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In early February 1991, China's High Command was stunned to realize just how far behind modern militaries the People's Liberation Army had fallen. The opening days of the Gulf War convinced PLA analysts that they were witnessing a revolution in military affairs (RMA). American stealth bombers penetrated Iraqi airspace undetected to strike their targets in Baghdad and elsewhere with impunity, while the allied naval armada sat comfortably offshore in the Persian Gulf, well outside the range of Iraqi defenses, launching wave after wave of air strikes and cruise missile attacks. The surgical bombing substantially degraded Iraqi air defenses, while electromagnetic warfare attacks blinded command and control networks. Allied information warfare experts spread viruses into Iraqi computers, scrambling software programs and causing confusion.
With its intelligence eyes and ears incapacitated and its air defenses knocked out, Iraq had no effective defenses against carrier-based air strikes or the saturation bombing of the elite Republican Guards by B-52 and B-1 bombers (which flew round-the-clock missions). Once the allied ground invasion began, Iraqi tanks (ironically, many of them of Chinese origin) became easy fodder for the far more advanced allied tanks, which could target them with laser rangefinders and used night vision equipment to illuminate the desert battlefield. In the infantry offensive that followed, allied units (which were linked to each other by means of global positioning systems, or GPS) quickly decimated Iraqi ground forces. Finally, when Saddam Hussein was forced to play his trump card-Scud missiles potentially armed with biological and chemical weapons-American antimissile defenses were able to intercept many of them in flight after calculating trajectory and targeting coordinates and relaying them to Patriot missile battery commanders via satellite within minutes of the Scud launches.
The Gulf War, with its awesome display of firepower, stealth, electronics, computers, and satellites, revealed that warfare had made a quantum leap into a new era. It was a profound shock to the PLA, but it was not the first time that the Chinese brass had been forced to acknowledge their military shortcomings. Twelve years earlier, during China's punitive attack on Vietnam, the PLA found it difficult to carry out a modest cross-border incursion to subdue a few small cities and suffered enormous casualties against smaller, albeit experienced, opposition. The Chinese army had proven incapable of carrying out a coordinated ground assault from three directions. Command and communications were disjointed, and Chinese forces fell victim to their own "friendly fire." Nor did the PLA bring any air power to bear on their adversaries. As a result, battle-hardened Vietnamese troops were the ones who "taught lessons" to the PLA.
The weaponry that the allied forces threw at Iraq, which was generations ahead of what China had encountered on the Vietnam border in 1979, forced China's generals to the harsh realizations that a new, high-technology era of warfare had dawned and that the Chinese military was unprepared to deal with it. The shock of the Gulf War was all the more traumatic because, since the Vietnam fiasco, China's military had begun a fairly comprehensive modernization and reform program. Deng Xiaoping, who chaired the Central Military Commission, Marshall Ye Jianying, and General Yang Shangkun all harshly criticized the PLA's bloated size, disorganization, political factionalism, lax discipline, and combat ineffectiveness. Deng, Ye, Yang, and others accordingly set in motion a series of initiatives intended to truly "modernize" the military (although military modernization came distinctly last in the "Four Modernizations"). Throughout the 1980s, the PLA was restructured to prepare, first, for "people's war under modern conditions," and then for "limited war." The changes reconfigured ground forces, consolidated military regions, began combined arms and joint service exercises, undertook a new recruitment drive along with the demobilization of redundant and incompetent personnel, and pursued new weapons procurement programs. The PLA had been implementing reforms for more than a decade when the Gulf War starkly demonstrated that it was still operating in terms of a bygone era of warfare.
The Catalysts for Reform
The Gulf War stimulated deep introspection and analysis in the PLA about the nature of contemporary warfare and the reforms necessary to ready the Chinese armed forces to wage it. In the wake of the Gulf War, PLA strategy was revised to focus on "limited wars under high-technology conditions." Evidence of new defense policy and doctrinal initiatives, structural changes, altered training regimen, new weapons procurement programs, and other changes became noticeable during 1995-96. These reforms had some continuity with previous programs and reforms undertaken in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but others were entirely new and could be traced to the lessons learned from the Gulf War.
Then, in March 1996, another event jarred the PLA, provoking further reflection, rethinking, and readjustment. The PLA's strategic rocket forces, the Second Artillery, began to practice coercive "missile diplomacy" in the Taiwan Strait-firing M-9 missiles within miles of the entrances to Kaohsiung and Chi'lung harbors-and the United States dispatched two aircraft carrier battle groups, centered on the USS Independence and Nimitz, to the vicinity. With their deployment, the powerful American task forces displayed the greatest show of strength directed at China since the Sino-American rapprochement of 1971. From positions in the waters east and north of Taiwan, the small armada flew combat exercises and monitored the PLA's own live-fire "exercises" in the Strait. Washington, Beijing, and Taipei all drew different lessons from the U.S. deployment, but for the PLA it meant only one thing: to expect American military involvement should the PLA use force against Taiwan. PLA leaders had long wondered whether they would have to confront the vaunted U.S. military in a Taiwan crisis-now they could assume so.
The 1996 "Taiwan Crisis" added new urgency to China's military modernization and reform program, focusing some of the lessons of the Gulf War. But it also diverted broader efforts to create a more comprehensive force structure and a balanced military modernization program. Since then many elements of PLA planning, training, and procurement have become contingency-driven, dominated by the specter of a military conflict with the United States over Taiwan. Exercises, force deployments, and weapons procurement (particularly from Russia) are preparing the PLA for such a conflict. Hard allocation choices channeled resources into services, programs, and weapons thought necessary to fight not only Taiwan's military but the United States as well.
Resources that might have contributed to a broad-based and systematic military modernization have instead gone into the purchase of expensive Sovremmeny-class destroyers from Russia, built principally to counter Aegis-equipped destroyers and cruisers (which escort aircraft carriers) and the on-board defenses of American carriers, as well into the procurement of Su-27 and Su-30 fighters, Kilo-class submarines, and other equipment intended to plug critical gaps in PLA capabilities against Taiwanese and U.S. forces. China pursued the acquisition of Israel's Phalcon airborne early-warning and control systems-a sale aborted by the Israeli government in July 2000 under considerable pressure from Washington-as a key to controlling the skies in the Taiwan theater. (Chinese pilots currently only have ground control links and no aerial multiple-tracking capability). PLA marines and ground forces practice beach assaults and amphibious landings in mock invasions of Taiwan or the offshore islands and increasingly train with air and naval units in joint-force exercises. Knowing that Taiwan currently has no effective defenses against short-range ballistic missiles, the PLA is embarked on a major and rapid buildup of these weapons opposite the island (approximately 300 by 2000 and increasing by about 50 per year). Also, the steady program to modernize and deploy more nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missiles is in large part driven by the need to have a bona fide second-strike minimum deterrent against the United States.
Just as the PLA was adapting to the new military challenges posed by the Taiwan situation, the third rude shock of the 1990s struck: the Kosovo crisis and NATO's war against Serbia in 1999. This time the jarring effect on the PLA was both political and military.
On the political level, Beijing perceived NATO's actions as illustrating a new propensity on the part of the United States (which China's media always dubbed "U.S.-led NATO") to intervene in regional conflicts, under the pretext of "humanitarian intervention," for the purpose of extending and consolidating American global "hegemony" and domination. During and after the war, the Chinese media (including the military media) unleashed a barrage of invective against the United States unequaled since the Cultural Revolution and the Vietnam War. NATO and American actions forced Chinese analysts to question the core assumptions about international relations and the global strategic landscape that had guided their worldview since the late Deng Xiaoping's 1985 pronouncement, that the threat of war was on the decline, that the global system of power relations was inexorably moving toward multipolarity, and that all countries sought "peace and development." Instead of sinking into relative, if not absolute, decline, as Chinese analysts had predicted just a few years earlier, the unrivaled strength and unipolar power of the United States now seemed to be growing significantly. Furthermore, contrary to the touted thesis of "peace and development," regional conflicts, and the American propensity to intervene in them, were seen as increasing. Moreover, American military deployment around the world remained at high, even expanded, levels. Although Chinese strategic theology predicted, and the Chinese government had officially called for, the abrogation of alliances and withdrawal of forces from foreign soil, Washington had in fact strengthened and broadened its network of global alliances in the aftermath of the Cold War.
Thus the U.S. role in the Balkan war had a profoundly disturbing and dissonant effect on Chinese military and strategic thinkers as well as on national leaders. When the NATO intervention was considered in the context of the 1991 Gulf War and 1996 Taiwan crisis, China perceived itself to be facing a United States bent on global dominance and the permanent separation of Taiwan from China. The possibility of U.S. intervention in China's ethnic troubles in Xinjiang and Tibet as a result of the "Clinton Doctrine" of humanitarian intervention added to Beijing's sense of urgency.
On a military level, too, the Yugoslav campaign jolted PLA analysts, who paid close attention to how NATO prosecuted the war. They set up two 24-hour centers to monitor the military dimensions of the conflict-one in the General Staff Department's intelligence "Watch Center" and the other at the Academy of Military Sciences. They witnessed tactics, technology, and weaponry similar to those used in the Gulf War eight years earlier, but they also observed a number of new features. Information and electronic warfare appeared to play a more important role in disabling enemy command infrastructure and defenses. Cruise missiles had improved accuracy. NATO suppressed Serbian air defenses in the early stages of the conflict and gained complete command of the skies; aerial bombardment was significantly more intense (in operational tempo, if not in tonnage of ordnance). With the use of in-flight refueling, bombing raids using the newly deployed B-2 strategic bomber were initiated half a world away instead of within theater. One such bombing raid tragically and mistakenly targeted the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade. The bombs themselves were equipped with new satellite and laser guidance systems. Perhaps most important, PLA analysts watched a war prosecuted from great distances-where the Serbs could not see, hear, or reach their attackers. With all of the high-tech weaponry deployed, not a single allied soldier was lost to hostile fire.
The 2001-2 U.S. military campaign against the Taliban regime and al-Qaeda terrorists in Afghanistan was also carefully studied by PLA analysts, although the lessons derived remain unclear at this time. As in the case of the war against the Serbs in Bosnia, PLA analysts were alarmed on both the political and military levels.
Politically, they were quite uncomfortable with the prospect of U.S. and allied military forces deployed in Pakistan and particularly in Central Asian countries on China's northwestern periphery. The prospect of a long-term American military presence in the Central Asian republics is particularly unsettling to Chinese national security planners, as it represents (in their somewhat paranoid view) a major new step in what is perceived as an American strategy of encircling China. From this perspective, only the direct northern frontier, where China borders Russia, is free from a U.S. military presence.
At the outset of the Afghanistan conflict in October 2001, PLA officers at the PLA National Defense University in Beijing warned, mistakenly, that like the British in the nineteenth century and the Soviet Union, the United States would become bogged down in an Afghan quagmire. They warned that this was a different kind of enemy, which could not be subdued by aerial bombing, and doubted whether America was prepared to insert ground troops and risk casualties (arguing that the United States continued to suffer from a "Somalia syndrome"). If the United States did deploy ground troops, PLA analysts warned, they would be consumed in a quagmire of guerrilla war, which they were not prepared to fight, and U.S. helicopters and aircraft would be shot down by Stinger missiles in possession of the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Similar prognoses had been offered by PLA analysts at the outset of the Gulf War and the Bosnian bombing. They were proven wrong each time, reflecting fundamental misunderstandings of U.S. military strategy and tactics.
Militarily, in Afghanistan, PLA analysts witnessed displays of high-technology warfare similar to those seen in the Gulf War and the Serbian conflict, as well as some new techniques and ordnance. Long-range strategic bombing with extremely sophisticated precision-guided munitions (PGMs) played a key role. During ninety days of bombing, the United States dropped a total of nearly 13,000 bombs on Afghanistan, of which 9,000 were PGMs. The accuracy and lethality of these weapons proved far more advanced than had been witnessed in Iraq or Bosnia.
Excerpted from Modernizing China's Military by David Shambaugh Copyright © 2002 by Regents of the University of California . Excerpted by permission.
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|List of Illustrations|
|List of Acronyms and Abbreviations|
|Preface and Acknowledgments|
|A Note on Sources|
|3||Doctrine and Training||56|
|4||Command, Control, and Force Structure||108|
|5||Budget and Finance||184|
|6||Defense Industries and Weapons Procurement||225|
|8||Policy Implications for the United States||328|