The PLA’s new strategies and tactics look impressive on paper, but they depend partly on weapons that are either top secret or non-existent — and then there’s the question of how Taiwan and its allies could throw a spanner in the works
Last week we looked at the first part of a report on what China’s new Taiwan-invasion doctrine looks like and how the new tactics were practiced during the “Joint Sword” exercises that the PLA held after Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen met with U.S. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy in April. The exercises were held over three days starting on April 8.
The report by U.S.-based analyst David Chen started by looking at the events during Joint Sword and how it fit in with recent discussions between PLA thinkers about how their new warfare doctrine works. Chen looked at senior PLA leaders’ stated goals to create a technological “suckerpunch” by harnessing China’s 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.
Chen’s conclusion was that Joint Sword was a perfect opportunity for PLA forces to practice their new tactics and that they showed that they had become adept at the PLA’s new warfare concepts of speed, new technologies, agility and dynamic control. The report looked at China’s emphasis on cutting Taiwan off from communicating with the outside world by not only blockading shipping but also cutting undersea internet cables to make it very hard for Taiwan’s allies to supply it with battlefield intelligence in the same way they provided the latter to Ukraine’s defenders.
The general idea of China’s new doctrine is to use “fast information” together with fast weapons like China’s supersonic and hypersonic missiles — and PLA leaders have been hinting that they have access to directed-energy weapons for direct attack and advanced electronic warfare — to launch “rapid precision strikes” against key nodes and platforms of the adversary’s defense network.
One interesting high-speed weapon that David Chen mentioned in the report is China’s new supersonic WZ-8 rocket drone. This 11.5-meter-long UAV looks like a sleek black arrowhead with two rocket thrusters sticking out at its rear. U.S. analysts say it can fly at Mach 3 at altitudes of 30 kilometers. Its biggest drawback is that it requires a bomber like the H6-M to carry it to a suitable altitude and speed before the drone detaches and its rockets ignite. The WZ-8 would then fly high and fast over enemy air defenses to gather data via its synthetic aperture radar and electro optical sensors in a limited time window.
The WZ-8 would be especially useful if China’s satellites are degraded or destroyed by anti-satellite weapons. Its fast reconnaissance capability could be used to fill satellite-guidance gaps by gathering targeting data on warships and aircraft carriers that could then be used to aim the PLA’s hypersonic, cruise and ballistic anti-ship missiles.
Chen also mentions U.S. Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall’s controversial remarks in 2021, where Kendall hinted that he had classified information that China had “space to Earth” weapons that could be used to attack targets from space, thereby avoiding most early-warning radars and greatly reducing reaction times. In the September 21, 2021 speech, Kendall said China is developing the ability to launch “global strikes from space” at U.S. targets.
Just two months later, on November 22, 2021, it was revealed that China had tested a ground-breaking hypersonic glide vehicle in July of that year. The vehicle managed to fire a separate missile mid-flight as it traveled at Mach 5 on approach to its target. This is a capability that no country had previously demonstrated.
Chen said that while there were no further public indications that this program has been operationalized by China, the concept aligned with the PLA’s stated new doctrine. “A hypersonic vehicle capable of launching a submunition, possibly a kill vehicle, while potentially supplying it with fresh, localized targeting data would fit the prescriptions of Light Warfare,” Chen said. In other words, such a hypersonic vehicle could — in theory — quickly arrive near where a target was spotted earlier, launch a slower missile that flies slow enough to deploy a seeker head that doesn’t melt or burn up, which could then in turn find ships at sea, identify the ship types and then guide the hypersonic vehicle to a selected ship. “Such a platform could represent a convergence of sensor and weapon, a ‘detect-destroy’ singularity moment for achieving a resilient and independent kill chain,” Chen added.
The Joint Sword analysis also looked at the fact that the PLA managed to extend its operations into the Pacific east of Taiwan, as part of the three-day exercise. The attack drills saw the first time that Chinese J-15 fighters from the PLA’s Shandong aircraft carrier had entered Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) from the southeast. This was the second time since December 2022 that a Chinese carrier group had operated between Taiwan and Guam, and Chen believes this demonstrates that China plans to overcome the U.S.’s network-centric warfare doctrine by holding “key platforms at risk.” He quotes one Chinese researcher as saying “In a situation where a U.S. air base or aircraft carrier might be attacked, U.S. military air strike platforms must consider using airfields or aircraft carriers farther from the battlefield …so that every link in the kill chain can be strained, and perhaps even broken.”
Senior Colonel Zhao Xiaozhuo (趙小卓), deputy director of the China-U.S. Defense Relations Research Center of the Academy of Military Science, would later describe this aspect of the exercise: “After surrounding the island of Taiwan, military forces then proceeded to extend into the Pacific, mainly to prevent foreign forces from intervening. On one hand, [we] blockade the island; on the other [we] prevent foreign forces from intervening, ultimately achieving the [mission] objectives perfectly.”
The report also mentions that Chinese scholars have proposed the concept of “energy-centric warfare” (能量中心戰). These scholars believe the chain of information and the chain of energy are both essential in a modern doctrine. Chen quotes one such research document as saying “Energy-centric warfare focuses on increasing the speed of the “attack” segment, specific methods include: reducing the time between detection and destruction of targets through development of near-space hypersonic weapons (近空間高超聲速武器), electromagnetic orbital cannons (電磁軌道炮), directed energy weapons (定向能武器), and other new concept weapons.” These words suggest that China has powerful energy weapons either on Earth or in Earth orbit with which it plans to execute high-speed strikes against Taiwanese and U.S. targets. Only time will tell whether such capabilities are real or imaginary.
The report ends by reminding readers that the ability to conduct drills successfully does not mean the drilled actions would run smoothly during an actual conflict. Chen said it is important for all military planners in the Indo-Pacific region to understand the evolution of Chinese warfare doctrine and to devise weapons and plans that are designed to cripple the PLA’s ability to reach its objectives. The first of these objectives are “rapid deployment of forces” and “joint seizure of domain control” — including control of the air, sea and information. The latter objective would include blockading Taiwan and cutting its undersea internet cables to completely block its communications with its allies and the world.
Another objective would be to use hypersonic missiles and other high-speed weapons in decapitation strikes designed to neutralize the leadership and most crucial defense systems of Taiwan — and possibly of U.S. forces in the Pacific as well. This step might happen right at the beginning of an invasion or blockade. China hints that it might have top-secret directed-energy weapons to help it achieve this goal.
The PLA also wants to gain “decision dominance” by employing a vast array of sensors to get theater-wide awareness of what is happening where, in order to react faster than its opponent when it comes to redirecting forces. It also wants to use fast information in conjunction with fast weapons to increase the operational tempo of the battle and thereby overwhelm the opponent’s ability to react to a flood of battlefield events.
Chen concludes that, “while the PLA may be increasingly confident in its capabilities, it has not yet tested them in action against a genuine adversary and simply demonstrating new operational theory is not evidence of the ability to execute that theory in a real-world scenario.” He stresses that the PLA has embraced new warfare concepts-of-operations that are tailored to overcome an information-reliant adversary. The successes the PLA would have with this during an actual war would depend on how effective Taiwan and its allies are at studying China’s weapons and doctrines and then developing tactics and weapons that would “throw a spanner in the works” of the PLA’s ambitious plans.
To read the first half of this two-part article, click here.
Image: 野生灰熊, Public Domain