The Chinese Way of War…and Ours

By Gregory F. Treverton

NOTE: The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of SMA, Inc.

Hardly surprisingly, as China has grown richer, it has become more powerful militarily, even in the earlier period when the military was not a priority. Chinese defense spending jumped by at least 620 percent in real terms between 1996 and 2015—an average annual increase of 11 percent.[1] In those decades, China has worked hard to learn the lessons of America’s unipolar moment after the fall of the Soviet Union and, especially, understand our way of war as practiced in the Balkans and greater Middle East, a way still rooted in the unipolar post-Cold War experience when the United States faced relatively weak foes.[2] The lessons that China has learned suggest lessons the United States might learn in turn.

That American “way” incorporated a series of principles that were tenable then, perhaps not now: it began with sustaining a “tripwire” forward presence which would conduct “shaping operations”—training and joint exercises with allied forces—in peacetime. Then, if necessary, those forces would be increased during crises in what were called “flexible deterrent operations (FDOs)” aimed at deterring would be foes. All these elements relied not just on the U.S. homeland remaining a sanctuary but on basing access and overflight from allies, partners, and other states in the region to deploy forces without threat from enemy attack. In those circumstances, the build-up of expeditionary forces could stretch over weeks or months and could be concentrated at staging locations close to enemy territory.

Another critical part of the way was taking the time to conduct extensive intelligence preparation of the battlespace. That, in turn, would let the United States start offensive operations at the time and place of its choosing, beginning with attacks on regime targets and command, control, communications, computing, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance—or C4ISR in military jargon. The United States would accompany its mobilization with dominance in the air and sea, and in the information space. It would then attack the adversary’s fielded forces and critical infrastructure to degrade its forces, erode its will to fight, and systemically disrupt the cohesion of the regime and its military. That would be followed by ground operations once enemy forces were heavily outnumbered, degraded, and disorganized; those operation would combine precision firepower with rapid maneuver—enabled by information dominance and mostly secure lines of logistics, in the expectation of locating and annihilating enemy forces, as well as seizing key terrain with minimal U.S. casualties. Throughout all these phases, the United States would exploit other levers of power—diplomacy, information, and economics to provide additional coercive leverage on opponents.

The linchpin assumptions were that the U.S. homeland was a sanctuary, and that America controlled both logistical lines and communication lines, had superior intelligence, and thus could both deploy forces at will and choose the timing of the fight. None of those assumptions would necessarily hold in a war with China. To be sure, China would be leery of striking the U.S. homeland, but just as surely would employ cyber attacks to disrupt communications and command and control. More to the point, it could use missile strikes on forward U.S. bases to disrupt the happy assumption that the U.S. could easily move forces forward. For a variety of reasons, including cost, many U.S. forces have been redeployed to the continental United States, but that makes the challenge of rapidly reinforcing all the harder. Even the U.S. assumption that it can employ other tools, like economics, is in question when the potential foe is the world’s biggest economy.

The central point—and the one the Chinese seem to have learned from the U.S. way of war in the unipolar era after the fall of communism—is that they cannot allow the United States to control the timing and pace of the fight. Their response, beginning in the mid-1990s envisioned several phases—one in which they would fight, if need be, from a position of inferiority; to one in which they were a rough technological equal of the United States; to, ideally, one in which they had outright superiority.

The lessons they have learned have spawned a number of lines of effort.[3] One is industrial and technical espionage to quickly acquire capabilities comparable to those developed over decades by the United States. As second is aiming to conduct “systems destruction warfare”—the crippling of the U.S. battle network’s command, control, communication, and intelligence systems. A third is enabling first strikes by assembling an arsenal of long-range precision missiles and advanced targeting systems that would provide a good chance of penetrating U.S. defense in the opening stages of a conflict. A fourth is developing “Assassin’s Mace” capabilities—what the U.S. Defense Department terms “black capabilities”—that would be held in reserve to be unveiled in the event of war, to surprise the adversary with attacks from unexpected vectors. A fifth is becoming the world leader in artificial intelligence and then deploying that technology for military superiority.[4]

The critical strategic question for the United States, for both China and Russia, is how to deter “fait accompli” grabs. For China, the goal might be to quickly seize, say, the Senkaku Islands or even Taiwan, and thus thrust onto the United States the onus of deciding whether to escalate the conflict, perhaps even to the threat of nuclear weapons. One analyst, Michael O’Hanlon, argues “that the United States needs a better range of options for dealing with such risks to peace. He advocates “integrated deterrence,” which combines military elements with economic warfare. The military components would feature strengthened forward defenses as well as, possibly, limited military options against Russian or Chinese assets in other theaters. Economic warfare would include offensive elements, notably sanctions, as well as measures to ensure the resilience of the United States and allies against possible enemy reprisal.”[5]

For another, RAND analyst and former Pentagon official David Ochmanek, the focus should be defeating Chinese (or Russian) power-projection forces before those forces can seize key objectives and present the United States with a fait accompli. He has suggested developing concepts and capabilities that within 72 hours can damage or destroy roughly 300-plus high-value PLA Navy vessels in Chinese littoral waters, or roughly 2,000-plus Russian armored vehicles on NATO’s eastern frontier.[6]

Are there lessons for America in China’s lessons learned? The most striking is about time: the first phases of any conflict could be decisive, so the United States no longer has the luxury of long build-ups before it strikes at a time of its choosing. That implies dramatic changes in concepts of operations, perhaps more forward deployments to critical areas. It also implies rethinking the legacy of bases and weapons. The good news is that the United States retains allies and numbers of bases and staging locations abroad. Indeed, when I ask the impertinent question why the United States spends on defense more than the next seven countries in the world (China, Saudi Arabia, India, France, Russia, Britain, and Germany) but does not seem to get its money’s worth for it, I hear two answers from defense specialists. One is that the numbers are inaccurate because other countries bury what we would call defense spending in other budget categories. The other, though, is that sustaining the vast infrastructure overseas is expensive, even if major allies in Europe and Asia contribute to sustaining our presence. The numbers are elusive because the facilities range widely in size and permanence. In one recent count, the United States had 38 named military bases abroad, while China had one or two! By another count, which included “lily pads”—facilities abroad with fewer than 200 U.S. personnel—the U.S. total came to 800 in 2014, at a total cost ranging up to $200 billion.[7]

Thus, the bad news is that in any conflict some of those facilities would be convenient targets for China (and Russia). And as targets they would be more than convenient, for the U.S. military needs them to stage and strike. That implies moving, perhaps dramatically, to plans to strike quickly and from afar. Following China and relying less on traditional airpower and more on missiles, even ballistic missiles, is tempting but runs into the dominant legacy of manned aircraft in Air Force. It also raises thorny and dangerous issues of perception about how either side could know that the missiles were tipped with conventional weapons, not nuclear, especially if the goal is prompt strike early in conflict and if the weapons of choice are coming to be hypersonic missiles, which dramatically shorten warning times.

Yet those issues only drive home the point that the American way of war, designed for a time that has passed, badly needs to be rethought.

[1] Robert O. Work and Greg Grant, Beating the Americans at their Own Game: An Offset Strategy with Chinese Characteristics, Center for New American Security, June 2019, available at https://s3.amazonaws.com/files.cnas.org/documents/CNAS-Report-Work-Offset-final-B.pdf?mtime=20190531090041.

[2] Christopher M. Dougherty, Why America Needs a New Way of War, Center for New American Security, June 2019, available at https://s3.amazonaws.com/files.cnas.org/CNAS+Report+-+ANAWOW+-+FINAL.pdf.

[3] Work and Grant, cited above.

[4] For a comprehensive view of China’s military modernization, see Defense Intelligence Agency, China Military Power: Modernizing a Force to Fight and Win, January 2019, available at https://admin.govexec.com/media/gbc/docs/pdfs_edit/dod-2019-china_military_power_final.pdf.

[5] Michael O’Hanlon, The Senkaku Paradox: Risking Great Power War Over Small Stakes, Brookings Institute Press, 2019.

[6] “Panel Discussion: A New American Way of War,” CNAS, March 7, 2019, https://www.cnas.org/events/panel-discussion-a-new-american-way-of-war.

[7] David Vine, Where in the World Is the U.S. Military? Politico, July/August 2015, available at https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2015/06/us-military-bases-around-the-world-119321.

Published on July 17, 2019 by

Dick Eassom, CF APMP Fellow