Automation of weapons systems? Check.
Launch of cyber force to help spot targets? Check.
Cutting-edge combat training for ground troops? Not yet.
It has taken two decades for China’s People’s Liberation Army to fully automate its weapon systems, shifting much of the operational burden from physical grunt to digital technology.
Where once a dozen soldiers were needed to fire a rocket launcher, now fewer than half that number are needed to operate much more powerful hardware, according to one military expert.
But training of troops has reportedly not kept pace with the advances in weapons, prompting the Chinese military’s mouthpiece to lash out at some commanders for not adopting a modern mindset to technology.
In several articles published in the last week, PLA Daily pointed out shortcomings in the ground force’s training system, saying many manoeuvres looked “very tough”, but were “actually distinctly outdated and inefficient”.
“All rivals value and rely on technology [in the modern battlefield],” Zhang Xicheng, a researcher from the PLA Military Academy, wrote in a commentary published on Monday.
“It will be difficult to hit the bull’s eye if we can’t have breakthroughs in training, and do not pay attention to innovative combat.”
The article took aim at some army commanders for not having an understanding of technology and how it affected modern warfare operations.
Defence analysts said the criticism comes as the army finishes automating all of its weapon system in pursuit of its bigger goal of turning the world’s largest military into a nimble and capable combat force.
The Chinese defence ministry says the automation target was reached last year as the Central Military Commission also set the goal for the PLA to become a fully modern army by 2027, the centennial of the army’s founding.
Macau-based military commentator Antony Wong Tong said automating the weapon systems was part of the shift towards joint operations.
Rather than each branch of the armed forces operating in Soviet-style isolation, they are being asked to work together, connected by the Strategic Support Force (SSF), also known as the military’s cyber arm.
“The PLA ground forces operation system is a mixture of US and former Soviet Union styles, while their cyber force in the SSF has learned almost the essentials from the American army,” Wong said.
One example of the SSF in action was its leading role in integrating the command system of more than 10 ground force units into an early-warning system for the air force in the Western Theatre Command, PLA Daily reported on Tuesday.
“Integration into the air force’s early-warning network system not only allows us to see farther, but also give stronger support for early detection and advance strikes,” ground force company commander Li Bolin was quoted as saying.
Zhou Chenming, a researcher from the Yuan Wang think tank, a Beijing-based military institute, said the ground forces were under pressure to turn their bulky units into smaller and flexible fighting teams fitted out with newer,
lighter and more precise arms.
“These new weapon systems are lighter but much more powerful than those in the last century which relied on manpower to operate,” he said.
For example, today’s multiple launch rocket systems and howitzers could fire many times more shells than the earlier generation of canons and had higher hit rates. They also took fewer people to operate.
“In the past, one launcher system needed at least one dozen soldiers to operate it, but after mechanisation, just four or five people are enough,” Zhou said.
In the past, much of the troop training on weapons systems involved live rounds but that was no longer the most efficient approach, he said.
“It’s costly and wasteful. It doesn’t conform to modern warfare theory and violates the aim of mechanisation.”
One way to cut costs was to practise on simulators, a tactic used by the US armed forces, which the PLA was exploring, with positive results, Zhou said.
“Like their American counterparts, young soldiers are demonstrating precision in both computer games and live-fire drills, even though they fire live shells once or twice a year,” he said, adding that commanders would have to change their mindset to keep up.
“Otherwise, they can’t lead the young generation.”