How China is using unethical surveillance to modernise its military


The Department of Defense (DoD) under the United States government recently released its yearly report on the military and security developments in China. This report, acronymised as the DoD report, gives a comprehensive understanding of the progress made by the Chinese armed forces over the year along with elucidating the future plans of the Chinese military.

One of the interesting aspects of last year’s DoD report was the focus on China’s industrial espionage efforts on certain advanced technologies which the government thinks holds the key to enhancing the quality of their military systems.

Along with the emphasis on China’s strides in harnessing emerging technologies, the report underlines the use of State-sponsored espionage by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

This is in the hope of fast-tracking their expertise in critical areas that they are lagging behind the West and might help to enhance their defence or military capabilities.

The PLA Strategic Support Force (SSF), created as part of the military reforms, focuses on the enhancement of cyber and electro-warfare capabilities. These espionage efforts remain critical for them for improving the PLA-SSF.

There are four main areas which the Chinese are targeting and it is imperative for India, as a potential target, to understand how these technologies can significantly help the adversary’s armed forces during conflicts.

First, the report mentions specialised integrated circuits (ICs) specifically meant for military use as one of China’s targets. This includes radiation hardened ICs and monolithic microwave ICs which are tailor made for withstanding military grade conditions.

These specialised electronic components consume very low power and need enhanced fabrication processing to immunise the system against any kind of latch-up when exposed to extreme radiation or temperature. Their applications range from nuclear warheads to other missile defence systems that help in the absorption of high levels of nuclear radiation.

Due to the complex method of manufacturing these components, the technology remains concentrated with certain players only which makes it a lucrative target for China.

Second, the focus on memory chipsets in the report has raised eyebrows on China’s potential military plans. The growth of non-volatile (NV) memory, which are memory chips that can retain the data stored in it even after the removal of power supply, has created interest in the possibility of using such components in military vehicles.

The two key factors of retention ability and endurance remain on the higher side for these kinds of chipsets. Military electronics manufacturers now advocate for the use of NV memory chips (like NVSRAMs) in military equipment due to their faster read and write speeds, long-term data storage, and high reliability.

An application where these chips are in massive demand is in the development of autonomous weapon systems. High-grade memory chips being a potential target of Chinese espionage efforts opens up a possibility of new weapon systems being developed by their forces for modernising the existing military systems.

Third, the use of sensors to develop tools like accelerometers and gyroscopes are on China’s radar. These components are used for adequate measurements and sensing especially in building tactical weapon systems. Gyroscopes, especially, have been crucial in the transition of low to high grade precision and navigation systems. They have been used in long range missiles for precision guidance as well as in improving the accuracy of the armed forces’ navigation systems.

China’s interest in these devices validate that tracking, detection and accurate sensing remains absolutely critical during warfare.

Modern day technologies have also improved the quality of devices like accelerometers that are now used by unmanned military vehicles. The sensors in the accelerometers help in providing precise data on additional parameters like wind speed, temperature, and physical strain movement for improving the lifespan of the vehicle.

It would be absolutely critical if China manages to catch hold of such modern military technology that would significantly improve the efficiency and effectiveness of their forces.

Finally, there are mentions of advanced communication systems specialising in electro warfare being one of China’s foremost high-tech espionage targets. A specific area of these systems that the Chinese are looking to develop technical expertise is in military communication jamming equipment.

When deployed, these jamming systems help defence forces in gaining a crucial advantage in the electronic warfare domain by preventing any wireless communications from taking place on the battlefield.

It is no surprise that China is looking to focus on jamming systems as a way to disrupt any sort of communication between the opponent’s control towers and the ground.

The possession of modern electronic warfare systems has become one of China’s priorities in its pursuit of military technologisation which can be severely detrimental to its foes.

China’s recent border skirmishes with India have brought technology and its importance in building robust and secure military systems into the limelight. The DOD report has clearly outlined what the Chinese might be going after when looking to build a stronger and better force.

It is essential that counter-intelligence and intellectual property protection remain India’s and other technologically advanced states’ priority to ensure that these critical technologies stay out of the hands of the Chinese military.

The writer is Research Analyst, The Takshashila Institution. Views expressed are personal.

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How China is using unethical surveillance to modernise its military
How China is using unethical surveillance to modernise its military
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