Ten Reasons Why China Will Have Trouble Fighting a Modern War

The introduction of new weapons and platforms into the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has captured the attention of much of the world for well over a decade. However, new equipment is only one element of the PLA’s long-term, multi-dimensional modernization process. There is much to be done and no one understands this better than the Chinese themselves. Based on what PLA commanders and staff officers write in their internal newspapers and journals, the force faces a multitude of challenges in order to close the perceived gaps between its capabilities and those of advanced militaries.

New weapons, increasing defense budgets, and recently corruption tend to generate headlines in the Western press, but at least 10 other factors raise serious questions about the PLA’s current ability to fight a modern war against an advanced enemy (some of which are discussed in a new RAND report, to which I contributed a collection of sources):

via Ten Reasons Why China Will Have Trouble Fighting a Modern War.

This is a pretty dang good list. There’s no way I can do more than skim the RAND report.

Some of the factors listed are bigger issues than others. Right up at the top I’d have to say is China’s struggles with realistic training. So much of their training appears to be set piece, more a show than an actual learning evolution.

And while a reality check like this is useful, it’s also important to not the progress China has made, aside from equipment and weapons, in the areas noted. It has been an impressive achievement.

5 thoughts on “Ten Reasons Why China Will Have Trouble Fighting a Modern War”

  1. So the conclusion is:
    1. Too much left over Soviet doctrine hampering combined arms operations;
    2. Insufficient realistic training
    3. Too much actual politics in the ranks leaving to Soviet tactics and deficiencies;
    4. Plate of spaghetti organizational chart and Battle Order.

    I get it – its basic army stuff. They lack the ability to deliver a significant force TOT. But thats not how modern battles are fought. Modern conflict mirrors their model – with significant centralized control of the release of force, and significant pauses to evaluate. They may be more successful in a modern conflict than we believe possible.

    The PLAN and PLA[N]AF could easily take control of Taiwan and other local powers. There are many many options whereby they can create an overwhelming force which would significantly degrade the CVBG in Yokosuka with minimal civilian casualties . . . without that ability to project and target power, absent the desire to launch cruise missiles at Beijing to degrade the leadership’s ability to prosecute a war . . .. it will all be over very quickly – and most recent US Presidents, including both of the likely candidates in 2016, would pretty much roll over and not risk limited US assets by seeking to retake the wayward province.

  2. They did pretty well in Korea with their backward, low tech forces.

    I think the problems are a bit overblown as far as PLA effectiveness is concerned. We also have similar problems, just named differently.

    The “Shared command responsibility” problem, for example. Our military performs most of the same jobs, just assigning them to different people as “collateral duties” or specialist staff. Call him/her a morale officer. I sometimes wonder if the My Lai incident would have happened if there had been a political officer impressing on the unit the importance of not brutalizing civilians when you are trying to defeat an insurgency.

    Dissimilar equipment? We have three APC types, with all their variants. We have airborne, air assault, mountain, light, heavy, etc. units. I do not know, but I suspect they have differing TOEs and tactics.

    Too many non-combatant headquarters? Who cares if they are combatant or non-combatant- too many is too many. Doesn’t AFRICOM, 5000 staff commanded by a four star count as non-combatant? How many flag officers do we have?

    I just don’t think the PLA will have as much trouble as the author would like to think.

    1. The PLA saw what low tech backwards forces faced in Desert Storm. It was an epiphany for them. You can see the fundamental shift in their strategy starting in the early 1990s.

  3. Not very compelling arguments in my opinion. Differing equipment? So what? The question is do you have spare parts and trained maintainers for them? And at what echelon does the difference occur? Max nichts. Political officers? Will step to the rear in the fight. Too many non-combatant headquarters? Don’t go to the fight. Etc. Lack of realistic training will be immaterial a week after the fight starts. As long as you have enough combat power to last you. The real questions are: what is their capacity for strategic lift, their ability to protect that force over the horizon from China, maintain LOCS and their ability for long term sustainment. If those are all good and or improving, then I would call that a threat. If all they can really do is deny us access to the region, well that is a bit less scary.

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