Bigger, Faster, Stronger: China’s Ever-Evolving Military Tech

By Steve Mollman

February 20, 2018

Just ahead of the week-long Lunar New Year holiday, Chinese president Xi Jinping visited a satellite launch site in the southwest Sichuan province, where he cheered the modernization and technological advances of China’s military. The setting was appropriate: Beidou 3 satellites were about to be sent into orbit, part of an effort to boost the satellite navigation system used by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA)—one goal being the ability to strike enemy targets with millimeter-level accuracy.

China’s military upgrade goes beyond space-based navigation. Last May, Quartz highlighted notable advances like stealth fighter jets, high-tech reconnaissance ships, and long-range air-to-air missiles. The world’s largest operational amphibious aircraft, the AG600, had recently completed a taxiing test. (Update: It completed a successful maiden flight in December.)

Many PLA projects, including the AG600, are designed to help China assert itself as an emerging maritime power. That’s especially the case in the contested South China Sea, where China has been fortifying remote outposts with military facilities including missile shelters, sensor arrays, and radar systems. The country is also building a testing facility in the sea for unmanned vehicles. Located near the coastal city of Zhuhai, it’s slated to become the biggest of its kind in the world.

Meanwhile China has been diving deep into scientific research. It recently gathered 120 experts in the fields of artificial intelligence and quantum computing to form a top research institute focused on military applications, state media reported last month. One area of interest is the use of AI to assist the decision-making of commanders of nuclear submarines.

The PLA also wants to use quantum computers, vastly more powerful than today’s machines, to help it crack encrypted enemy codes and track targets now invisible from space, such as stealth bombers taking off at night. The technology could also lead to completely secure methods of communication, which is one reason China has been experimenting with a quantum satellite launched into space in August 2016. By 2020, China plans to open quantum research supercenter, with military applications very much in mind.

China’s progress in military technology hasn’t gone unnoticed. On Feb. 14, admiral Harry Harris, head of US Pacific Command, warned lawmakers that “China’s impressive military buildup could soon challenge the United States across almost every domain.” He mentioned Beijing’s investments in the AI and hypersonic missiles (see more below). If the US does not keep pace, he added, it “will struggle to compete with the People’s Liberation Army on future battlefields.”

Here are the latest examples of Chinese military technology that have caught attention:

Aircraft carrier complement

Last year China celebrated its first homegrown aircraft carrier. It’s now working on a second one that will include an electromagnetic catapultfor launching fighter jets—a big improvement over the current ski-jump design. But to be effective, carriers need the support of surveillance aircraft to detect threats and help manage aerial operations. With that in mind, China is developing the Shaanxi KJ-600, its first carrier-borne early-warning plane. Likely to be compatible with the electromagnetic catapult, it will pack active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar, meaning it can spot enemy aircraft at long range, and, at some angles, even stealth fighter jets like the hugely expensive F-35s the US deployed to Japan last year. Of course, China already has various shipborne and land-based radars, along with less-advanced surveillance planes. Still, the development of the KJ-600 shows Beijing is thinking about distant sea operations—and the need for truly combat-ready carrier groups.

Electromagnetic railgun

China’s interest in electromagnetic technology goes beyond catapults. Late last month, images surfaced of what appeared to be an electromagnetic railgun installed on the bow of a Chinese warship docked in a Hubei province shipyard, as reported by the Drive. Though the PLA stayed mum, a consensus soon emerged among military observers that the system was in all likelihood such a railgun. If true, China is the first nation to install such a weapon on a ship. The US Navy has tested experimental railguns from land, with projectiles reaching speeds of up to 7,800 km/h (4,847 mph), with a range of about 185 km (115 miles). The idea behind such guns is to use powerful magnetic fields to sling projectiles much faster and farther than existing systems can. Because they don’t require propelling charges, the relatively cheap projectiles can be stored in greater quantity in the same amount of space, making the system ideal for both sea control and amphibious operations. Given China’s vast maritime claims—and the historic threat of a possible invasion of Taiwan—it’s easy to see why the technology would appeal to Beijing’s military planners.

So far, the clearest photo of the railgun.

— dafeng cao (@xinfengcao) February 1, 2018

Hypersonic missiles

Hypersonic missiles are considered so disruptive that some experts want treaties in place to prevent their proliferation. China, naturally, is busy working on its own (as are Russia and the US). As reported by the Diplomat, in November China tested the DF-17, which combines a ballistic missile with a hypersonic glide vehicle (HGV). The Diplomat’s source described it as “the first HGV test in the world using a system intended to be fielded operationally.” HGVs stop short of entering space, then skip back down to Earth at hypersonic speeds. By not reentering the atmosphere from a much higher apogee, they pose challenges for the early-warning satellites and missile-defense systems that watch for such things. What’s more, they’re nimble and can disguise their true targets until the final seconds. The medium-range DF-17 could be operational by 2020, and observers expect it will be capable of delivering both nuclear and conventional warheads. Improved versions of the technology will likely follow from the PLA.

Deep-sea reconnaissance

Given its maritime ambitions, China needs to detect enemy movements not just in the air, but also in the sea. To do that effectively, it needs to collect deep-sea data. The South China Morning Post reported in January that China has launched an underwater surveillance network—including buoys, surface vessels, satellites, and underwater gliders—designed to do just that. It gathers information about the underwater environment, such as water temperature and salinity—factors that affect the speed and direction of sound waves. Since submarines use sonar to track and target enemy vessels, that matters to the military. With such a system, China can monitor the waters in the South China Sea and elsewhere with greater precision—which could give other nations’ submarines pause before entering China-claimed areas. In January, China’s state-run media insisted the underwater research is for scientific research only—but then, Beijing once insisted that its construction at Mischief Reef in the South China Sea was for a fishermen’s shelter, while it is now clearly a military base.

Drone swarms

China is also working on using swarms of small drones as a new method of attack. The idea is that such drones would respond in unison to commands yet avoid hitting one another. In December the country’s National University of Defense Technology conducted a test involving a few dozen tiny unmanned aircraft used for a simulated reconnaissance mission. Future experiments could involve hundreds of drones, and the potential uses of the swarms are numerous. Carrying electronic warfare jammers, they could be used to confuse and overwhelm an enemy’s defenses before a more complex operation. Or they could simply be flown into the intakes of fighter jets to disable them. More uses for drone swarms will likely emerge in the future.

Evolving exoskeletons

This month, Norinco—a state-owned maker of armored vehicles—introduced a second-generation exoskeleton designed for China’s infantry. Wearing the battery-powered body brace, a soldier can carry around about 100 lbs (45 kg) of weapons, ammo, and supplies. Compared to an earlier version introduced in 2015, this upgrade has a better battery, a streamlined harness, and stronger hydraulic and pneumatic actuators. It’s also lighter, which further improves battery performance. Future versions could include body armor. Meanwhile, the China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation has been showing off its own exoskeleton to naval military leaders: Supporting China’s maritime ambitions, after all, will entail loading plenty of cargo onto ships and planes.

By Steve Mollman // Asia Correspondent for Quartz.

February 20, 2018