By Timothy Thomas

China’s ongoing Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) is often defined as strategic thinking based on “Chinese characteristics.” Chinese characteristics, according to Hu Jintao, appear to include the informatization of the military system, to include military weaponry and equipment, theory, training, management, logistics, and political work. This focus somewhat follows a 1997 Chinese Military Affairs Dictionary definition of the RMA as “a reflection of qualitative changes in military technology, weapons and equipment, unit structure, war fighting methods, and military thought and theory.” Other Chinese RMA characteristics stressed by Hu and others include military reform and science and technology innovation, the latter described not only as the decisive factor and core competency of a modern military but also as the precursor and soul of the RMA. These advances shift China’s combat power generation model to one that relies on science and technology innovation in the opinion of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

Advancing the RMA is a strategic task whose goal is to control the strategic initiative in international military competition. In 2011 these RMA goals were advanced, according to a Nanfang Zhoumo Online article that stated that the General Staff created or reorganized three departments, the Informatization Department, the Strategic Planning Department, and the Military Training Department. These departments, according to the authors, provide the top-down design for military reform and innovation, and they help coordinate military-wide strategic planning and information command and control support. They serve as future design blueprints for seizing decisive opportunities and advantages, and they help build an informatized military that can seize the initiative and win local wars under informatized conditions. Accelerating the RMA transformation and improving joint operations through the establishment of system-of-systems (SoS) capabilities allows for responding to multiple security threats. To adapt to the world’s RMA, Hu Jintao stressed that the basic form of combat power is the SoS operations capability; the fundamental point of enhancing RMA capabilities is SoS capabilities; and the fundamental point of endeavor for military preparations is SoS capabilities. All of these Chinese RMA characteristics have appeared in the Chinese military press over the past two years.

Interestingly, most if not all of these characteristics seem to follow several recommendations first developed in the 2004 Chinese anthology On the Chinese Revolution in Military Affairs. This work included contributions from a host of influential information warfare and strategic thinking authorities, such as Dai Qinmin, Shen Weiguang, Wang Pufeng, Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui of Unrestricted Warfare fame, Li Jijun, and Li Bingyan, among others. First the book noted that superior thought that develops a strategy of “imbalance” will avoid traveling the path that an enemy expects. In this sense, Li Bingyan noted, the RMA is really a cognition system revolution (which accords with the recent focus on innovation). Further, authors stressed the diversification in the pattern of war at the initial stage of the military revolution (which coincides with the necessity to seize the initiative). The RMA changes the face of war and thus the application of military strategy (which accords with a new Strategic Planning Department). Another author stated that the RMA included new technology and weaponry, organizational structure, and theory, strategy, and tactics (much like Hu’s listing of characteristics); and that information imparts an offensive character to warfare. Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui wrote that the RMA allows for control over front lines from rear lines, referring to the use of drones in Afghanistan. The only dissenting voice was that of Li Jijun, who noted that an RMA is not the same as reform or a revolution in military technology. The RMA is more expansive and quick, while reform and technology revolutions are more gradual and limited. Overall, however, the authors believe that the RMA is a revolution of an entire military architecture, but the manner in which it is understood cannot accommodate the US version. The RMA must be seen through the prism of Chinese military thought and culture, focusing on thinking as much as on technology. In other words, strategic thinking must be based on Chinese characteristics.

Overall, RMA advances in 2011 helped China’s deterrence and actual combat capabilities according to the Nanfang Zhoumo article. Two tendencies must be avoided in RMA preparations: moving too fast, and excessively using military resources.

Timothy Thomas is an analyst at the Foreign Military Studies Office, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.