Age of EW

PLA has taken giant steps in this direction by reorganising and re-subordinating its formations

Prasun K. Sengupta

Militaries use electronic protection (EP), also known as electronic countermeasures, to defend against electronic attack (EA) and electronic surveillance (ES). Long considered an afterthought after the Cold War, EP has risen again to be perhaps the most important aspect of electronic warfare (EW) with China fielding increasingly sophisticated jammers and sensors. EW includes tactics and technologies to shield radio transmissions from being detected or jammed. Typical techniques include using narrow beams or low-power transmissions as well as advanced waveforms that are resistant to jamming. EA includes jamming, where a transmitter overpowers or disrupts the waveform of a hostile radar or radio.

PLAGF’s Microwave Communications Jammer
PLAGF’s Microwave Communications Jammer

China’s People’s Liberation Army Ground Forces (PLAGF) has since early 2019 has been integrating EW into its air-defence operations, starting with its 80 Air-Defence Brigade. In 2017 an EW regiment was re-subordinated to the brigade and re-organised as a battalion. Initially, the brigade did not know how to employ its new EW battalion: members of the battalion received complaints about how their equipment would interfere with aerial surveillance, and it was suggested that the battalion play the opposing force during force-on-force exercises. However, after the brigade was defeated in an exercise by an opposing force that jammed the brigade’s radars, the brigade was apparently convinced of the utility of its EW battalion and therefore decided to integrate elements of the battalion into each fires element whenever the brigade deployed, thereby combining jamming and surface-to-air missile (SAM) fires to improve the efficacy of its air-defence operations.

Secondly, in the past ‘few’ years, the brigade linked the search, tracking and targeting radars of each of its subordinate battalions into a single network and thereby digitised the brigade’s air-surveillance picture. Before this, the brigade would manually plot the air picture. It is unclear whether each of the brigade’s subordinate battalions and batteries have access to a common air-picture or not, but, theoretically, their connection over a network should make this possible and simple to provide. Digitising the brigade’s air picture will have made it possible for the air picture to be updated in real-time, thereby improving the efficiency of battle management.

However, digitising the air-picture should also make it easier to share airspace surveillance information with the air-defence units of the PLA Air Force (PLAAF), thereby enabling the brigade to be more easily integrated into a joint integrated air-defence system (IADS). Indeed, this effort, or similar efforts by other air-defence units of the PLAGF, likely facilitated an exercise this summer in which air-defence units of the PLAGF, PLAAF and even the PLA Rocket Force (PLARF) formed a joint IADS under the command of an air-defence base of the PLAAF.

The third improvement is perhaps the most significant because it involves cultural change: the brigade has granted battalion and battery commanders the authority to engage targets on their own initiative. In the past, the brigade’s air-defence batteries were not authorised to engage targets without orders from the brigade’s command post. As one would expect, when the brigade’s subordinate units simultaneously faced multiple aerial threats, channels of communications between them and the command post would clog, resulting in failures to engage targets and, in at least one instance, orders to engage a single target mistakenly being issued to multiple batteries. Permitting battalion and battery commanders to engage targets on their own initiative should make the brigade more responsive to immediate threats, and it should make the brigade more resilient because the brigade’s subordinate units are being conditioned to function independently when they must do so, such as when the brigade’s command post has been neutralised.

PLAGF CEW-03A anti-drone jammer
PLAGF CEW-03A anti-drone jammer

Such improvements to the 80 Air-Defence Brigade’s technology and modes of operation have also been made in the PLAGF’s other air-defence units within the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR). Since mid-2020 PLAGF air-defence units within TAR have more and more frequently participated in PLAAF air-defence bases’ monthly ‘system-of-systems’ training, a term that encompasses both combined-arms and joint training. Between July 2020 and January 2021, each battalion of the TAR-based 85 Air-Defence Brigade of the PLAGF had the experience of deploying to and ‘entering the chain of command of,’ that is, being attached to, an air-defence base of the Western Theatre Air Force.

The frequency with which the PLAGF’s air-defence units are participating in exercises with the PLAAF suggests that PLAGF air-defence units besides the 80 and 85 Air-Defence Brigades have similarly digitised their airspace surveillance picture—most likely utilizing the same system to do so because integrating the PLAGF’s air-defence brigades into a joint IADS would be exponentially more difficult if each brigade developed its own system. In fact, since sometime in 2020, the PLAGF’s and the PLAAF’s air-defence units have indeed been making efforts to ‘network their equipment, unify standards,’ and unify their operating principles.

The 80 Air-Defence Brigade received its EW battalion as a result of the major organisational reforms of the PLA beginning in 2016, and it is not the only PLAGF air-defence brigade to have received EW units. Therefore, as the PLA’s training has become more realistic post-reforms, particularly after more demanding training guidelines were issued in 2018, the PLAGF’s other air-defence brigades are certain to have learned the value of their new EW units. Indeed, it was recently reported that an ‘electronic air-defence battalion’ of the PLAGF’s 74 Air-Defence Brigade has been fully integrated into the brigade’s operations. No other reports mentioning PLAGF air-defence units’ delegation of launch authority have been observed, but as training has become more realistic and demanding, the PLAGF’s other air-defence units are almost certain to have encountered the same problems that the 80 Air-Defence Brigade did: the clogging of communications, failures to engage targets, etc.

In the past few years, other PLAGF air-defence units have made efforts to enhance battalion commanders’ capacity for independent action, so the delegation of launch authority is perhaps a natural development in a broader effort to address the weaknesses of the force as a whole. Therefore, it is likely that all of the PLAGF’s air-defence brigades have made the same improvements to their technology and modes of operation, meaning that the PLAGF’s air-defence units have become more effective, resilient, and more capable of joint operations in the past three years.



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