Mark A. Stokes

September 1999

The views expressed in this report are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.


Conventional wisdom portrays the People's Republic of China (PRC) People's Liberation Army (PLA) as a backward continental force that will not pose a military challenge to its neighbors or to the United States well into the 21st century. PLA writings that demonstrate interest in exploiting the revolution in military affairs (RMA) are dismissed by a large segment of the PLA- watching community as wistful fantasies.

Major Mark A. Stokes, assistant air attache in Beijing from 1992-95, offers an alternative perspective. In this study, funded by the United States Air Force Institute for National Security Studies, he outlines emerging PLA operational concepts and a range of research and development projects that appear to have been heavily influenced by U.S. and Russian writings on the RMA. Fulfillment of the PLA's vision for the 21st century could have significant repercussions for U.S. interests in the Asia-Pacific region.

Major Stokes ventures into facets of PLA modernization that are often ignored. Backed by extensive documentation, he argues that the revolutionary modernization of the PRC's telecommunications infrastructure, a robust space-, air-, and ground-based sensor network, and prioritization of electronic attack systems could enable the PLA to gain information dominance in future armed conflicts around its periphery. Information dominance would be further boosted by China's traditional emphasis on information denial and deception.

In discussing the most likely scenario for PLA military action, Major Stokes postulates that information dominance--supported by a new generation of increasingly accurate and lethal theater missiles--could give the PLA a decisive edge in a future conflict in the Taiwan Strait. Highly accurate conventional theater missiles would play an especially critical role in rapid establishment of air superiority by suppressing airbases and neutralizing air defenses. Furthermore, the author argues that the PLA is striving to develop the capacity to complicate U.S. intervention in a Taiwan crisis.

In his appendices, the author provides an initial glimpse into PLA military space and directed energy weapons development. With extensive foreign technical assistance, China is investing in largely dual-use space-based systems that could provide the PLA with a valued-added boost to its overall military capabilities. In addition, China's development of "new concept" directed energy weapons--including high powered microwave and high powered lasers--may become a reality in the not-too-distant future.

Stokes argues that, while the PLA faces obstacles in fulfilling its modernization objectives, underestimating China's ability to make revolutionary breakthroughs in key areas could have significant ramifications for U.S. national security interests.

                         LARRY M. WORTZEL
                         Colonel, U.S. Army
                         Director, Strategic Studies Institute

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