Coping with Chinese Sensors

Its complex data analysis capabilities can help identify, track & target enemy forces

Prasun K. Sengupta

China’s C4ISRT is a long-range network of active and passive sensors designed to identify, track, target and engage hostile forces across warfare domains (air, sub-surface, surface etc). In addition to sensors and data-links, the concept also encompasses the thousands of human analysts and ICT professionals working to process and make sense of all the data. Each node—human, sensor or otherwise—is linked via a complex web of network connections.

China’s Jilin-1 imaging satellite
China’s Jilin-1 imaging satellite

What separates a C4ISR network from a C4ISRT network is Targeting (the ‘T’)—the ability to use sensor data from a variety of systems to accurately direct long-range rocket artillery fires. If the data collected by the sensors lack sufficient detail or is ‘old’ (as in out of date) it cannot be used for targeting precision weapon systems. As Beijing’s 2019 defence white paper, China’s National Defence in the New Era, states, the operational requirement for greater data fidelity, speed and accuracy has compelled the Peoples’ Liberation Army (PLA) to continue investing heavily in both ‘informatisation,’ the development and deployment of ever more sensors to fill gaps and provide overlapping coverage, and ‘intelligencisation,’ the use of machine learning programmes to assist in processing all the data collected. Both terms have grown in prominence through China’s last two defence white papers in 2011 and 2015.

The combination of this evolving C4ISRT complex with modern precision weaponry creates non-linear battlespace effects greater than the simple sum of their constituent parts. Taken as a whole, China’s C4ISRT complex is thus best described as a ‘hyper-object,’ a term first pioneered by philosopher Timothy Morton in his 2013 book Hyper-objects: Philosophy and Ecology After the End of the World. As defined by Morton, hyper-objects are very large objects distributed unevenly across time and space that operate at non-human timescales. Hyper-objects are not an abstraction or an intellectual parlour game. In fact, Morton’s goal is to refocus modern philosophy toward engaging with real objects in the real world and away from what he believes is a dead-end of recursive abstract analysis. Morton writes: “Hyper-objects are real whether or not someone is thinking of them. Indeed, hyper-objects end the possibility of transcendental leaps ‘outside’ physical reality.” In Hyper-objects, Morton draws the majority of his examples from ecology and physical sciences, citing the sum total of all plutonium created since 1942 as a hyper-object par excellence. A primarily man-made chemical element that occurs very rarely in nature, plutonium is currently spread unevenly across the earth’s biosphere, densely gathered in nuclear weapons caches, power plants, and storage facilities.

One key feature of hyper-objects is their ability to impact human social behaviours. Morton describes this feature as a hyper-object’s viscosity—its ability to enter our mental frameworks and get stuck there. In the case of plutonium, the combination of its radioactivity, its historic use in extremely destructive weapons and its 21,400-year half-life means that even when plutonium is stored out of sight in nuclear weapons bunkers or at plutonium waste store sites, it is never out of mind. The existence of plutonium has compelled humans to alter laws, customs and individual behaviours to account for the plutonium hyper-object they now share the planet with. During the cold war, plutonium preoccupied national leaders in the US and USSR for decades and shaped how they engaged with each other.

China’s suspected spy balloon over the US
China’s suspected spy balloon over the US

In addition to their large, unevenly distributed mass, or their scale and viscosity, Morton notes two other distinctive features of hyper-objects, non-locality and the way in which they operate at non-human timescales. Non-locality means that a human being will only ever experience a part or portion of a hyper-object, never the whole hyper-object. We see one balloon over the Andaman & Nicobar Islands but a dozen Chinese spy satellites whiz overhead each day, barely registering in our consciousness. The hyper-objects’ ability to operate at non-human timescales follows a similar logic. You might occupy the planet at the same time as a chunk of plutonium but, owing to its very slow rate of decay, it will outlast you, your family and possibly your civilization. It is important to note that ‘non-human timescales’ can refer to hyper-object behaviours that occur very quickly over a short period, such as a machine speed kill-web, and not just slowly over a relatively long period as is the case in plutonium decay. The point is that a hyper-object’s timescale is out of sync with human biological, social and organisational speeds. Hence, does China’s C4ISRT complex, taken as a whole, qualify as a hyper-object? An analysis of each of the four characteristics of hyper-objects indicates that it does.



China’s efforts to construct a C4ISRT complex began with the deployment of airspace surveillance radars along China’s coastline during the cold war and greatly accelerated in the early 2000s with the deployment of modern active and passive surveillance systems along the Taiwan Strait. Over the last decade, China has supplemented its air and maritime surveillance capability with new, indigenously produced sensors designed to search the undersea domain as well as dozens of new spy satellites.

Collectively, this sensor network is assessed to cover at least the Western Pacific out to Guam, if not further. In addition to these investments in sensor capabilities, the PLA underwent significant organisational reforms in 2017-2018. It is now organised into five Joint Theatre Commands, each responsible for a different geographic area: Eastern Command is responsible for Taiwan; the Southern Command for the South China Sea; Northern Command for Russia and the Korean peninsula; Western Command for India, Tibet and Central Asia; and Central Command for Beijing and central China.12 This division of labour along geographic lines has simplified the human and organisational dimensions of the C4ISRT complex, making it more focussed and efficient by aligning the socio-technical aspects of the C4ISRT complex to optimise information flows, use of national resources and technical means, joint planning for theatre operations and achieving desired national outcomes.

As the Chinese C4ISRT network expanded in scale, the influence of that growth, the near global reach of the system, and the continual expansion and alignment of resources and capabilities have altered the way in which international policymakers perceive the system and the threat it poses. Two decades ago, the Chinese C4ISRT complex was an afterthought, easily accounted for and countered with existing tactical means. Today, China’s C4ISRT complex has become their schwerpunkt–their centre of gravity–that enables Beijing to conduct a range of kinetic and non-kinetic actions throughout the Western Pacific, Indian Ocean Region and even globally.



Hyper-objects are unevenly distributed in time and space and China’s C4ISRT complex is no exception. China’s side of the Taiwan Strait and its outposts in the South China Sea are assessed to have relatively dense concentrations of active and passive sensors, with varying capabilities and quantities of weapons to match. Historically, it has been assumed that as one moves further away from the mainland. the fidelity and accuracy of China’s targeting capability drops off. But the last decade of satellite launches has complicated this assessment as it is no longer clear that a unit’s physical proximity to China-controlled territory corresponds to how accurately that unit can be tracked.

Still, satellites must either orbit around the earth or hold a geo-synchronous position above it and as such China’s spy satellites and balloons cannot be everywhere, seeing everything at once—at least not yet. Non-locality therefore takes on a double meaning. Any interaction an individual unit (such as a warship) has with China’s C4ISRT complex is ‘local’ and this local instance of the C4ISRT complex represents only a fraction of the total system (i.e., you are never interacting with the whole C4ISRT complex at once). Additionally, it is difficult to reliably ascertain the density of sensors at any given point on the map and, therefore it is difficult to be sure one is not being tracked at any given time. China’s increasing deployment of passive, dual-use space-based sensors makes this aspect of non-locality even more pernicious.


Non-Human Timescale

China’s C4ISRT complex operates at a non-human timescale in much the same way all modern digital communications systems do. A sensor at the edge of the network can detect a target and report its location, speed and direction back to a fusion centre or watch-floor thousands of miles away in tens of seconds. We have become somewhat inured to the speed of digital communications in an age where anyone can place a ‘zoom’ call to a family member living on another continent, but this near instantaneous detection speed has real ramifications in battlespace where the fastest warship can only make 35 knots and a Tejas Mk.1 L-MRCA can only fly at Mach 1.8, still well short of the speed of digital sensor transmission, or the speed of light.

Latencies and entropy creep back into C4ISRT systems wherever humans are involved. Double-checking or cross-checking a ‘contact’ using another sensor can add minutes or more to a targeting process. One goal of China’s ‘intelligencisation’ campaign has been to use machine-learning tools to speed up sensor data processing, relegating human beings to a secondary, supervisory role in many cases.



The existence of China’s C4ISRT complex certainly seems to have the ability to shape behaviours, particularly among the West’s military and political elites, paralleling the historical debates around nuclear weapons (also a hyper-object) doctrine during the cold war.

Currently, a debate is raging among US navalists as to whether China’s C4ISRT capabilities, paired with long-range precision anti-ship missiles, has rendered US Navy aircraft carriers obsolete. That discussion has even spilled out of professional military circles and into the mainstream news-media. Similarly, the US Indo-Pacific Command (INDOPACOM) leadership has approached the US Congress about increasing air and missile defences at Guam. Places that once seemed remote from China’s sensors, such as northern Australia’s air force bases, are being compelled to reassess their position relative to the C4ISRT hyper-object. As the C4ISRT complex grows and evolves, we become more aware of it and it roots itself more firmly in our minds.

So, what should India’s armed forces do about the Chinese C4ISRT hyper-object? Here we must diverge significantly from Morton’s ecology-centric understanding of hyper-objects. It is decidedly a philosophical theory and Morton asserts that the only viable way forward for human philosophy, art and culture is to attempt to attune ourselves to the hyper-objects now impinging on our world and through this attunement, achieve a form of co-existence.

China’s activephased-array ballistic missile early warning radar
China’s active phased-array ballistic missile early warning radar

Morton seeks a new type of ecology that is not premised on a ‘return to nature’ rejection of the modern industrial civilisation, but a more mature, thoughtful approach that incorporates the reality of hyper-objects into our understanding of the ‘natural’ world. This approach leaves the tangible applications wanting. This, frankly, is not an option for like-minded militaries dealing with an adversary C4ISRT hyper-object, which is designed to identify, track and kill them. The Chinese C4ISRT complex is a key enabler for Chinese PLA kinetic and non-kinetic actions. Thus, the ultimate goal of military planning must be to destroy or at least significantly degrade China’s C4ISRT immediately in the event of a conflict and operate effectively in the liminal space before then. Until then, a very uneasy co-existence with the hyper-object seems to be our only option. Life did go on after humanity entered the Atomic Age after all.

To that end, here are three rules of thumb for practitioners to guide day-to-day interaction with the Chinese C4ISRT hyper-object.

  1. There can be no complete picture of the C4ISRT hyper-object. Even if one mapped out all the Chinese PLA land-based sensors, there would still not be a complete picture of the hyper-object. If one added all the orbits and capabilities of the Chinese spy satellites and balloons, one would still not have a complete picture. If one held their breath, dived deep, and sketched the location of all the underwater sensors, one still would not have a complete picture.

Even if one added all of the Chinese intelligence and surveillance activities in cyberspace, one still would not have a full picture. Hyper-objects are, by definition, far more than the sum of their parts. At a minimum, the picture would fail to capture the network connections and the organisational dimension of the data processing, such as the humans working to turn raw data into a holistic understanding of what is happening. Even if one were to somehow add in those dimensions, there would still only be a static snapshot of a complex, dynamic and constantly evolving system of systems with emergent and potentially chaotic behaviours. The map is not the whole territory and the inclusion of humans at multiple levels makes the picture even more messy and unpredictable. The emergent behaviours that hyper-objects bring forth cannot be accurately predicted. Despite knowing all the technical capabilities and locations, leaders, engineers, and policymakers simply cannot know or accurately predict how different PLA commanders in China will use them, or how many Chinese actions will drive behaviours in allied national security leaders. We must accept that fact and re-orient information and decision-making processes to operate under greater uncertainty, seeking opportunities to experiment and reduce uncertainty. In many respects, the Chinese C4ISRT hyper-object conducted another experiment on the US with the high-altitude balloon flights, looking for how the US would respond to help them shape their future actions and anticipated responses.

SLC-18 P-band space satellite tracking radar
SLC-18 P-band space satellite tracking radar

The reality of this systemic dynamism means that discrete, time-bound snapshots have to give way to something like simulation or understanding degrees of uncertainty to ever hope to understand how the hyper-object is actually operating at any given time. Today, there are two ways that humans can simulate complex, dynamic behaviours of systems in the world—either by using their own minds or by using a sufficiently powerful computer. Neither of these is perfect, and the flows of data and information to feed that simulation are subject to the same laws of entropy, chaos and uncertainty as what is trying to be simulated. Unfortunately, both approaches have limits when it comes to modelling hyper-object behaviour. The human mind struggles to grasp something as large, multi-dimensional and extra-temporal as a hyper-object.

Modern computer systems fare better—we are able to model climate change using supercomputers after all—but computer simulations require detailed, up to date, probabilistic data to simulate complex behaviours. The challenge here is that almost every part of the PLA’s C4ISRT hyper-object is a tightly-guarded Chinese state secret, including the capabilities of the individual sensor systems, and much of the needed data about individual Chinese behaviours is essentially unknowable. Thus, it is near-impossible to feed a computer enough ‘good’ data regularly enough to ensure the computer simulation will be accurate, which itself is a probabilistic concept. And there may be cognitive biases that will hold onto the model even after key Chinese leadership or technical capabilities change.

  1. You will never be 100 per cent certain if you are being detected or not. The difficulty of simulating hyper-object behaviour with either one’s mind or a computer means that it is very hard to know whether it is collecting information on you, your unit, or your platform at any given time. The C4ISRT hyper-object is perhaps the most elaborate incarnation of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon—a theoretical prison structured in such a way that the inmates must assume a warden is watching them, but they can never be sure. This superimposition places the target unit in an uncertain state where they must at least double their contingency planning for scenarios in which they are and are not being detected.

An avenue for future research would examine the applicability of quantum principles to see if they may provide any assistance in grappling with the duality of Bentham’s Panopticon and its analogue with a hyper-object. This duality may confuse commanders and leaders at all levels contemplating whether a service-member’s seemingly random tweet has been observed, collected and analysed by the Chinese C4ISRT complex, and what that tweet might compromise about the unit’s readiness, capabilities, or operational security.

Even if that does not directly reveal anything, could that tweet provide another one of the thousand grains of sand China needs to effectively target and counter allied power? Will that new grain of information be used tomorrow, a year from now, a decade from now, or never?

In that light, the daily contact with the hyper-object demands we acknowledge we might be getting collected on at any given time. Thus, we should simply act prudently and strive to minimise the amount of information we leave exposed for China to find. Practice good operational security. Foster good relationships with domestic intelligence and law enforcement services to understand the area threat. Strive to become a harder and more unpredictable target, whether one is a deck-plate sailor on a guided-missile destroyer, a military-industrial contractor, a bureaucrat, or a ministry of defence (MoD) official.

  1. Finally, a hyper-object is not easily reducible to its constituent parts. Our inability to reliably map out the hyper-object’s shape or model its behaviour also impacts our ability to identify key points of strength or weakness within the system and to understand how disabling or destroying one part will affect the performance of the whole. Practitioners must resist the temptation to assume that knowledge of constituent parts yields knowledge of the whole.

Understanding the technical specifics of a Chinese ISR satellite or balloon does not mean that you understand the overall behaviour of how the PLA’s Western Theatre Command will utilise them, which may be different from the Eastern Theatre Command’s approach, which may be different from the global or meta-level behaviour of the hyper-object—the effect of non-human time scales, viscosity, scale and non-locality.


Military leaders in particular are best equipped to grapple with this rule of thumb. Military leaders train against adversary orders of battle and seek to create overmatch conditions for tactical victories. But at the strategic level, the familiar treatises of Sun Tzu and Carl von Clausewitz provide surprisingly sage advice for dealing with the irreducibility of the Chinese C4ISRT hyper-object. Sun Tzu detailed the challenges; ephemerality and general uncertainty of warfare, and how actions by one side’s leadership might create unpredictable behaviours from the enemy. Clausewitz spoke of the centres of gravity, the paradoxical trinity of emotion, chance, and reason, and principles—not laws—of war. These theorists understood that all the knowledge could not dictate the outcomes and that the friction or fog of war meant fighters had to operate to clear the fog and reduce the uncertainty to be prepared for the unexpected.

Type 780 cruise missile tracking radar
Type 780 cruise missile tracking radar

Today, we must reacquaint ourselves with these concepts with a view toward how we might understand the uncertainty of the Chinese C4ISRT hyper-object. It will always be in some corner of our minds. We must accept that we will never fully know and be able to predict its actions. Seek opportunities to test their system to see how they respond—does the Western Theatre Command respond the same as the Eastern Theatre Command to the same event? How does China respond to a notable cyber breach of a state-owned enterprise compared to economic sanctions against the same enterprise? These types of tests help leaders at all levels to better understand the hyper-object and modifies their behaviours from determinism to probabilities.

Decades of Chinese investment in sensors, networks and data management means that multi-national allied operations in the Indian Ocean Region and the Western Pacific are now occurring within a dynamic, complex, shifting and expanding Chinese C4ISRT ecosystem. India’s national security community should heed Morton’s hyper-objects and how they provide a better framework for understanding the reality-altering nature of the Chinese C4ISRT complex as a hyper-object. The exact extent and scale of the hyper-object is difficult to ascertain, thereby making it hard to say definitively whether one is being tracked by it at any given time, particularly during this uneasy period of great power competition. Through decades of hard work and investment, China created this hyper-object, and by doing so, it has changed the long-range surveillance and targeting game.

Has knowledge of the Chinese C4ISRT hyper-object altered the worlds of an Indian Navy warship Captain, an Indian Air Force Rafale M-MRCA pilot, or the INDOPACOM command team? Arguably yes, but probably not as explicitly as it should have. The ongoing debate in India about the requirement of a third aircraft carrier indicates that we are likely in the early phase of understanding the impact of the C4ISRT hyper-object crashing into the rigidly structured world of the Indian Navy’s long-term warship-building plan and the MoD’s anachronistic acquisition system. These disruptions to our preferred way of doing things are likely to increase in frequency and intensity over the coming decade, putting a premium on our ability to understand and adapt to a hyper-object dominated battlespace. Practitioners would do well to reflect on what they actually know about the Chinese C4ISRT hyper-object—and more broadly, what can be known—to better understand how it influences their daily actions. From there, leaders can begin to respond in kind. Until then though, the Indian response will be suboptimal at best, or catastrophically misinformed at worst.



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