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Research Questions

  1. How has China's military strategy evolved with each leadership generation?
  2. How is the PLA using information as an instrument in prosecuting and winning wars?

In 2017, Chinese President Xi Jinping called for the People's Liberation Army (PLA) to complete ongoing force modernization efforts by 2035 and become a world-class military capable of fighting and winning wars in any theater of operations by 2050. Although the PLA has made impressive modernization progress over the past three decades, it is unclear how this effort would translate to battlefield performance between now and Xi's 2035 goal. Chinese military theory, strategy, and operational concepts are key to understanding how the PLA might fight when called on to do so.

In this report, the authors assess China's current military theory, strategy, and guiding principles, and they also delineate notional doctrinal or operational concepts that likely underpin People's Liberation Army military planning. The assessments in this report are derived from analysis of authoritative Chinese government, military, media, and scholarly sources, supplemented by a literature review of Western scholarship. The authors analyzed these sources to understand, from the Chinese perspective, People's Republic of China policy and strategic direction regarding PLA force development over time. This report is intended as a primer for U.S. Department of Defense strategists and planners as they conduct campaign planning and formulate responses to China's evolving military strategy and doctrine.

Key Findings

Three concepts will guide force development for the PLA to become a fully modernized force

  • Three interlinked operational concepts likely underpin doctrine and link guiding principles by which the PLA will seek to accomplish its given missions through 2035: (1) War control (and therefore campaign success) depends on information dominance; (2) combat space is shrinking, but war space has expanded; and (3) target-centric warfare defeats the adversary's operational system.
  • Xi Jinping and his strategists are looking beyond his 2035 "fully modernized" milestone to develop military theory and concepts for a "world-class military" by 2050.

Beijing has shown interest in using big data—and, ultimately, artificial intelligence (AI)—to improve PLA capabilities

  • Although most PLA scholars currently do not assess that AI will replace human operational commanders completely, they do believe that it can act as a "digital staff officer" capable of gathering and presenting intelligence, identifying enemy intent, and monitoring operations.
  • The most notable effort is the PLA's establishment of the Strategic Support Force, which is responsible for integrating cyber data with electromagnetic and space warfare information.
  • The common theme throughout Chinese primary sources is that mastery of big data analytics will better position China to win future military conflict between great powers.
  • Network warfare appears to be another major area of focus in the PLA's push on big data.

Recommendations

  • The extent to which Chinese aspirations for an innovative military strategy and doctrine become reality will largely rest on the application of emerging big data and AI technologies to military purpose and the marriage of any ensuing new capabilities to existing concepts of joint force operations in system-of-systems warfare.
  • CCP leadership has clearly prioritized and resourced the development of the requisite technologies and systems, but it remains to be seen whether the PLA will be first to develop an operational construct to fit the future battlespace, whether in China's neighborhood or on a more global scale.

This research was sponsored by the China Strategic Focus Group, U.S. Indo-Pacific Command and conducted within the Cyber and Intelligence Policy Center of the RAND National Security Research Division (NSRD), which operates the RAND National Defense Research Institute (NDRI).

This report is part of the RAND Corporation research report series. RAND reports present research findings and objective analysis that address the challenges facing the public and private sectors. All RAND reports undergo rigorous peer review to ensure high standards for research quality and objectivity.

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