Information on the PLA Navy’s electronic warfare posture is slowly emerging in the public domain
On 5th April, the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) defence thinktank hosted its annual Sea Power conference in London. Alongside the discussion of hypersonic weapons, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation’s naval posture, and Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine, China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) was very much on the agenda.
Much is made of the PLAN’s numerical strength. One month earlier the US Congressional Research Service published a report entitled China Naval Modernisation: Implications for US Navy Capabilities – Background and Issues for Congress which stated the PLAN’s current numerical strength is about 355 ships.
This number includes major surface combatants and submarines, as well as long side amphibious assault ships, mine countermeasure vessels, and auxiliaries, plus a further 85 smaller vessels such as patrol boats and fast attack craft can be added to this total. Further, the report predicted this fleet size could grow to 420 ships by 2025 and 460 vessels by 2030, with the increase mainly being absorbed by large surface combatants.
While important, the report cautioned that fleet size comparisons, “can be a one-dimensional measure that leaves out numerous other factors that bear on a navy’s capabilities, and how those capabilities compare to its assigned missions.” True to its word, the document did examine other aspects of PLAN modernisation like ship design and weapons development, especially anti-ship missiles.
The report also discussed PLAN naval electronic warfare (EW) enhancements, but was lacking in detail. This is not a criticism, as little information is available in the public domain concerning PLAN EW capabilities, and what is known by the US and her allies is probably too sensitive to reach the public domain. Nonetheless, by examining information in the public domain and the perspectives of experts, it is possible to infer how the PLAN sees EW writ large.
Delegates at RUSI’s conference enjoyed a presentation by Elsa Kania, adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security’s technology and national security programme, which touched on the PLAN’s electronic warfare posture. Kania said the People’s Liberation Army as a whole, and by virtue the PLAN, was moving towards an information dominance paradigm which it sees at the centre of modern warfare, and integral to the PLAN’s approach therein. She said information dominance is front and centre of the PLA’s vision of warfare.
China’s information dominance approach embraces the concept of integrated network electronic warfare (INEW). The US Department of Defence’s (DOD) 2021 report on Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China stressed that the “PLA considers EW an integral component of modern warfare and seeks to achieve information dominance in a conflict through the coordinated use of cyber and electronic warfare.”
As Deepak Sharma explains in his 2010 article Integrated Network Electronic Warfare: China’s New Concept of Information Warfare which was published in the Journal of Defence Studies, China’s INEW concept is the vehicle coordinating the application of cyber and electronic warfare. Sharma said information warfare aims to “destroy or disrupt an adversary’s capability to receive and process data”.
At the strategic level, EW and cyber warfare are the responsibility of China’s Strategic Support Force (SSF) which is a service in its own right. Established in 2015, the SSF merges strategic cyber and EW with China’s space capabilities.
Kania calls the SSF “the tip of the spear”, where information operations will be placed at the centre in future operations. She says the PLA believes the opening salvoes of any future conflict could occur in space, cyberspace, and/or the electromagnetic spectrum. Alongside the navy, the other branches of the PLA place equal importance on EW in every domain of warfare.
STRATEGIC SUPPORT FORCE
The SSF contains three departments, each of which has a distinct responsibility according to a paper published by defence analyst Tate Nurkin in 2018 entitled China’s Advanced Weapons Systems.
The 3rd Department specialises in cyberwarfare, the 2nd Department performs traditional espionage, and the 4th Department is responsible for INEW and may also be responsible for collecting Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) including military Communications Intelligence (COMINT). Technical SIGINT is collected by the PLA’s Technical Reconnaissance Bureaux, and it is possible that these bureaux are also in the 4th Department. While few details exist on their activities, it is possible that they collect SIGINT on missile telemetry or Electronic Intelligence (ELINT) from radars.
The doctrinal requirement for INEW filters down to the constituent parts of the PLA, and for the PLAN, it merges with the overall concept of ‘informatisation’. This concept was defined in a 2011 article by Andrew Erickson and Michael Chase entitled Informatization and the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy. Erickson and Chase said, broadly speaking, informatisation is analogous to the trend for Network Centric Warfare seen in the 1990s/2000s, which has morphed into Multi-Domain Operations in western military thinking.
Erickson and Chase say informatisation incorporates information superiority, reconnaissance and counter-reconnaissance, EW, network and platform integration, space operations, joint operations and joint integration, sensor-to-shooter connectivity, autonomous operations and notions of speed, accuracy, security, and continuity of communications. A more succinct explanation provided by the authors says informatisation rests on “using information technology as the impetus, information networks as the foundation and command automation as the core”.
The US Department of Defence’s 2021 report on Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China says the SSF’s primary task is to integrate information warfare capabilities like cyber and EW, to ensure these efforts are used in a coordinated manner at the strategic level. The application of electronic warfare at the operational and tactical levels will almost certainly be the responsibility of the individual services.
Writ large, it appears the PLA has embraced the concept of Electromagnetic Manoeuvre. Broadly speaking, this emphasises protecting your own access to the electromagnetic spectrum while denying it to your adversary by securing electromagnetic superiority and supremacy. Electromagnetic superiority seeks to ensure that an adversary can only perform limited interference of one’s use of the spectrum, while electromagnetic supremacy ensures that one’s adversary cannot perform any interference of spectrum use.
From a warfighting perspective, the US DoD expects the PLAN to use EW early in any conflict or in times of tension, to “warn and deter adversary offensive action”. It continues that it expects any military action against Taiwan will likely be preceded by large-scale EW and cyberattacks against the Taiwanese military and critical national infrastructure targets.
Erickson and Chase emphasise that since 2006, PLA doctrine has stressed the importance of the PLA being able to fight in an electromagnetically contested environment and, that year, China’s national defence white paper emphasised that the principles of informatisation must be adhered to even during massed electronic attack. To this end, training to fight in such an environment received renewed vigour, and just a year later, an exercise by the PLAN’s North Sea Fleet which covers the Yellow Sea and Bohai Bay region performed exercises involving electronic warfare.
Kania drove this point home in her RUSI presentation where she underscored the premium the PLAN places on fighting and prevailing in an electromagnetically-contested environment.
The PLAN can perform EW at all levels of war and during peacetime, and strategic and operational SIGINT collection is performed by a fleet of 14 ships.
The PLAN operates six Yuan Wang class vessels which collect telemetry on Chinese spaceflights and intercontinental ballistic missile tests, although one would expect that they are also used to monitor similar activities by rival states. Telemetry gathered by these ships is most likely shared with the SSF’s Technical Reconnaissance Bureaux.
The Yuan Wang class is augmented with three intelligence gathering ship classes – the Type-813, Type-814A/Dadie, and Type-815/Dondiao – totalling eight vessels. Very little information exists in the public domain regarding their capabilities, but photographs of the Type-815 show large radomes atop of the superstructure, which may house antennas tasked with collecting satellite communications COMINT, while a large number of antennas on the ship’s forward mast may be used for ELINT collection.
All these ships have an important role in collecting SIGINT useful throughout the PLAN. For example, ELINT antennas at a height of about 40 metres (131 feet) above the waterline could detect radars on the surface or on a coastline at a range of up to 14nm/26km, allowing the ship to stay just outside the 12nm internationally-recognised territorial waters limit of a state.
Such intelligence would be highly relevant to the PLAN when drafting plans for an amphibious assault of that coastline, and would also be highly relevant to the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) when planning an air defence suppression campaign. It is believed the SSF’s 4th Department acts as the clearing house for such intelligence. The ELINT will be collected by assets like the PLAN’s SIGINT ships, processed by the 4th Department, and shared with the services needing that intelligence.
Alongside strategic SIGINT, the ships may also collect operational and tactical SIGINT by stationing themselves within collection range of a naval exercise involving potential adversaries. Relevant COMINT and ELINT collected by these ships maybe shared with the PLAN for use at the operational and tactical levels.
It is likely possible to update warship Electronic Support Measure (ESM) threat libraries using this tactical SIGINT, especially if the collection has detected a new radar waveform being used by the naval surveillance radars of ships participating in the exercise This information can be useful in training the ESMs to both recognise and jam that waveform.
Notably, the PLAN Type-815 SIGINT vessel – the Tianguanxing (AGI-853) – was present during the Talisman Saber 2021 exercises off the Queensland coast, shadowing Australian, US and other participating naval units throughout the exercise. The same vessel also monitored Talisman Saber 2019, while Type-815 AGIs were spotted during Talisman Saber 2017, and other large-scale regional exercises such as the RIMPAC series off Hawaii,
More recently, the Tianguanxing was observed in May 2022 off the Harold E Holt Communications Station on Australia’s Northwest Cape.
TACTICAL EW SYSTEMS
Ironically, more seems to be known about the PLAN’s strategic/operational posture than its tactical EW systems. Sporadic information has appeared from time-to-time in the public domain, and it is thought that most surface combatants use the NRJ5 EW suite which is reportedly capable of detecting radar emissions and laser-illumination used for guiding anti-ship weapons.
As well as detecting this radiation, the NRJ5 can jam radar threats. Detecting hostile radar signals from anti-ship missile active radar homers or naval surveillance radars is further enhanced by the BM/HZ-8610 combined ESM and electronic countermeasure (ECM) system, and decoys like chaff can be launched by a vessel’s PK-2 shipboard countermeasures launcher. Additional radar ESMs include the Type-923-1/RW-23-1.
Some open sources claim the PLAN may use an EW suite known as Newton Beta on its surface assets, including several EW systems manufactured by Italian firm, Elettronica. Newton Beta reportedly includes the ELT/318 and ELT/521 radar jammers and ELT/211 radar ESM, and sources suggest these systems are in service onboard the PLAN’s Type-53H1G/Jianghu-1 and Type-054/Jiangkai-II class frigates, and Type-052B/Luyang class destroyers.
How the PRC obtained EW equipment from Italy is unknown, but industry sources say the Italian equipment was obtained in the early 1980s, and that it’s possible the Newton Beta suite influenced the development of the indigenous 98X-2 radar ESM/ECM.
Likewise, Chinese sources say that the French Navy’s Lacroix Dagaie Mk2 decoy launching system was used as the basis for the PLAN’s 98X-1 decoy dispenser. How Dagaie systems came into the possession of Chinese EW experts remains unknown.
Many of the PLAN’s naval EW capabilities remain shrouded in mystery, but analyses by academics like Elsa Kania, the US government, and academic literature is shining a light on the navy’s EW posture, particularly at the operational and strategic levels.
Less is known regarding the navy’s EW posture at the tactical level. Revelations regarding Italian and French EW equipment in the PLAN’s possession indicates that the country is not averse to sourcing Western kit to help indigenous EW system development.
Regardless, US and allied fleets are wise to assume that Chinese naval EW is highly advanced – as China’s supreme strategist Sun Tzu warned, “there is no greater danger than underestimating your opponent”.
This article appeared in the March-April 2022 issue of
Australian Defence Business Review