[This is more of a policy piece I developed as part of a site devoted to experienced driven commentary. It also includes material for a future book I’m writing introducing Modern Chinese Problems and Strategy.]
Hardware is fairly easy to assess. The speed of missiles, the range of sensors, and the amount of Aegis destroyers are all fairly certain quantities. But how they are used is not. Wars are not simply a math contest and generals are not mathematicians. Strategy, training and surprise matter just as much, if not more than the systems themselves. This is where the RAND report and so many analysts falter. They provide a chilling picture of material imbalance and possible scenarios such as China’s invasion of Taiwan in 2020. But they don’t account for the training and professionalism of the US military. For example, American pilots have been flying missions as part of the war on terror for almost 20 years. While the planes may need spare parts, the average fighter pilot has thousands of hours of combat experience.
China fought its last active war in 1979. There are few if any officers and military members that have experience operating in war time conditions. The last joint naval and land operation occurred in 1955. That means the senior leadership in China’s military has little combat experience. And none of their NCOs and junior officers has seen any combat. The Chinese do have an increasing number of sophisticated missiles, ships, and weapons, but there is little indication of how they will perform complex operations in wartime conditions. Training exercises are important, and China has many of them, but there is little that can replace the skills gained from war time experience. Chinese fighter pilots for example, often go through very basic training exercises and have trouble showing initiative. War time conditions include a great deal of stress, confusion, unexpected events and a limited time in which to make decisions. An untested military using untested technology means their missile threat may be one of the many militaries around the world that look and sound good on paper as they promise the “mother of all battles” only to melt away when the conflict starts. Assuming Chinese forces skillfully use their new missiles, these are a high use and rapidly depleted weapon. In this case it means China would have a strong first punch but little staying power once the missiles run out.
This peace disease is exacerbated by personnel problems. China has had a one child policy that affects their modernization of their military and interacts with general trends. The one child policy results in what Chinese analysts often call the “little emperor” syndrome. These are the only children of parents who are often spoiled to the point that the military lifestyle is rather jarring to them. Almost 70% of recruits are only children and this increases to 80% in some front line combat units. On top of that, the general effect of modernization, such as an increasingly urban and sedentary lifestyle means that recruits, on average, are taller, weigh more, and just can’t fit into tight military equipment built for a different average from 20 or 30 years ago. The pollution for which China is known for limits potential recruits even further. Many of potential recruits have severe lung issues that limit their ability to run and leads to an increase in respiratory diseases. The increasingly technical demands from these fancy weapons systems require recruits with more technical ability and aptitude. Average test scores have risen which suggests China is finding better recruits. But due to the above problems with modern and urban living, they often recruit rural candidates as well that have little exposure to complex technical systems and little ability to master them.
The solution to this has been to relax recruitment standards and hope that China can train them up to military standards. But many recruits don’t stay in very long. Many military assignments are in remote inhospitable locations far from home. Mid-career soldiers often have limited professional development opportunities and their skills aren’t as readily transferable to civilian sectors. Soldiers often receive low pay and benefits which makes retention difficult, and incentivizes a recurring problem with corruption.
On top of having trouble retaining recruits and seasoned mid career personnel, the culture of the military often prohibits independent and local decision making. They often refer decision making to higher units. Their training exercises are often a way for unit commanders to look good for higher ups. There is severe pressure for Red Units to win, resulting in exercises that fail to identify weaknesses. As alluded to above, there is legitimate worry that their fighter pilots are “dumb.”
The end result of all this severely undermines the click bait fearmongering that is popular among many academics. A closer look suggests that Chinese recruits are often physically and psychologically unprepared for combat and the advanced Chinese weapon systems. They have limited training opportunities and retention among the most skilled. They have a training system that often limits junior officers and promotes a culture of delayed decision making that could prove catastrophic in combat. Chinese officials are aware of the problem and doing more to rectify the situation. But only success in combat can truly dispel the dangers and drawbacks that come from these trends.
This kind of in depth analysis isn’t nearly as attractive click bait compared to fearful hot takes about supersonic weapons, drone swarms, and obsolete carriers. But it is very important to move beyond headlines and the short attention span of social media. Chinese analysts like Zhao Hui have pushed back on this narrative. After calling the arguments “untenable, unscientific, rustic, inhibit self-confidence, and may lead to misguided policy …” he provided two examples. In the Gulf War in 1991 Iraq had just fought an eight yearlong conflict with Iran, and the United States had not fought a major engagement since their withdraw from Vietnam 16 years earlier. Yet the lack of combat experience didn’t stop the United States from winning in overwhelming fashion.
The other example comes from World War I. The British had been involved in a long string of colonial wars, including the Boer War. Yet in the first (and almost decisive) phase of the war the British conducted a “continuous retreat” against victorious German forces. The United States in particular should be concerned because their experience comes from counter insurgency brush wars in contrast to a likely heavy weight match with China. Just like the British, their experience might be in the wrong area leaving them over stretched and unprepared for conventional combat.
Zhao provides several good points that I don’t think completely prove his case. It is possible for an untested military to beat a more experienced one. Those armies each had particular advantages in strategy, culture, and training that proved more decisive than the length of time since their last conflict. For example, the German army in World War I had an incredibly high standard of training, their General Staff College was the best in the world other nations tried to copy, and they had a venerable history and culture of excellence. As the Chinese philosopher Sunzi might have said, the German military was like the release of a torrent of water flowing down a mountain, the swoop of a deadly falcon catching its prey, or the release bolt from a crossbow. The German’s lack of recent military experience was a far less measure of their competence than their training, strategy, and élan.
Likewise, the Iraqis fought Iran for almost a decade. But those battles were largely stalemates along a static and somewhat geographically constrained front. The US in contrast had overwhelming air power, faced the Iraqis across a different front, led a large coalition and was fighting a war of liberation in contrast to Iraqi soldiers that were fighting for a dictator. Again, like the Germans, the combat experience was one factor among many that didn’t affect performance in that case.
It’s true the United States is fighting an insurgency and long war on terror. The military faces legitimate dangers of imperial over stretch as their hardware has deteriorated and many soldiers have faced multiple deployments. But the military is upgrading its equipment. The pilots in particular have received advanced and invaluable training that gives them the edge over Chinese pilots despite fighting brush wars for decades. More importantly, while there are examples of inexperienced forces beating ones that have more experience; China has many other problems that raise significant concerns. The Chinese military remains untested, they have trouble recruiting and retaining high caliber soldiers, they have new equipment that hasn’t been integrated into the military in combat conditions, and they don’t have the élan and institutional experience of the United States and German militaries that can compensate for peace disease. America might be overstretched, but unlike China’s peace disease, the institutional experience and quality of the American soldier can compensate while it is doubtful for China.
The major problem with those examples was that victory resulted from a variety of factors more than experience that included military culture, training, and equipment. There are two relevant examples from Chinese history which shows these additional factors.
The first comes from the Song Dynasty. Ruling in the same time frame as the European Middle Ages, the Song fought several wars with the Kitan Liao empire. The Chinese treaty with the Kitan produced long periods of peace interspersed with wars. The Song dynasty performed horrible at the start of these wars. The generals were accustomed to rather pleasant peace time requirements, and the soldiers were untrained. But the baptism of combat quickly produced a trained group of officers and soldiers that rose to the occasion and produced results for the empire. (Or as Mao said, their experience was “paid in blood.”) But they again went through a long period of peace and the same pattern repeated itself when the next war broke out 30 years later. This was a good example of peace disease, as the military performed well in combat with good leaders, culture, and advanced medieval weaponry, including extensive gunpowder weapons hundreds of years before Europeans adopted it. They simply lacked rigorous peace time training.
The next example comes from a military with lots of experience. The Nationalist army under Chiang Kai-Shek unified the country in 1926 and ruled during what is called the Nanjing Decade. This period has the dubious distinction of being before their fight with the Japanese, before World War II eclipsed that struggle, and before the Communists won the Civil War in 1949. As a result, they are often viewed from the lens of defeat in 1949 instead of their victories in the 1920s. New scholarship shows that the Nationalist army had strong espirit de corps and bold aggressive tactics that carried them to victory against the warlords. But they faced defeat, not because of imperial over stretch or because of their lack of peace disease but due to several important factors.
Against the Communists, the Nationalists fought forces that were just as motivated as they were. The extremely rough terrain of Jiangxi province, where Mao based his rebellion, was particularly unsuited to aggressive maneuver. In fact, the aggressive independent maneuver that secured victory against the warlords resulted in devastating ambushes and defeat against the Communists. Against the Japanese, they were simply overwhelmed by a superior military machine with more advanced equipment. The Chinese nationalists fought well, but the Japanese had more and better artillery, which was properly distributed to its front line units. They had support from tactical air forces and naval batteries which pummeled the Chinese units. Chiang Kai-Shek’s units, though experienced, didn’t have the same staying power and offensive punch that the Japanese did and they suffered accordingly.
Peace disease is a very important factor but it is one among many. The current Chinese army has a multitude of problems which suggest they will not be able to perform like the Germans in World War I, Japanese in World War II, and America in the Gulf War. Based on historical precedents they will likely pay for the needed combat experience by the blood their soldiers in the early phase of any conflict despite click bait fear mongering.