When it comes to competition with China, General Charles Q. Brown Jr. is a visionary. Shortly after becoming the chief of staff of the U.S. Air Force (USAF) this summer, he issued a directive to the service entitled “Accelerate Change or Lose,” in which he highlights the urgency for a change of mindset and the transformation of culture so that USAF is better positioned to maintain its edge in an age of great power strategic competition.
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and its People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has held a similar competitive mindset for decades, particularly in the realm of military technologies. The PLA has engaged in a long-term military-technical competition with the United States since the mid-1990s. Against the backdrop of intensified science and technology (S&T) competition in an era of deteriorating U.S.-China relations, the PLA has taken on a series of well-coordinated measures to infuse new energy into its fundamental research, development, and acquisition (RD&A) processes. Such measures demonstrate that the PLA is not only willing to change, but also is actively exploring new mechanisms to accelerate change.
CMC S&T Commission Open House Day
Today’s Chinese Central Military Commission (CMC) S&T Commission does not have the name recognition of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in the United States. Nor does it have DARPA’s vision and research prowess. However, when the PLA reformers disbanded the General Armament Department (G), where the S&T Commission used to be housed, in 2016, the Commission was elevated to become one of the 15 first-level organs directly under the CMC. It began to play a much more prominent and direct role in guiding and advising PLA leadership on weapons development while serving as an internal driver for collaboration between the PLA and Chinese defense industry to facilitate military innovation. Most recently, it has begun actively exploring ways to construct a more open and inclusive culture that may be conducive to innovation.
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On September 12, the CMC S&T Commission held its first “Defense Technology Innovation Open House Day” (国防科技创新创意接待日) in Beijing. The event went mostly unnoticed in Western defense circles. Official Chinese media reported that 44 representatives from Chinese military and civilian universities, research institutes and technology companies participated in the event, during which key S&T Commission leaders engaged in face-to-face exchanges of ideas with the participants, and gave directives to relevant offices of the commission to take follow-up actions. Prior to the event day, the Commission verified and accepted a total of 755 ideas from the public through its online and mail-in submission platforms. The CMC now plans to host its Open House day on a monthly basis.
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Despite the fundamental differences that exist between the CCP’s PLA and the U.S. military, the CMC “Open House Day” slightly resonates with the U.S. Air Force’s “Pitch Day,” minus the on-site contract signings. Perhaps even more importantly, the CMC’s newly routinized event embodies almost everything that the PLA is not traditionally known for. Most notably, it endeavors to serve as an “open and transparent, fast and highly-efficient vehicle for national defense innovation,” and, when it comes to the selection of participants, the “Open House Day” prioritizes “younger S&T research personnel, non-traditional military industrial entities, intelligent military technologies, new weapon concepts, disruptive and frontier technological innovations.”
“Sparks Topics” and Rapid Support
Another new mechanism is the National Defense S&T Special Innovation Zone. Since 2018, this has become a crucial component of the CMC S&T Commission-led effort to mobilize civilian resources and personnel to actively participate in defense innovation projects. It appears to be a research funding program sponsored by the S&T Innovation Bureau of the CMC S&T Commission. It is led and managed by the National Defense Rapid Response Small Group, manned by CMC staff and Shenzhen government personnel.
In April 2020, the program showed an extra sense of urgency by soliciting proposals for “Spark Topics (火花课题),” which are required to “be innovative, have disruptive potential, and meet basic research integrity requirements.” Of particular interest, “disruptive potential” is described as having the potential to “seize the S&T high ground,” have key military applications, or lead to revolutionary change in combat forms. A designated office to accept such proposals on a routine basis was also established in Beijing’s Haidian District.
Around the same time as the “Spark Topics” initiative was created, the Weapons and Equipment Acquisition Information Net (WEAIN), managed by the CMC Equipment Development Department (EDD), created a new “Rapid Support (快速支持)” tab on its website. The tab provides a direct interface for interested entities to submit project proposals that may fit into two categories: rapid assistance and rapid conversion. The latter has a specific emphasis on encouraging “civilian [technologies] to join the military [applications].” The “Rapid Support” tab was a manifestation of the latest EDD directive to create a rapid support mechanism to fund advanced research projects. The mechanism is comprised of three parts: rapid discovery, rapid selection, and rapid implementation. Although it remains unclear if this initiative is directly related to the CMC S&T Commission’s activities, the timing of both new initiatives demonstrate a degree of coordination between the two key players for China’s weapon and equipment development, likely to address top CCP and PLA leaders’ concerns.
Key PLA RD&A organizations such as the CMC S&T Commission and the EDD have taken on new measures to accelerate military innovation. It may be too early to evaluate the effectiveness of these new initiatives in terms of deliverables. Some may even argue that the push for “civilian joining the military” implicitly suggests the military-civil fusion strategy under Xi Jinping has not gone as smoothly as the CCP had liked. Such efforts should not be mistaken as a complete reinvention of the PLA’s RD&A processes either.
But intentions matter in competitions. The PLA’s intentions are clear: accelerate change or lose, with Chinese characteristics. When disruptive mechanisms are introduced into an existing structure, and people who have new mindsets are positioned to lead and implement the intended changes, cultural change will take place. As Brown declared, “we must be able to account for the interactive nature of competition and continuously assess ourselves relative to our adversaries’ adaptations.” The U.S. military should keep a close eye on the PLA’s new initiatives and continue to fine-tune its own S&T RD&A processes accordingly.
Dr. Marcus Clay is an analyst with the U.S. Air Force’s China Aerospace Studies Institute (CASI). The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Air Force, Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.