World Trend of RMA and Its Implications to the PLA
The global concentration on the Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA), has not been ignored by the top brass and planners of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). The problem for the PLA is that this development juxtaposes opportunities as well as challenges. If the PLA cannot follow the trend and accelerate its military and national defence modernization, it will fall behind its counterparts. However, if it overreacts or is lured into an arms race, overall economic development will be greatly affected by the extra cost and could potentially be fatally affected. It may not be that difficult for China though as at the top level of the relevant authorities a consensus has been reached that the augmentation of comprehensive national power appeared after Gaige Kaifang (Reform and Openness) in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s has laid a solid basis for possible RMA. The challenge of how to realize ‘the RMA with Chinese Characteristics’ has been posited at the centre of the modernization of national defence and military affairs. Nevertheless, problems such as weapon discrepancy, under-qualified soldiers and officers and inefficient military structures would will definitely impact and constrain the process and schedule of the efforts.
World RMA Trend and PLA: Chances and Challenges
Chances: Gaining the ‘later-mover’s advantage’ in military technologies: The rapid development of information technology has greatly helped the PLA directly harmonize itself with the latest military technologies, thus achieving a great leap forward in the weapon quality. It has also not committed itself to the latest technology like some potential rivals and therefore is able to reach a higher level with less resources committed.
Benefiting from tactical, structural and weapon validations in real wars by other nations: The PLA has witnessed validations of military theories, structural reforms and weapons, for example in Gulf Wars, by its advanced counterparts. The evolution of world military history has provided the PLA with valuable examples and cases to study in its own modernization process.
Challenges: To follow or not to follow (or how to follow)? That’s the question: facing the trend of world RMA, the PLA’s passive reaction could cause a larger gap with the US military forces in the future. However, if the PLA instead overreacts in a blinkered and wrong way, there would not only be a worry of a ‘China Threat’ emerging in the international society but also a possible arms race which caused the former Soviet Union to disintegrate.
More constraints for future use of military power: the successful RMA has strengthened the US military power, placing more pressure and challenges on China’s exertion of diplomatic influence on the way to becoming a great power in world politics.
Time is ripe: China’s comprehensive national power (CNP) has boomed since the outset of Gaige Kaifang. Backed by rigorous economic development, China has improved greatly in military-related areas like aerospace industries, missile technology and other defence industrial sectors, which — in the policymakers’ minds — would provide robust technological supports and a solid basis for the RMA with Chinese characteristics.
To find a way out: In the assessment of PLA planners, the existing gap in military power between China and other western nations means it would lose a future conflict in the field of information warfare, and the Matthew Effect would happen: the strong get stronger, and the weak get weaker. This assessment has persuaded top brass in PLA that the only way to win in a future possible conflict and to solve problems — such as inconsistencies in the buildup of military power and the lag in military structure —lies in a successful RMA.
To seize the ‘strategic opportunity’: The PLA assesses that with the development and application of information technology and advanced computer science, western nations are gaining military superiority over developing nations including China and a new imbalance in world military match-ups has emerged. However, it also offers a ‘strategic opportunity’, which, if not seized, will widen the gap possibly even to a level of a generation. Therefore, to conduct an RMA timely, positively and in a suitable way has become a must for the PLA.
Existing Problems in the Chinese RMA
Weapon discrepancy: compared with other militaries in the developed nations, the giant gap of PLA not only exists in the level of digitalization but also in the mechanization needed in any information warfare. According to the relative process in the development, the gap is widening instead of narrowing.
Low human quality in PLA: the general educational level of PLA soldiers, sailors and airmen is rapidly falling further and further behind that of military personnel in advanced countries. Under the condition where high human quality is crucial to RMA, the lack of knowledge with regard to modern technology in PLA troops and the lagging behind of professional education have severely constrained the PLA’s modernization plans.
Obsolete and rigid military structures and organizations: The PLA has conducted several organizational reforms. One of the most important adjustments will be the downsizing in 2005. This will be achieved by reducing the size of the military by approximately 200,000 personnel, in order to create a much more compact, unified and intellectualized military organization. But the anachronistic organizational design of the PLA has not yet been able to acclimate the PLA with modern military development trend, however streamlined it may become. In addition, there are still many deep structural problems with no fundamental solutions, all of which combine to greatly impede the PLA’s RMA process and schedule.
Relatively outmoded military theories: research and innovation in military theory is the key concept in world RMA trend and has received much attention. In contrast, the PLA, with no real war experience — especially no experience in ‘local wars under the high-technology condition’ as its theory proposes — has not yet developed enough theories on information warfare and the role of digitization in military affairs.
The Prospect of RMA in China Taking a lesson from the big picture concerning the worldwide development of RMA, the key aspect of the PLA’s military strategy will lean toward overall informationalization in the military and acquisition of long-distance precision attack capability. In training and the operational level, ‘non-linear’ and ‘non-contact’ warfare will play a more and more important role. With the goals of narrowing the gap with its western counterparts, PLA would devote much to the completion of mechanization before accelerating its informationalization process. On the other hand, under the principle of future ‘compact, synthetic and efficient’ forces, revolution and innovation of military structures and organizations will continue for a local war under hi-tech conditions. Last but not least, the development and education of multi-task, hi-tech-andinformation- accommodated military personnel would also be a critical goal for the PLA.
Research Fellow, Prospect Foundation, Taipei, Taiwan