Key Point: The PLA has few personnel with firsthand combat experience.
The Chinese military has almost no combat experience, analyst Timothy Heath wrote for the California think-tank RAND. But that inexperience might not matter very much, Heath explained.
“Today, China’s military has an increasingly impressive high-tech arsenal, but its ability to use these weapons and equipment remains unclear. There are reasons to be skeptical.”
The last time the People’s Liberation Army fought a major conflict was in 1979, when “a seasoned Vietnamese military demolished a bungled Chinese invasion,” according to Heath.
At the time, the Vietnamese military was still fresh from its defeat of U.S. and allied forces in the early 1970s. The Chinese Communist Party, by contrast, had gutted its own armed forces through politically-motivated purges.
“The deleterious consequences are evident in the PLA’s reversion to discredited, but low-skill, tactics like the human-wave assault, as well as in the inability of infantrymen to navigate or read maps and the inaccuracy of artillerymen due to unfamiliarity with procedures for measuring distances and calculating firing distances,” Heath wrote.
“The ghost of that defeat still hovers over the PLA,” he continued. “In China, authorities have largely chosen to ignore an embarrassing conflict that fits awkwardly with Beijing’s narrative of a peaceful rise, but the official silence has left many PLA veterans disillusioned about their participation in the war.”
“The few combat veterans who remain in service will all retire within the next few years, which means the military will soon have no personnel with firsthand combat experience.”
But that doesn’t mean Beijing can’t “win” a major war. Although it’s debatable whether any party truly would “win” in such a conflict, given the potentially profound loss of life and the economic, ecological and political chaos that surely would result from the war.
“Win” in this case can only mean: one side achieves its own immediate strategic goals while preventing its opponent from doing the same. Heath looked to history to explain the role combat experience plays in a war’s outcome.
The U.S. military early in World War II lacked experience but possessed the resources, will-to-fight and institutional foundation — training, education and capacity for official self-correction — to quickly recover from battlefield defeats such as the German army’s rout of American troops at Kasserine Pass in North Africa in 1943.
By contrast, the Iraqi military in 1991 was experienced, having fought Iran for eight years starting in 1980. But its equipment, doctrine and institutions were inadequate. A less-experienced U.S.-led coalition prevailed over the Iraqis, owing in part to the Americans’ excellent equipment, training and readiness, all holdovers from the Cold War — a conflict that involved very little shooting between the major rivals but ample preparation on both sides.
Today the U.S. military possesses arguably more combat experience than any other armed forces, owing to the long-term American-led operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. But it’s debatable whether this experience in low-intensity warfare would matter in what would probably be a high-tech war with China.
“At the strategic level, a war between Chinese and U.S. forces would likely involve high-intensity combat that neither side has experienced,” Heath wrote. “The outcome of an initial clash could go either way. With adequate preparation and planning and under ideal circumstances, it is possible that China could prevail in a first battle.”
“But since the initial clash probably would not end the war,” he continued, “U.S. forces could be expected to use their formidable advantages to adapt and improve their performance in subsequent engagements, just as they rallied following their initial rout at Kasserine Pass to defeat Germany.”
“Whether China had made sufficient efforts to overcome the sizable gaps in the quality of its command, training rigor, integration, and other factors could prove important if the conflict drags on. But even then, the ultimate outcome of a long war between the two global powers will likely be decided by factors beyond the control of generals and admirals, such as economic strength, political cohesion and national resolve.”
David Axe served as Defense Editor of the National Interest. He is the author of the graphic novels War Fix, War Is Boring and Machete Squad.
This article appeared in 2019 and is reprinted due to reader interest.