Key Point: China's new strategy emphasizes flexability.
“The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting,” wrote the legendary Chinese strategist Sun Tzu 2,500 years ago.
Now China’s military appears to be adopting a strategy that Sun Tzu might have approved of. The “systems destruction warfare” approach can be described as seeking victory by incapacitating, rather than annihilating, an opponent. Rather than emphasizing firepower and decisive battles between mass armies, China will attempt to paralyze an opponent’s ability to wage war through precise attacks across the land, sea, air, space, cyber, electromagnetic and psychological spheres.
“In the last two decades, the PLA [People’s Liberation Army] has increasingly recognized that war is no longer a contest of annihilation between opposing military forces, but rather a clash between opposing operational systems,” writes RAND Corporation researcher Jeffrey Engstrom in a new study. “In this new reality, an enemy can be defeated if its operational system can be rendered ineffective or outright unable to function through the destruction or degradation of key capabilities, weapons, or units that compose the system.”
Or put another way, all those high-tech American stealth aircraft, smart bombs and aircraft carriers won’t do much good if they can’t find their targets, get orders from their commanders or coordinate their operations. Modern militaries are packages of tightly integrated systems, including command, communications, targeting and intelligence. Disrupt that integration, and the enemy is reduced a gaggle of flailing limbs.
What’s more, China’s military is shifting toward a more flexible doctrine of mix-and-match packages of capabilities configured for a specific situation. These packages range from naval and air blockade of an opponent, to air defense and information operations. “For example, during a hypothetical blockade of Taiwan, we would likely see the activation of a number of operational systems, including a blockade system, an anti-air raid system, a firepower warfare operational system, and an information operational system,” Engstrom writes.
If all this sounds a bit familiar, it is. Defeating an opponent by rendering him confused and helpless dates back to Operation Desert Storm in 1991, and even Nazi blitzkrieg tactics. The Cold War image of China was of a huge country with a huge army that would simply wear down an enemy as the Japanese army had been worn down in China during World War II. Or the old joke that on the first day of a Sino-Soviet war, China loses five million men, on the second day ten million and the third day twenty million—and on the fourth day Russia surrenders.
“The PLA’s understanding of mid-20th century warfare, shaped by their own experiences in the late stages of Chinese civil war, in Korea, and their observations of the European theater during World War II, meant that the dominant mode of warfare could be characterized as attrition-based warfare of large, mostly mechanized, military units,” Engstrom told the National Interest. “As a result, seeking the greatest economy of force, while never completely written off, was probably not thought by PLA planners to be achievable.”
“The information revolution has now changed this thinking as the PLA, like every other military, fully recognizes massed forces without effective air cover, are highly vulnerable to PGMs [precision-guided munitions],” Engstrom says. Chinese military literature appears to be drawing on “recent Western concepts such as Col. John Warden’s strategic thinking about campaign planning during the Persian Gulf War, the now passé U.S. military concept of effects based operations (EBO), and current U.S. military doctrine. It is highly likely relevant Russian concepts are also a part of this mix as well.”
To be clear, while Sun Tzu favored defeating an opponent with cleverness rather than violence, there is nothing pacifistic about China’s new strategy. It is a different form of violence that favors more precision and less attrition. Nonetheless, it suggests that America may be focusing on the wrong threat. Every week brings breathless new reports of some new Chinese missile or jet fighter. Yet the most deadly new weapon in China’s arsenal may be an appreciation of just how vulnerable America’s military nervous system truly is.
Michael Peck is a contributing writer for the National Interest. He can be found on Twitter and Facebook. This piece was originally featured in February 2018 and is being republished due to reader's interest.