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Video Above: Air War in 2050 - Air Force Research Lab Commander on Golden Horde

By Kris Osborn - President & Editor-In-Chief, Center for Military Modernization

(Washington D.C.) There was an interesting and potentially somewhat telling phrase buried beneath the attention-grabbing weapons content cited in the Pentagon’s recently published 2021 China report, and that is the use of a People’s Liberation Army “system of systems” approach.

Chinese efforts to steal or copy U.S. weapons systems are by no means surprising, yet the report’s mention of China’s growing emphasis upon “networking” and preparing for “informationalized” warfare, introduces an extremely significant nuance.

“The goal of mechanization can be broadly understood as the PLA seeking to modernize its weapons and equipment so they can be networked into “systems of systems” and utilize more advanced technologies suitable for “informatized” and “intelligentized” warfare,” the Pentagon’s “2021 Report on Military and Security Developments involving the People’s Republic of China,” states. The report goes so far as to suggest that networked “system-of-systems” kinds of tactics could help China annex or take over Taiwan.

“In 2020, the PLA added a new milestone for modernization in 2027, to accelerate the integrated development of mechanization, informatization, and intelligentization of the PRC’s armed forces, which if realized would provide Beijing with more credible military options in a Taiwan contingency,” the Pentagon report says.

Joint All Domain Command and Control

This raises the interesting question as to whether China is seeking to replicate the Pentagon’s fast-moving, high priority Joint All Domain Command and Control program to engineer a multi-domain “meshed” network of interconnected nodes across the force capable of gathering, processing, organizing and transmit time-relevant data between otherwise disparate elements of the joint force. 

Chinese Navy Destroyers

Chinese navy destroyers during an exercise

The overall effort, as described by Army, Navy and Air Force weapons developers, is preparing for warfare at the “speed of relevance” and exponentially truncating sensor-to-shooter time from 20 minutes to 20 seconds.

This effort, evidenced by the Army’s Project Convergence, Air Force Advanced Battle Management System and Navy Project Overmatch, seeks to leverage breakthrough, AI-enabled computing and information processing technology by, to a large extent, building new interfaces or technical “gateway” systems able to connect otherwise separated data networks. 

For instance the concept of JADC2 is to enable a forward-operating group of mini-drones facing incoming enemy fire to quickly transmit threat movement and target information to larger manned and unmanned systems in position to take immediate combat actions.

Decision-making is informed, enabled and empowered by high-speed, secure information sharing across domains, so that fighter jets can integrate target data from Army Infantry on the ground, aerial sensor nodes such as drones or F-35s can detect and relay incoming ballistic missiles from beyond the radar horizon, or Navy ships can alert air-and-ground command and control systems of approaching, surfaced fired enemy missiles.


The entire effort is based upon the premise that whichever force completes the “sensor-to-shooter” process more quickly and effectively is likely to prevail in warfare. Many describe in terms of a large-scale, multi-domain OODA loop, a term for Observation, Orientation, Decision Action first made famous years ago by retired fighter pilot Col. John Boyd. 

Video Above: Colonel Michael Stefanovic, Director of the Strategic Studies Institute for the Air Force sits down for an exclusive interview with Kris Osborn

The OODA loop, as envisioned by Boyd, was primarily conceived of in terms of dogfighting or getting ahead of or “inside” an enemies’ OODA Loop or decision cycle. In more recent years, the concept has become more broadly applied to characterize the information-driven elements of anticipated future warfare.

On the ground, Army soldiers have already demonstrated in experiments that they can send and receive targeting data quickly with F-35s….Navy ship-based Aegis radar can network with surveillance places and drones to fire interceptors at incoming ballistic missiles from beyond the horizon or visible radar aperture, and Air Force F-22 and F-35 pilots are on the verge of operating groups of nearby drones from the cockpit of the aircraft. 

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Each of these instances represents a small part of a larger piece, meaning the Pentagon is now in a position to approach or actualize goals it has envisioned and pursued for decades .. a way to optimize information sharing in joint warfare operations so that Navy ships, armored ground vehicles, fighter jets, drones and satellites can all operate in a coordinated, high-speed fashion to prevail in warfare.

Therefore, in a manner perhaps similar to the frequent discussions about how Russia and China “went to work” preparing to counter the U.S. following the Gulf War, China quite likely is continuing to watch, mirror and copy successful U.S. strategies. 

The condition or sophistication of AI-enabled Chinese multi-domain information sharing may not be known, yet it would be a reasonable assumption to recognize that this kind of “system-of-systems” networking, data processing and instant sensor-to-shooter pairing is being emphasized in Chinese military modernization as well. At very least, the trend, phenomenon or pattern is increasing to the point wherein it merits attention in the Pentagon’s report on China.

“The PLA sees networked, technologically advanced C4I systems as essential to providing reliable, secure communications to fixed and mobile command posts, thereby enabling rapid, effective, multi-echelon decision-making. These systems are designed to distribute data including intelligence, battlefield information, logistical information, and weather reports via redundant, resilient communications networks to improve commanders’ situational awareness,” the Pentagon China report says.

China Steals US "Red Teaming" and "Wargaming" Tactics

Chinese efforts to replicate, mirror, copy or simply “rip-off” U.S. innovations in the area of weapons development is something that has been tracked for many years now, as it appears to expand beyond the somewhat visible or transparent Chinese effort to “borrow” U.S. 5th-generation stealth fighter external configurations.

DoD’s public news reports have on several occasions in recent years cited concerns that the Chinese J-20 and J-31 do look like F-35 and F-22 design rip-offs to a large extent. Yet it does not stop there, as Chinese drones, armored vehicles and even USS Ford-like aircraft carrier designs appear extremely similar to U.S. designs.

Much of this phenomenon is known and documented in public Pentagon reports, other news reports and Congressional studies, yet there also appears to be a lesser recognized, yet equally troubling Chinese effort to mirror, copy or simply replicate U.S. strategies, tactics, modernization approaches and training methods. Clear evidence of this kind of copying can potentially be seen in the Pentagon’s interesting 2021 China report.

Opposition Force (OPFOR)

Chinese efforts to pursue a U.S.-military-like “multi-domain” approach to future warfare is by no means new or surprising, yet there are two other areas mentioned briefly in the Pentagon’s China report which raise interesting questions.

The recently published Pentagon report, called “2021 Report on Military and Security Developments involving the People’s Republic of China,” says the country is greatly increasing the “realism of its training and the effectiveness of Opposition Force units (OPFOR).”

Is China “red-teaming” with much greater fidelity, scope and technological sophistication? Are Chinese wargames and war preparation methods increasingly “borrowing” from or copying U.S. approaches? This is indeed interesting, and of course not surprising, as the U.S. is well known for its ability to create “red-teams” or OPFOR units.

The Air Force’s Red Flag training wargame, for instance, has in recent years used advanced weapons such as EW jamming or “GPS-denied” conditions as part of an elaborate effort to test and prepare U.S. platforms against the kinds of extremely sophisticated adversaries they may face in great power warfare. 

Video Above: A Warrior Maven exclusive interview with US Air Force Maj. Gen. & Commander of the Air Force Research Lab, Heather Pringle

While many specifics regarding the composition or technological elements of an OPFOR are likely unavailable for security reasons, Air Force news reports have explained that great care is put into creating a realistic and sophisticated OPFOR to truly challenge the limits of U.S. forces.

OPFOR units are by no means restricted to the Air Force, as Army and Navy units also wargame or train against advanced “red-team” units. This is particularly true at the Army’s National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif., where training has for many years now sought to prepare the service for major, multi-domain mechanized warfare against a sophisticated adversary.

In fact the NTC, one could say, was somewhat ahead of its time as it was deeply immersed in preparations for great power war more than 10-years ago during counterinsurgency efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan when the U.S. military was understandably distracted or engaged in counterterrorism.

“Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, border clashes with India, and other significant events in 2020, the PLAA accelerated its training and fielding of equipment from the already fast pace of recent years,” the Pentagon report writes. 

Kris Osborn is the President of Warrior Maven - Center for Military Modernization and the Defense Editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.