In July 2021, China tested a ground-breaking hypersonic missile that launched its own air-defense missile as it dived down from space. We look at how China’s new high-tech weapons fit into its new doctrine for invading Taiwan.
One week ago, an analyst of the U.S.-based national-security research company CENTRA Technology published a fascinating assessment of China’s recent high-risk “Joint Sword” military drills around Taiwan from April 8 to April 10. The analyst, David Chen, interpreted the tactics used during the drills as evidence of a recent and dramatic shift in the way the PLA says it plans to fight Taiwan and its allies.
The report says China showed in the three days of Joint Sword that it has become adept at its new warfare concepts of speed, new technologies, agility and dynamic control. He added that Joint Sword was a demonstration exercise for a worldwide audience while also serving as validation to China’s leaders that the PLA can perform up to expectations.
Creating a high-tech surprise
At the core of China’s new warfighting doctrine is the idea of overwhelming U.S. and Taiwanese forces with surprising new weapons that would cripple their ability to use their “outdated” warfighting systems and doctrines. To achieve this technological suckerpunch, China has harnessed commercial enterprises to use emerging disruptive technologies like AI, directed energy weapons, hypersonic missiles and quantum-based communications to leapfrog over their adversaries in terms of military capability. The idea is to use new tech to create a “next-generation model of warfare” with which the PLA can overwhelm the “network-centric warfare” model that the U.S. pioneered and perfected.
The PLA’s new doctrine encompasses its recent reforms in training, equipment and operations — and Joint Sword was an ideal opportunity for the PLA to test the key concepts of this new doctrine. China’s chief of military research, Senior Colonel Zhao Xiaozhuo (趙小卓), explained how the opening of the exercise illustrated the first key concept, “rapid deployment of forces” and also the second key concept, “joint seizure of domain control” — including control of the air, sea, and information. To control Taiwan’s information links to the world, the first day of the exercise also saw the PLA practicing how to cut Taiwan’s 14 undersea internet cables and other connections to the outside world.
Cutting undersea internet cables
Colonel Zhao explained that the PLA’s plan is to not only blockade Taiwan to cut off its resource imports in order to undermine its military, but also to break its information links to the international community. “Foreign forces want to send in not only weapons and equipment, but also intelligence and information. This link must also be broken so that they cannot get in.” The report says the way in which Ukraine received battlefield intelligence from NATO countries has illustrated how important it would be for Taiwan’s allies to provide similar support for Taiwan’s armed forces in the case of any invasion scenario.
A few weeks before Joint Sword, two Chinese commercial vessels severed the only two undersea internet cables that connect Taiwan to its Matsu island chain. Seen in conjunction with the April 8 exercises, the report says that these incidents hint at the possibility that China will use cable-cutting as part of an information blockade that would either be a prelude to invasion or part of the first step of an invasion. Colonel Zhao’s explanation of this part of Joint Sword illustrates that the PLA sees control of the flow of information as a critical part of its new warfare plans.
Apart from cutting Taiwan’s information links, the report says the PLA also considers its own ability to collect, distribute and exploit information faster than its opponent as a decisive advantage in operational tempo, allowing it to control battlespace developments by reacting faster. The “OODA loop” refers to the time it takes for a military to “observe, orient, decide and act” — and many of China’s technological investments are designed to create an AI-enabled “OODA 3.0.” The emphasis in Joint Sword on information control shows that China may be aiming at “getting inside its adversaries’ OODA loops” to make decisions faster than the opponent can react.
Leapfrogging with hypersonic missiles
China has also developed technology that is aimed at severely limiting the time its weapons take to reach their targets once the PLA’s high-speed OODA has given it the edge in decision-making speed. This ambition was partly created by an influential book titled Light Warfare: The New Trend in the Global Revolution in Military Affairs (光战争：世界军事革命新趋势, PLA Press 2015). The authors of the book told PLA Daily in 2015 that “every second counts in warfare, but the fastest modern missiles only travel at 20 to 30 times the speed of sound, yet the speed of light is 30,000 kilometers per second. As photonic weapons emerge, so will a genuine ‘one-second kill’ [capability], bringing about the true meaning of [instantaneous] detect-and-destroy.”
The general idea is to use “fast information” together with fast weapons like China’s supersonic and hypersonic missiles — and perhaps secret directed-energy weapons that China might have kept hidden — to launch “rapid precision strikes” against key nodes and platforms of the adversary’s defense network.
Colonel Zhao said day two of Joint Sword was a demonstration of “joint lightning strikes” that would “strike precisely” at critical parts of Taiwan’s military and political systems. This is likely a veiled reference to decapitation strikes that would use high-speed weapons to try and kill Taiwan’s president and most senior military leaders. Hypersonic missiles would leave only a few minutes between launch and impact, and if Taiwan’s large $1.4 billion PAVE PAWS early-warning radar installation is destroyed by missiles or attack jets, the reaction time would shrink even more. That’s why it would make a lot of sense for Taiwan to have tunnels with hardened bunkers under the president’s office and home, as well as under the abodes of Taiwan’s top political and military leaders. It is assumed that these bunkers have already been built.
It could be that Colonel Zhao was taking a leaf out of Sun Tzu’s book, The Art of War, when he said that such decapitation strikes would happen on day two of an invasion, rather than “minute one.” It seems logical that any invasion of Taiwan would start with very sudden and unexpected decapitation strikes that would target Taiwan’s leadership as well as its powerful PAVE PAWS radar installation and other detection systems. If Zhao is indeed blowing smoke here, it would correlate with the line in The Art of War that reads: “Engage people with what they expect; it is what they are able to discern and it confirms their projections. It settles them into predictable patterns of response, occupying their minds while you wait for the extraordinary moment — that which they cannot anticipate.”
Next Tuesday we will look at the last lessons from Joint Sword and China’s new warfare doctrine, and how the PLA plans to use Mach 3-capable reconnaissance drones to feed U.S. carrier coordinates to its hypersonic anti-ship missiles. We will also look at China’s hypersonic missile that can fire its own air-defense missile and its plans to use electromagnetic orbital cannons (电磁轨道炮) and directed energy weapons to greatly increase the tempo of operations during a theoretical invasion.
To read the second part of this two-part article, click here.
Image: U.S. Air Force, Public Domain