April 25, 2024

PLA Modernization – Lessons, threats, and opportunities


Having outlined the PLA’s modernization to date, BCE aims to draw lessons for US and Allied stakeholders. The PLA’s modernization has showcased the purchasing power advantages behind the PRC’s defense industrial base and the wide-ranging organizational and technological transformations that it enabled. Conversely, the above overview shows the areas, in which the PLA’s modernization still suffers from teething problems, along with the resulting gaps in capability.

To sum up, the PRC is still decades away from challenging the US as a full peer competitor. While very much on track to rise to the challenge, at the current balance of naval power, the PLA simply lacks the capability for sustained forward deployment overseas that enables the US Armed Forces to project power globally. Having said that, the right question is not whether the PLA is suited to the US’ strategic-operational objectives, but whether it is suited to those of the PRC. In that sense, the PLA may already be a more capable armed force for the PRC than the US Armed Forces are for the US. In fact, even today as a regional great power, the PRC is capable of projecting power within its maritime vicinity, and of effective warfighting by cultivating a saturated A2/AD operational environment. Without considerable buildup of US and Allied capabilities, a successful defense of Taiwan may prove to be too costly. Furthermore, based on existing trajectories within the PLA’s modernization and continued reforms and investment, the PRC has the potential to become a global superpower to rival the US within the timeframe of its centennial 2049 objectives.

A number of conclusions are in order:

First, through careful study of the PLA’s strategic-operational objectives, the US and Allies may learn to inhabit the modus operandi of the PLA high command. By internalizing the strategic landscape, within which the PLA operates and plans to operate, US and Allied stakeholders may learn to navigate the emergent strategic-operational environment. Understanding the PLA’s rationale for modernization – how its reforms in technology and force structure are driven by its objectives – will empower western stakeholders to inhabit the decision-making mindset of their adversary. In turn, by keeping in mind that the PLA high command and the Central Military Commission (CMC) are wary of their shortcomings and the incomplete status of their modernization, US and Allied stakeholders may also unravel the strategic culture that permeates through Beijing. These passive advantages may help western decision-makers become more adept at relying on hybrid deterrence to avoid kinetic contact with the PLA, as well as to wage war more effectively in the defense of Taiwan, should hybrid deterrence fail.

Second, the facts of the matter must be addressed with firmness and precision. The key to developing that more effective warfighting apparatus is in the delineation of the PLA’s strengths and weaknesses at the current point in their modernization process and going forward. The resulting implications are two-fold:

On the one-hand, it is imperative for US and Allied stakeholders to meaningfully build up counter-capabilities against areas, in which the PLA is strong. For example, scaling up the production of current-generation and investing in next-generation integrated air- and missile defense (IAMD) systems of systems will be a cornerstone of safeguarding Taiwan, Okinawa, and Guam from the PLARF’s world class missile strike capabilities. It will be similarly pivotal for the protection of US and Allied warfighters to develop next-generation very long-range air-to-air missiles to counter the PL-17. On this note, the development of next-generation directed energy weapons, microwave-, and EW capabilities will be conducive to increased survivability in the naval and air domains under the A2/AD operational environment. Further still, the issue of survivability may be circumvented altogether by reliance on a large number of attritable and low-cost unmanned systems in these domains, thereby also accelerating the rate of development and production. Another clear area, in which the PLA’s superior capabilities can be addressed in a cost-effective and scalable manner is mine warfare, and mine countermeasure capabilities.

On the other hand, maximizing advantage from exploitable gaps in the PLA’s capabilities will be the other half of this equation. For instance, ensuring that development programs of sixth-generation aerial platforms remain on track will enable US and Allied forces to widen the closing but still significant gap with the PLAAF. While the Chengdu Aerospace Corporation and the Aviation Industry Corporation of China both shared preliminary materials of the PRC’s own sixth-generation development program to be unveiled by 2035, analysts still doubt whether these outlets have the fundamental and applied science capability to innovate in parallel with Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works. A comparable advantage would consist in leveraging the US Navy’s supremacy in SSNs via refinement of counter-blockade contingencies to defend Taiwan. On a more defense economic note, while the PLA’s rate of modernization is rapid, and the output of the PRC’s defense industrial base formidable, it is dependent on resource- and component imports, especially for value added supply chain segments. As such, the geoeconomic isolation of these supply chains may not only improve western hybrid deterrent posture but also slow down the PLA’s modernization. This would be particularly detrimental to the mechanization and informationization of the PLAGF, thereby alleviating escalation risks on the PRC’s land borders.

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, internalizing the lessons from the PLA’s modernization may also empower US and Allied stakeholders to emulate its successes and avoid its pitfalls. The PLASSF provides the organizational model for cross-domain and cross-branch data-sharing, ISR infrastructure, cyber- and hybrid warfare capabilities, and the integration of the space domain into terrestrial operational thinking beyond its infrastructural role. US and especially Allied armed forces may benefit from comparable organizational restructuring, even if to a lesser extent. Equally, the data-sharing and civilian-military fusion aspects of the PLASSF may be harnessed on the NATO-level, save for the ones contrary to the processes of democratic societies. More transparent and less corrupt practices within western nations will further enable evading the PLA’s historical tendencies for institutional malpractice while more effectively mirroring its successes. Smaller US Allies and partners such as Finland or Australia may further benefit from employing a missile force with elements resembling the PLARF, enabling their own A2/AD apparatus to deter aggression from revisionist adversaries. Lastly, as many analysts already call for, the US must emulate the PLAN’s shipbuilding infrastructure by expanding the output capacity of its dockyards at home. This may go hand in hand with leveraging existing shipbuilding strength of US Allies in the Indo-Pacific and Europe by contract-production deals and shipbuilding technology exchange.

Stakeholders in industry, armed forces, and the public sector should get in touch with BCE to learn in further detail how to navigate the strategic landscape of the 2020s in the A&D sector and other industry verticals. The experts, analysts, and senior advisors working in BCE’s Global A&D Team have on the ground experience across CENTCOM, EUROCOM, and INDO-PACOM, with platform- and subsystem-level expertise of IFVs, IAMD, EW, and fifth-generation fighters, among others. Our team has worked on industry- and public sector projects, pertaining to JADC2, C5ISR, organizational transformation, and more. Visit the BCE Consulting website for a more detailed list of our capabilities.


Global A&D

Adam Meszaros
Analyst London
Craig Belanger
Senior Partner & Co-Founder Boston
Joe Giandomenico
Principal Boston
Anirudh Suneel
Principal London
Ben Osterholtz
Manager Boston
Robyn Pirie
Manager Boston
Mark Kipphut
Senior Advisor Dallas
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