Archive for June 28th, 2012

By Timothy Thomas

China’s ongoing Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) is often defined as strategic thinking based on “Chinese characteristics.” Chinese characteristics, according to Hu Jintao, appear to include the informatization of the military system, to include military weaponry and equipment, theory, training, management, logistics, and political work. This focus somewhat follows a 1997 Chinese Military Affairs Dictionary definition of the RMA as “a reflection of qualitative changes in military technology, weapons and equipment, unit structure, war fighting methods, and military thought and theory.” Other Chinese RMA characteristics stressed by Hu and others include military reform and science and technology innovation, the latter described not only as the decisive factor and core competency of a modern military but also as the precursor and soul of the RMA. These advances shift China’s combat power generation model to one that relies on science and technology innovation in the opinion of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

Advancing the RMA is a strategic task whose goal is to control the strategic initiative in international military competition. In 2011 these RMA goals were advanced, according to a Nanfang Zhoumo Online article that stated that the General Staff created or reorganized three departments, the Informatization Department, the Strategic Planning Department, and the Military Training Department. These departments, according to the authors, provide the top-down design for military reform and innovation, and they help coordinate military-wide strategic planning and information command and control support. They serve as future design blueprints for seizing decisive opportunities and advantages, and they help build an informatized military that can seize the initiative and win local wars under informatized conditions. Accelerating the RMA transformation and improving joint operations through the establishment of system-of-systems (SoS) capabilities allows for responding to multiple security threats. To adapt to the world’s RMA, Hu Jintao stressed that the basic form of combat power is the SoS operations capability; the fundamental point of enhancing RMA capabilities is SoS capabilities; and the fundamental point of endeavor for military preparations is SoS capabilities. All of these Chinese RMA characteristics have appeared in the Chinese military press over the past two years.

Interestingly, most if not all of these characteristics seem to follow several recommendations first developed in the 2004 Chinese anthology On the Chinese Revolution in Military Affairs. This work included contributions from a host of influential information warfare and strategic thinking authorities, such as Dai Qinmin, Shen Weiguang, Wang Pufeng, Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui of Unrestricted Warfare fame, Li Jijun, and Li Bingyan, among others. First the book noted that superior thought that develops a strategy of “imbalance” will avoid traveling the path that an enemy expects. In this sense, Li Bingyan noted, the RMA is really a cognition system revolution (which accords with the recent focus on innovation). Further, authors stressed the diversification in the pattern of war at the initial stage of the military revolution (which coincides with the necessity to seize the initiative). The RMA changes the face of war and thus the application of military strategy (which accords with a new Strategic Planning Department). Another author stated that the RMA included new technology and weaponry, organizational structure, and theory, strategy, and tactics (much like Hu’s listing of characteristics); and that information imparts an offensive character to warfare. Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui wrote that the RMA allows for control over front lines from rear lines, referring to the use of drones in Afghanistan. The only dissenting voice was that of Li Jijun, who noted that an RMA is not the same as reform or a revolution in military technology. The RMA is more expansive and quick, while reform and technology revolutions are more gradual and limited. Overall, however, the authors believe that the RMA is a revolution of an entire military architecture, but the manner in which it is understood cannot accommodate the US version. The RMA must be seen through the prism of Chinese military thought and culture, focusing on thinking as much as on technology. In other words, strategic thinking must be based on Chinese characteristics.

Overall, RMA advances in 2011 helped China’s deterrence and actual combat capabilities according to the Nanfang Zhoumo article. Two tendencies must be avoided in RMA preparations: moving too fast, and excessively using military resources.

Timothy Thomas is an analyst at the Foreign Military Studies Office, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.

The rebalancing of the US defense portfolio from West to East Asia has been called a “pivot,” but the term arguably applies better to China’s strategic situation.  Over the past few decades, China has had momentum in the global military competition, but looking ahead, China will have to adjust to the reactions to its rapid build-up in the region.  These responses may put China on the wrong side of the cost-imposing equation. More generally, they may complicate China’s effort to reap strategic dividends from its modernization to date.

Up to the present, China has taken advantage of the conventional precision strike trend to build up a “counter-intervention” force, aimed at threatening, for example, expensive US power projection assets with relatively cheap missiles. Today, we are witnessing the fruits of China’s decades-long effort to construct a network of sensors and strike assets capable of hitting fixed and mobile targets – from runways in Taiwan and Guam to US aircraft carriers in China’s near seas. This has threatened the ability of the United States to project power by traditional means along China’s periphery. With logistics support, staging areas, and both surface naval and airborne platforms vulnerable to Chinese missiles, would the United States come to the defense of, say, the Philippines in the event of Chinese aggression against Filipino claims in the South China Sea?

There is another way of casting this question, however.  Looking forward, China’s emerging defense infrastructure will itself be vulnerable to conventional precision strike. From the Indian Ocean in the west to the Timor and Banda Seas in the south and the Sea of Japan in the north, regional states are acquiring their own counter-intervention capabilities to defend their interests and maintain stability in the context of outstanding territorial disputes, competition over resources, and other potential disagreements with China.  Consider the following examples of observable and potential developments:

  • India, Japan, and South Korea have all been investing in sophisticated cruise missiles that could threaten Chinese naval forces.
  • Land-attack variants might be placed on submarines operating off of China’s coast. Australian Collins-class subs could carry Harpoon land attack cruise missiles (LACMs), and Vietnam has purchased Kilo-class submarines that could carry Russian LACMs.
  • Former US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Thomas Mahnken has proposed a West Pacific intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) consortium involving data from drones that would enable consortium members to detect and, presumably, target Chinese forces conducting incursions.

As the regional security environment evolves, and as China chooses to become an aggressor, the logic of precision strike will turn against it.  Chinese power projection assets, rather than US forces, will be in the crosshairs.

Beyond the operational level, the spread of counter-intervention capabilities in the region could pose a serious challenge for Chinese strategy, which is centered on inflicting a devastating series of strikes at the outset of a conflict to paralyze or incapacitate the enemy so that China can prevail quickly.  On their own or as part of a coalition, other states look poised to acquire the means to withstand such an onslaught and inflict damage on Chinese forces.

Would regional states really venture to use conventional precision strike against Chinese forces and risk nuclear retaliation? This question suggests the need for better understanding of nuclear proliferation dynamics in Asia. Observable trends include the prominence of tactical nuclear weapons in Russian doctrine; the build-up of fissile material by actors from India, Pakistan, and potentially the Middle East to North Korea; and developments in US and allied missile defense. In light of these factors, prospects for nuclear arms reductions by China look slim. Nuclear-related decisions by other regional actors will likely hinge in part on the fate of the US extended deterrent.  Mark Stokes has noted that China may have its own version of prompt global strike by 2025, so it makes sense to ask about the impact of this capability on the credibility of the US commitment to the defense of regional allies and friends.

A final consideration is that China’s economic growth, a critical enabler of its defense modernization to date, is beginning to slow, as the draft Global Trends report notes.  This will affect China’s ability to sustain defense budget increases across the board and necessitate potentially difficult trade-offs among investments.  For these and other reasons, leading Chinese security scholars such as Shi Yinhong and Wang Jisi have begun to debate whether China’s period of strategic opportunity is ending.  A perceived closing window of opportunity could affect Chinese decisions about Taiwan or other disputed territory on land (e.g., along the border with India) and at sea (e.g., in the East and South China Seas) in surprising ways.