China has been holding some of its biggest military exercises in Taiwan – Copyright AFP Hector RETAMAL
The Chinese military has been conducting its own Long March from a virtual museum to a modern military entity since the late 1990s. The current state of the new Chinese military has been under constant evaluation by the Pentagon for some years. The Pentagon Current Report 2022 it poses some confrontational issues for the US military and the world.
Some of this report naturally comes from a purely American perspective, assessing the threats. Much of it, however, goes into detail with the “How’s” of the evolution of the Chinese military. Phrases like “integration of the economy and the military” do not (and cannot) really do justice to the sheer scale and complexity of delivering China’s operational capacity and depth of industrial capacity.
This is not a quick or simple process. The appearance of countless new Chinese weapon systems seems threatening. Building a large Chinese navy seemingly out of thin air over the past decade has raised tensions along with the rhetoric about Taiwan.
As the report makes clear, the PLA is now a very important part of Chinese foreign relations with blatant shows of force as added attractions. China’s net message is “we’re serious.”
Any assessment of the Chinese army. has to include these topics. There is a bias built into the most basic perceptions. Nor does Western disapproval of Chinese systems do any favors by discounting their value compared to Western systems.
Interestingly, the official Chinese position regarding its military and the US assessment are pretty much on the same page:
- Strategically, the objectives are nuclear deterrence with strong regional conventional forces.
- Power projection will be based on missile and naval assets.
- Taiwan is a problem and forces are being developed to achieve Chinese goals.
- The US Navy is seen as a primary threat.
- US allies and regional assets are also a threat.
- The additional dimensions of cyber warfare, surveillance, and space assets are integrated with the management of these threats.
This strategic position is not as obvious as should be. China’s space capabilities are definitely very strong. The development of China’s indisputably effective space technologies and industries has created a new stadium for the Chinese military.
The result of this 20-year evolution is not the predictable silly communist military monolith of the Cold War era. Creating such an army requires skills and, above all, a clear understanding of these technologies. They have not just copied and pasted these things.
Xi Jinping deserves some credit for keeping the focus as well as the initiative. The PLA was modernizing before he came, but haphazardly. There were still many fossils in the PLA inventory in 2010. Military development was not systematic either. It was spotty at best. You’d get a new Russian-style tank or something and that was it; not entirely new classes of systems. The Chinese navy was slacking off along with a retired Cold War-era aircraft carrier; now boasts domestically built aircraft carriers with clear technological progression on each new aircraft carrier.
So what we have now is at least a good theoretical model for a future modern Chinese military. These forces have had a decade or so to work on operating efficiencies. They have been testing and developing the systems. Tactical developments have also been observed, such as multi-submarine deployments (a bit like a wolf pack, but more evolved and with modern technology). These tactical ploys appear to be local Chinese ideas, not derived from foreign sources.
reading the tea leaves
From the US perspective, what would have been easy prey 10 years ago is now a much more difficult and even tougher target. Much emphasis has been placed on the media coverage of the report that China now deploys information systems to find Western weaknesses.
Perhaps the West could borrow those systems and do some analysis itself. It would be a nice change from the destructive political insularity and bickering. A proper analysis could also dispel apathy. There is still, somewhat, a hangover tendency to assume that Chinese technology is inferior. That assumption is now at least 10 years old, and it’s not getting any younger.
China’s weak point, however, is likely to be power projection. Integrated systems or not, the Chinese military is expected to carry a massive technical, strategic, and tactical burden. They don’t have 120 years of experience like the US Navy. Even an attack on Taiwan, right next door, could well be a real debacle. Scale and complexity versus degree of difficulty does not make it any easier for the Chinese to deliver.
Strategically, there is a unique situation. China’s economic interests and its military options conflict in too many ways. No other nation in history has been in this position to this point. The “factory of the world” could easily end with an ill-considered war. China’s domestic needs for essential imports would also be compromised.
History is also going to play a role. The destruction of the Russian army in Ukraine has effectively destroyed many doctrines, as well as Russian tanks and aircraft. This is an inevitable generational change in the nature of warfare, and China may or may not have reckoned with the grim and costly results. It is quite possible that a future war will be fought on a completely different basis than the current standard. China may be aiming for an outdated target. Currently, this is a pretty cheesy (and easy) view of the situation, but the reality is likely to be hordes of microsystems and high levels of cheap removal, inevitably with autonomous AI. Consider a minefield that can really haunt you as a natural evolution of a “loitering munition”. That makes life a bit difficult for conventional military models.
The usual story is that any army is equipped to fight the wars of the previous generation. As Ukraine has shown, that no longer works. The second largest army in the world has just been chewed up and will soon be spit out. It was squashed by a mix of whatever was useful and some imports. Some Ukrainian systems, particularly drones and combat systems, were literally homemade.
The US military and many other Western nations are well aware of how the economics of this type of warfare are developing. High technology works, but it comes at a price. Russia’s shameful failures in all aspects of technological warfare make it clear that this is the beginning of a new way of warfare. Even allowing for a competent opponent, the future battlefield is already much more demanding.
Simply put, China may have prepared to fight the wrong war. From the trenches to multidimensional warfare, about 110 years have passed. In the next 40 years, what else will you do? People who start wars usually lose them. These tea leaves must be read correctly.