The Complex

China Has a New Propaganda Machine -- and This One Can Fly

In a move straight from the U.S. Air Force's playbook, China is now fielding its very own flying propaganda broadcast plane.

Chinese state-run media is reporting that the People's Liberation Army Air Force has modified one of its planes -- what appears to be a Y-8 airlifter (basically, Beijing's version of the U.S.-made C-130 Hercules) -- to carry the kind of broadcast equipment capable of taking over a country's radio and TV channels. It's another sign that the Chinese military is slowly starting to close the enormous advantage that the U.S. Air Force has over it in the skies.

The new plane, dubbed the Gaoxin 7, will "give the enemy nervous breakdowns" as it flies through the skies, according to a hype-ridden article by the Chinese state-run Global Times.

Not impressed yet? What if we told you that the Gaoxin 7 will also (according to a translation of the Global Times article in Hong Kong's South China Morning Post), "limit the spread of enemy propaganda, affect the morale of the enemy's army, sow seeds of rumor and confusion, and send all enemy troops from soldiers to officials into a state of nervous breakdown, achieving victory without soldiers even having to fight?"

"After that," the paper says, "[dealing with] dropped enemy pamphlets and other propaganda items will be a piece of cake."

The Global Times article on this new "weapon of mass persuasion" has received its fair share of mockery from Chinese Internet users for its breathless tone (see this overview in the South China Morning Post). But as the article notes, the United States has a long history with these kinds of PsyOps tactics -- and they're a little more sophisticated than they might at first appear.

The Chinese plane appears to be modeled after U.S. Air Force Special Operations Command's EC-130J Commando Solo.

The Harrisburg, Pa.-based Commando Solos carry massive amounts of VHF, UHF, AM, FM, and military communications-band broadcast equipment capable of overriding the broadcasts being watched or listened to by the target audience and replacing them with a message of the U.S. government's choosing. Uncle Sam literally takes over your television.

We've been using Commando Solos and their predecessors -- the EC-121 Coronet Solo -- for decades to broadcast messages of doom for our enemies and love for our allies. They flew over Southeast Asia in the early 1970s, and traveled to the Persian Gulf in the early 1990s for Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, during which they flew around playing messages designed to convince Iraqi soldiers to surrender. They made news again in 2011 for their role in the Operation Odyssey Dawn mission in Libya.

You can listen to one of the messages (broadcast in both English and Arabic here) directed at sailors in the Libyan navy here ("If you target NATO vessels, you will be destroyed," it says). But it's not all threats and bluster: in post-9/11 Afghanistan, the planes were dispatched to play Afghan pop music for a population that had been music-less for years under Taliban rule.

Useful? Maybe. The source of mass nervous breakdowns and surrender? Not quite. To be honest, we don't really know how much these PsyOps are aiding the U.S. cause; as Wired has noted, one of the issues with this kind of operation is measuring its effectiveness. We also don't yet know what China has in mind for its new plane. But if America's history here is any indication, we've got a long way to go before a flying propaganda machine manages to achieve victory without any fighting.

China Defense Mashup

National Security

China's 'Combat Troops' in Africa

For the second time in a little over a year, China has infantry on the ground in Africa, reflecting the Chinese military's increasingly global presence.

395 peacekeepers from the People's Liberation Army just arrived in the Saharan nation of Mali as part of the U.N. mission to help restore order there. Specifically, Beijing has sent engineering, medical and "guard" teams to the Malian capital of Bamako, according to the Chinese defense ministry. These troops are reportedly part of the PLA's 16th Army, a formation comprised of infantry, armor and artillery divisions.

China traditionally sends thousands of engineering, medical and other support troops on U.N. missions each year. Of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, China is the largest manpower contributor to U.N. peacekeeping missions.

However, until very recently, China did not send infantry on U.N. missions. In fact, Beijing officially insists the soldiers in Mali aren't combat troops, perhaps in order to maintain the idea that China doesn't send official combat troops on peacekeeping missions.

"The Chinese security force is actually a guard team that will mainly be responsible for the security of the [U.N. mission] headquarters and the living areas of peacekeeping forces," a Chinese defense ministry spokesman is quoted by China's state-run Xinhua news agency as saying.

Still, this latest deployment marks the second time in the last two years that China has sent infantry soldiers to Africa with the purpose of guarding peacekeeping missions. In 2011, Beijing sent infantrymen to guard PLA engineers participating in a U.N. mission in South Sudan. Despite Beijing's claims that these troops were there solely for the purpose of guarding the engineers, the U.S. China Economic and Security Review pointed out that these guards were from an "elite" combat unit.

The mission to protect PLA engineers and medics isn't without merit; just last week, seven UN personnel were killed when their convoy was attacked in Sudan. And the operation reflects China's growing interest in Africa. Chinese business leaders have been all over the continent for the last decade, spending billions of dollars on projects and prompting some to worry that Beijing was going to beat the U.S. in the African influence game (an assertion U.S. President Barack Obama dismisses). All of this has prompted Chinese military deployments aimed at protecting Chinese workers abroad.

The Chinese navy has been conducting anti-piracy operations in the Arabian Sea for years. And in early 2011, China sent military transport planes and even a guided missile destroyer to Libya to help evacuate some of the tens of thousands of Chinese citizens there as the revolution against former Libyan dictator Muammar al Qaddafi heated up.

These latest deployments of Chinese infantry are simply a reflection of China's growing role in the world, motivated by the need to protect Chinese investments and to be seen as a more responsible player in global security affairs, say several experts.

"This role is not limited to Africa, and thus I don't see this current shift as an ‘Africa' policy, but rather the evolution of their U.N. role coupled, possibly, with a long-standing special relationship with Mali," professor Deborah Brautigam with John Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies. "If they want to play a leadership role in the U.N., they need to step up and expand what they contribute to its various parts."

For now, that means sending in a relative handful of troops. In the future, the numbers may not be quite so small.

"China is slowly setting the scene for eventually sending a combat unit to some future UN peacekeeping operation," said David Chinn, former U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia and Burkina Faso who now teaches at The George Washington University. "In this sense, this is a significant development and is in keeping with China's policy of slowing expanding the size and function of its support to peacekeeping."