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Once-in-a-generation change in PLA guidelines: intelligentization added, mechanization declared "basically accomplished"
The last similar change for the Chinese military was in the last century
A major change in the direction of the People’s Liberation Army just took place, in what the authorities call a "major strategic thought and strategic requirement" added to the guidelines of the Chinese military.
The PLA has been pursuing two -zations by now: 机械化 mechanization and 信息化 informatization. The former was proposed in the 1950s, while the latter was added at the end of the 20th century.
Two decades later, the PLA is now taking another major initiative, this time adding 智能化 intelligentization alongside mechanization and informatization. How was that added? Why was it added? What are the possible implications? This is the center of this issue of Pekingnology.
Also, the Ministry of Defense declared in a press conference on Nov. 26 the PLA has, 通过长期努力，我军已经基本实现机械化 through long-term efforts, basically accomplished mechanization, a landmark.
As Pekingnology recounted in What did the Politburo learn in 2020? last week, Chinese President and commander-in-chief Xi Jinping, for the first time, mentions 智能化 intelligentization as the guidelines of the People’s Liberation Army in July, in a speech at a Politburo’s group study session.
Xi’s call was formalized into official policy soon. The Communist Party of China Central Committee’s Proposal for the 14th Five-Year Plan (2021-2025) for National Economic and Social Development and the Long-Range Objectives Through the Year 2035 (it’s a mouthful, but useful to know the formal name), published on November 3, included exactly the 三化 three -zations for the PLA: accelerate the integrated development of mechanization, informatization, and intelligentization.
Writing in the People’s Daily on Nov. 26, 许其亮 Xu Qiliang, vice chairman of the Central Military Commission and a member of the Politburo, gave an authoritative review of the changes in guidelines throughout PLA’s history:
In the 1950s, our army's modernization goal was mainly to achieve mechanization. Since the 1990s, to adapt to the development trend of informatization, it has been proposed to build an informatized army and win an informatized war. In the new era, Chairman Xi has a keen insight into the development trend of the new round of scientific and technological revolution and military revolution, and based on the increasing degree of informatization and intelligent features of modern warfare, he clearly put forward the promotion of the integrated development of the three -zations, as mechanization-based, informatization-led and intelligentization-directed. This major strategic thought and strategic requirement enshrines the connotation of a new time in the modernization of national defense and military, and specifies the development direction, path, and mode.
Xu went on, but the language grows more difficult to unpack:
At the time of the budding of the intelligent military systems (internationally), we must keep up with the pace of the times, strengthen the cross-domain integration and innovation with intelligent science and technology as the leading factor, speed up the realization of the gradual development from the one -zation to another, to the integrated development of the three -zations…to develop highly developed mechanization and higher levels of informatization in the promotion of the intelligent process.
My take is that while China regards there is a hierarchy from mechanization, informatization up to intelligentization, the path of the PLA climbing up the ladder of modernization must not be linear: it will be a mistake to contemplate intelligentization only after completing informatization, which would be out of "the pace of the times."
What prompted the change might be deduced from some official PLA elaborations after the November 3 Proposal. Latest examples cited include the Syrian war and the armed conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia:
Spoxperson of the Ministry of Defense on Nov. 26:
With the accelerated evolution of warfare patterns, building an intelligent military system has become a major trend in world military development. The evolution of warfare patterns and our military's own development reality determine that we need to accurately grasp the modernization of national defense and the army, speed up the integration of mechanized informatized and intelligent development, and seize the initiative of the world's military revolution.
PLA Daily article on Dec. 1:
The integration of the three -zations reflects the reality of their coexistence in the current warfare pattern. In today's world, a new round of military revolution characterized by military intelligence is coming, and the armies of the world's major countries are marching toward the threshold of intelligence, but due to the imbalance in the development of science and technology and military power among the countries, in several local wars and armed conflicts, there is the coexistence of mechanized, informatized, intelligent warfare. In the Syrian war, low-end cheap civilian pickup trucks and high-end expensive stealth aircraft dance together, crude, indiscriminate homemade rockets and high-precision cruise missiles fly together; the American and Russian armies, which are highly informatized and moving toward intelligent, the Syrian and Turkish armies, which have a high level of mechanization, and the opposition, which has a very low level of mechanization, have jointly performed three kinds of warfare in the Syrian battlefield: an alternative hybrid warfare characterized by mechanized warfare, informatized warfare and primary intelligent warfare where they overlap with one other.
A November 8 article by 吴志忠 Wu Zhizhong, 军事科学院军队政治工作创新发展研究中心研究员 researcher with the Center for Innovation and Development of Military Political Work, the Academy of Military Sciences:
The recent armed conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia has given the world a textbook example of drone warfare. And the ease with which drones can be seen on the Internet destroying vehicles, tanks, and artillery one by one may be yet another sign of the coming era of intelligent warfare.
At present, the intelligent development of our military has just started, and our mechanized and informationized development is not sufficient. But compared to the previous Western-led military revolutions, in this new round of military revolution, our military’s gap in technology is not (that) big.
It also appears that the PLA believes that sped-up, proper intelligentization could help make up for what PLA lacks in mechanization and informatization, with the PLA Daily article writing:
At present, the machinery is more and more sophisticated and complex, more and more difficult to design and control; informatization led to an "information explosion": there is the massive data generation and its rapid proliferation with truth and falsehood mixed, and transforming them (the massive data) into useful information is increasingly difficult. These problems are difficult to be effectively resolved within the mechanization and informatization frameworks. To break through the bottleneck of mechanical handling and information processing ability, using technical means from intelligentization is an important option.
So much with theoretical rationales, what could the change entail practically? A hint from the PLA Daily article, again:
On the one hand, using intelligent technology to upgrade the "brain" of the combat platform - the control system, to promote unmanned aerial vehicles, unmanned boats, unmanned ground vehicles, and other control modes of unmanned combat platform, in a gradual, progressive way: human direct operation mode, human assistance mode, human authorized mode, fully autonomous mode, and machine self-adaptive mode. Some of the old combat platforms can also be remotely operated and can work together with manned platforms after the informatized and intelligentized upgrading.
On the other hand, the use of intelligent technology to optimize and upgrade the informatized combat system can greatly enhance its ability to acquire, transmit, process, share, and secure information.
It’s safe to expect more elaborations of intelligentization on all aspects in the future.
On a last note, the Ministry of Defense on Nov. 26 declared 通过长期努力，我军已经基本实现机械化 through long-term efforts, bascially accomplished mechanization.
In as late as the 2019 (July) China’s defense white papers, the official narrative has been that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has yet to complete the task of mechanization.
but the same white papers also listed, as China’s 13th Five Year Plan (2016-2020) set out in 2015, the strategic goals for the development of China’s national defense and military include to basically achieve mechanization by the year 2020.
So while it took China almost seven decades to basically accomplish mechanization (counting from the 1950s) officially, this declaration should not be a surprise.
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