New PLA Commander Across Our Northern Border: What Does General Zhang Bring to the Table?

On 18 December 2020, President Xi Jinping promoted four officers of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the People’s Armed Police Force to the highest rank of General.  This includes Zhang Xudong (张旭东) newly appointed Commander of the Western Theatre Command (WTC) which looks after the Line of Actual Control with India.  While the exact date when General Zhang took over from Zhao Zongqi is not known, it can be confirmed that General Zhao Zongqi tenanted the appointment till as late as end-September 2020, despite being due for retirement in April 2020. 

Not much is known about General Zhang Xudong.  His date of birth – Mar 1962 and native province – Liaoning reflected in Wikipedia cannot be corroborated from other sources.  This article deals with the knowns before proceeding to the realm of analysis and prognosis.

Knowns

Promoted as Major General in 2012, Zhang commanded the 115 Division which was part of erstwhile-39 Group Army* before being promoted as Chief of Staff of 39 Group Army and was appointed as its Commander in April 2014.  As Commander of 39 Group Army, he is credited with introducing standards for precise evaluation of combat effectiveness and conducted a Joint Campaign Planning Exercise of the 39 Group Army at Horqin, Inner Mongolia in October 2014.

Post-2016 reforms, he was appointed as Commander of Central Theatre Army prior to 18 Mar 2017 and later Deputy Central Theatre Commander in early-2018.  He was promoted as Lieutenant General on 01 Aug 2018 and was Deputy Commander of the Military Parade commemorating the 70th Anniversary of founding of China in 2019.

From the party status perspective, his elevation is unusual as he is neither a member nor an alternate member of the 19th Central Committee of the Communist Party of China.  In fact, other than Wang Chunning, Commander of the People’s Armed Police Force who is an alternate member of the Central Committee, the other three generals who have been promoted are neither members nor alternate members of the Central Committee. It is also known that he was Deputy Party Secretary of 115 Division and later 39 Group Army. 

He is likely to have co-authored an article titled Use the Party’s Innovative Theory to Focus on Military Education (用党的创新理论贯注部队教育官兵要做到这四点) with Zhou Wanzhu, then Political Commissar of Central Theatre Army, which was published by the PLA Daily on 22 Mar 2017. The article talks about the implementation of party’s innovative theory as expressed through speeches of Xi Jinping, using the Chinese dream to strengthen the Army, improvement of combat effectiveness to meet traditional and non-traditional threats and educating officers and soldiers on the same.

Analysis

PLA officers generally spend their complete career in the same military region. Thus, General Zhang would have spent the bulk of his career in the erstwhile-Shenyang Military Region, which covered the North Eastern provinces of Heilongjiang, Jilin and Liaoning and was responsible for the Russian Far East and Korean Peninsula. The 39Group Army (including the 115 Division), a Type A Group Army** was responsible for contingencies in Korea and was amongst the first armies to fight UN troops in the 1952 Korean War.  While the terrain and weather are not comparable to North-Western Plateau, the Eastern part of Korean Peninsula is mountainous with sub-zero temperatures in winters and provides adequate experience for operations in mountainous terrain.

His command of 115 Division and 39 Group Army is also significant as Korean Peninsula underwent a period of heightened tensions around the same time, with North Korean nuclear tests in 2009, 2013 and 2016, sinking of South Korean naval ship Cheonan by a DPRK submarine in 2010, death of Kim Jong-Il and the political transition in North Korea in 2011, failed satellite launch by North Korea in 2012 and the joint US-South Korean announcement of deployment of Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) in 2016.  In response, the Shenyang Military Region enhanced its military preparedness to intervene in the Korean Peninsula, if necessary, and both 115 Infantry Division and 39 Group Army under Zhang Xudong would have had a significant role if the PLA had intervened in the Korean Peninsula. 

The Central Theatre Command is responsible for defence of Beijing, providing security to CCP leadership and acts as the strategic reserve.  Thus, General Zhang as Army Commander and Deputy Commander of Central Theatre would be well versed with operational plans of WTC as well as shortcomings identified during the current crisis. It would also attest to his political reliability as the Theatre is also responsible for the security of Beijing.

The Jinan Military Region served as the testbed for PLA Army’s reforms in pre-Reforms era. It is likely that the Central Theatre Command, as its successor, is in the forefront of PLA’s experiments in Joint Operations in the post-reforms period providing him with significant experience in preparing for Joint Operations in addition to his earlier experiences with Joint Command Planning in 39 Group Army.

Change of commanders*** indicates that Beijing does not view conflict as imminent. However, it is likely that WTC would carry out a deep introspection of its operational plans and preparedness based on the current crisis. With the PLA issuing its Outline of Joint Operations recently and the Fifth Plenum Communique stressing the need to improve strategic ability to defend national sovereignty and achieve Centennial goals of PLA by 2027, PLA and WTC will undergo further reforms.

His appointment also confirms two trends observed in China and PLA.  One, of promoting little known personalities to higher levels to ensure their loyalty to President Xi Jinping. Two, of transferring senior PLA officers to other theatres on promotion to ensure that they do not create/ strengthen their power bases.

Prognosis

 

General Zhang brings with him expertise on mountain warfare, joint operations and crisis-management skills, tag of political reliability as well as the backing of Xi Jinping. He is well placed to rectify shortcomings identified in operational plans in the past eight months as well as ensure success of reforms in WTC. Thus, it can be expected that WTC under General Zhang would focus on preparing for a potential conflict with India at short notice****. In the interim, it can be expected that barring misunderstandings, WTC would not trigger a crisis, which it is not capable of handling. Two aspects however, need to be watched out for; one, the de-induction of formations which have inducted from other Theatre Commands to WTC during the current crisis and two, the elevation of General Zhang to the 20th CPC Central Committee in 2022.

Author’s Notes

* The 39 Group Army was redesignated as 79 Group Army and became part of the Northern Theatre Command following the 2016-reforms.

** The 18 Group Armies in the pre-reform era were classified into Type A and Type B Group Armies, with Type A Group Armies, well-equipped and fully manned with a higher state of operational preparedness. 

*** On 13 Oct 2020, Lieutenant General PGK Menon took over as General Officer Commanding of the Indian Army’s Fire and Fury Corps, responsible for operations in Eastern Ladakh.

**** This does not necessarily mean war.  However, it must be kept in mind that prior to the 1962 War, formations had inducted as early as 1959 and by 1962, they were well-prepared.  The final decision for war was only taken (p.117) on 6 Oct 1962, just four days prior to the war.

The views expressed and suggestions made in the article are solely that of the author in his personal capacity and do not have any official endorsement.  Attributability of the contents lies purely with the author.

A Critical Outlook on PLA’s AI Development Philosophy

Megha Shrivastava, Research Intern, ICS

People’s Liberation Army (PLA) strategists have recognized Artificial Intelligence (AI) as part of the ongoing military revolution, which has immense potential to change the metrics of military power balance in the future and makes AI central to its military modernization plan. Lieutenant General Liu Gouzhi (刘国治), Director of Central Military Commission’s Science and Technology Commission, recognized the disruptive nature of the technology and warned that whosoever does not disrupt will be disrupted. Recently, the fifth plenum of the CCP released its Communique (October 2020), which has emphasized completing informatization and intelligentization by 2027, highlighting the applications of AI in its military modernization plan.

PLA defines AI weapon in its official dictionary as “a weapon that utilizes AI to pursue, distinguish, and destroy enemy targets automatically; often composed of information collection and management systems, knowledge base systems, decision assistance systems, mission implementation systems, etc.” Some PLA thinkers anticipate that future warfare may be fought fully with unmanned autonomous and intelligent weapons systems, including robotic weapons.

PLA’s Initial Trajectory and Long-Term Plan

PLA’s careful study and analysis of the USA’s Third Military Offset Strategy has guided its approach towards AI. It has focused on developing advanced capabilities like unmanned swarms to gain a strategic advantage over the Pentagon’s military potential. Having a competing vision with the US, it is actively planning on accelerating and advancing its technological development with the strong support of the civilian sector through its ambitious Military-Civil Integration (军民融合) program to narrow the gap with US defense capabilities.

While the goals of both countries endeavour to reach the ‘Commanding Heights’ ((制高点), their paths are not the same. Rather, the PLA has adopted the strategy of ‘Overtaking on the Curve’ to catch up and bypass the US and Russia. Beijing will strive towards prioritizing defence innovation through military intelligentization (智能化) and Chinese ‘Superintelligence’ (Brain-inspired intelligence), which creates the fear of shaping an entirely new domain of cognitive warfare.

To catch up with its overwhelming aspirations, China’s 2019 Defence White Paper emphasizes early informatization (信息化), which will facilitate intelligentization in warfare (智能化作战). The PLA strategists visualize military applications of AI from intelligentized command and control or support to decision making. Some PLA strategists believe that in the future, the intelligentization of warfare may result in battlefield singularity (奇异), which will help in making the best use of human and machine capability.

Leveraging AI for Warfare

PLA defines war as a scientific concept that can be deconstructed, and AI is more suited to predict calculated outcomes or to identify the adversary’s vulnerable systems. Thus, the asymmetric thinking of targeting adversary’s vulnerability will remain a central theme in leveraging AI applications.

It is likely to leverage AI to strengthen its military capability not only towards intelligentization but also to gradually develop advanced autonomous and unmanned vehicles, war-gaming, and data fusion. Further, it will leverage the potential of associated technologies like 5G, Quantum computing, the internet of things, etc. to assist its strategies related to warfare in general and Information Warfare (cyber and electronic warfare) in particular. It can support and enhance PLA’s psychological warfare capabilities to target combatant’s behaviours and emotions.

PLA thinkers argue that AI should be used both kinetically and non-kinetically to dominate the information domain and target the enemy’s information networks. They believe that a ‘system of systems’ warfare will occur as a result of ubiquitous networks. These networks will diminish the distance between action, decision-making, and perception. With PLA recognizing that modern warfare is “system’s confrontation” (系统浓度) (a system versus system conflict) and information dominance is essential to achieve dominance in other domains, the emphasis on the application of AI to achieve information dominance can be understood. With such an edge, PLA seeks to pursue the style of mosaic warfare with Chinese characteristics. Its ultimate goal of leveraging AI is directed toward achieving a cognitive advantage over its adversaries while being able to defend its system of systems.

AI in Decision Making

On the question of keeping humans ‘in the loop’(在循环) of decision making, it is quite uncertain and may be too early to predict. However, strategic thinking towards AI predicts that PLA might increasingly favour intelligible and cognitive decision making rather than human judgments. They believe that PLA is likely to integrate command-and-control systems into built-in systems by designing and operationalizing plans in advance. Also, the PLA’s historical analysis of warfare is based on its study of military science that is focused upon war-gaming and simulation to arrive at critical military concepts. It will thus incorporate AI to formulate appropriate military theories and tactical decisions. This may also disrupt the OODA (Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act) loop given by Col. John Boyd, and that is also frequently discussed by PLA thinkers. Former US Deputy Secretary of Defence Bob Work believes the authoritarian regimes and those who believe in the weaknesses of humans and rely heavily on machines are more inclined to move toward fully autonomous weapons and to keep humans out of the loop. It is likely that the decision to put human ‘in the loop’, ‘on the loop’ or ‘out of the loop’ shall rather be determined based on the lethality and criticality of the system, and PLA may adopt a combination of all three to meet the perceived threat.

The Bigger Picture

At this stage, the extent to which militaries will be able to harness the potential of AI in decision making is difficult to predict. However, the ongoing military modernization process suggests that PLA will emphasize integrating AI in its reconnaissance and surveillance system, weapons systems and, command, control, and communication structures apart from training and supervision of personnel under its efforts to make PLA truly modernized by 2027. The High-End Laboratory for Military Intelligence (HELMI), which was set up at Tsinghua University in 2018, is serving as a breakthrough point for developing what China calls “AI superpower strategy”. Today, China is behind in AI and semiconductors, and present trends suggest that the gap will narrow soon in the future. These are the key government priorities, receiving enormous attention and investment.

Disruptions led by militarized AI will be decisive for the future of warfare. AI is here to stay and develop to surprising levels in times to come shaping military innovation, nature of the conflict, and warfare in the 21st century. Only time will tell whether the disruption will be China-led or American. If the PLA succeeds well in materializing the potential of AI, it will turn out to be a game-changer, thereby placing greater challenges for future military power balance, peace, and stability.