China’s military research and development program is organized around 16 “national megaprojects” that are intended to advance and transform that country’s capabilities in core technology areas including electronics, aerospace, clean energy, and so on. Three of the 16 national projects are classified and have not been officially acknowledged.
But in a recently published US Army War College volume, China specialists Richard A. Bitzinger and Michael Raska identified “three prime candidates” for the classified Chinese programs: 1) a laser fusion program; 2) a navigational satellite system; and 3) a hypersonic vehicle technology project.
The Shenguang (Divine Light) laser is an experiment in inertial confinement fusion. The project reportedly aims to achieve ignition and plasma burning by 2020. “Shenguang has two strategic implications: it may accelerate China’s next-generation thermonuclear weapons development, and advance China’s directed-energy laser weapons programs,” wrote Bitzinger and Raska, who are based at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.
The Beidou 2 satellite system is a network of hardened navigational satellites, which potentially “eliminates China’s dependency on the U.S. GPS and Russia’s GLONASS satellite navigation systems that could be deactivated in select areas in times of conflict,” they wrote.
Finally, “there are signs that China is developing conceptual and experimental hypersonic flight vehicle technologies such as hypersonic cruise vehicles (HCV) capable of maneuvering at Mach 5.”
See Capacity for Innovation: Technological Drivers of China’s Future Military Modernization by Ricard A. Bitzinger and Michael Raska, in The Chinese People’s Liberation Army in 2025 (Roy Kamphausen and David Lai, eds.), published July 2015 by the Strategic Studies Institute and the US Army War College Press.
“Although China’s military innovation lagged behind that of Western powers, China’s ‘latecomer advantage’ has enabled it to skip various phases of development,” the volume editors wrote. “As a latecomer, the PLA has been able to identify and absorb key foreign civil and military technologies.”
A recently updated report from the Congressional Research Service discusses China’s Economic Rise: History, Trends, Challenges, and Implications for the United States, September 11, 2015.