unveiled the fiber-optic-guided, 10-km-range (6.2-mi.), AFT-10 anti-armor battlefield missile from China Aerospace and Science Co. (Casic), which offers heightened information and tactical strike. Casic markets a similarly configured 70-km CM-501G missile that may combine imaging infrared and a data link for longer-range precision strikes. Casic also supplies the WS-43 networked loitering battlefield missile with 60-km range and 30-min. endurance.

PLA short-range ballistic missile (SRBM) numbers could increase sharply. The Second Artillery Corps operates 1,200 Casic 350-km-range DF-11A missiles along with the China Aerospace Science and Technology Co.’s (CASC) 600-km DF-15. But these single-missile-per-launcher systems could be succeeded by systems with 5-8 missiles per launcher, such as the CASC M-20, which has one SRBM with a range of more than 300 km and four 300-km A300 artillery rocket-based SRBMs. Casic offers a similar system pairing the 300-plus-km BP-12A with up to four 200-km SY-400 artillery rocket-based SRBMs. In 2010, the last year it published these figures, the Pentagon said the PLA had 250 SRBM launchers. Five missiles per launcher plus two reloads could increase the PLA’s SRBMs to 3,750.

Second Artillery Corps theater missiles are increasing in number and range. The 800-1,000-km Casic DF-16 entered service in 2012. The 2,000-plus-km DF-21 comes in the terminally guided DF-21C version and 1,500-km DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM). At its Sept. 3 military parade, the PLA revealed the CASC DF-26 with an estimated range of 4,000 km. During the parade, it was reported that the DF-26 has an ASBM variant. Second Artillery Corps also operates more than 400 CASC DF-10 ground-launched, land-attack cruise missiles (LACM) with a range of 1,500-2,000 km.

The PLA Air Force’s new Xian H-6K and older H-6M medium bombers carry a version of the DF-10 LACM. H-6K bombers can carry six LACMs and a larger number of precision-guided munitions (PGM). These PGMs can arm strike fighters such as the Xian JH-7A, Chengdu J-10 and twin-seat Shenyang J-16, now in development.

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