Paper Tiger: The Myth of Physical Conflict with China and Implications for Land Warfare in the Pacific

China is regarded by many defense and strategy experts as a significant threat to U.S.’s national security and global influence. This sentiment was shared by former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and current Undersecretary of Defense for Policy John Rood. Conversely, China views the U.S. in a similar light. On March 5, 2021, General Xu Qiliang, the vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission in China, related the situation to the “Thucydides Trap” during a meeting with the National People’s Congress when discussing his justification for increasing military spending. The term Thucydides Trap conveys the potential for conflict when one great power threatens to displace another. In this case, this referred to China and the U.S. Xu’s statement set off a flurry of responses from senior U.S. Army leaders, many focusing on a land conflict with China. 

To be clear, our intent is not to minimize the importance of vehicle and armor modernization. We think armor would prove decisive in a theater such as EUCOM. However its employment in INDOPACOM faces challenges. Given that modernization priorities drive policies and budgets, we think it’s important to discuss the implications towards conflict with China. We believe the contemporary operating environment warrants greater discussion on cyber’s role in such a conflict and that modernization priorities should include an effort to define what cyber maneuver would look like.

One response to Xu’s comments came from Major General Ross Coffman, director of the U.S. Army’s Next Generation Combat Vehicle Cross Functional Team. He stated that “in order to be decisive, we have to be there with armor to prevent the Chinese from getting into a position of relative advantage.” In other words, his underlying assumption is that if the U.S. and China engage in conflict, it would be a direct-action scenario, similar to what Combat Training Centers such as Joint Readiness Training Center and National Training Center prepare units for and much like a land conflict in Europe. 

The focus on the land aspect of conflict with China doesn’t encapsulate the breadth and depth of multi-domain operations. The five domains of multi-domain operations are air, land, maritime, space, and cyberspace. This is a useful way to categorize battle spaces but an even simpler way to categorize them is viewing them through the lens of physical, virtual, and cognitive domains. Physical can encompass air, land, maritime, and space. Virtual encompasses cyberspace, and cognitive is an intangible domain that refers to national will which is affected by both the virtual and physical domains.

The notion that conflict will occur in the physical domain is unlikely, given the level of economic interdependence and the high degree of mutually assured destruction by two nuclear powers. Rather, China will look to continue building its military might as a deterrence measure, but also prioritize the virtual and cognitive domains to exert influence and further their national policy objectives. If China can achieve its policy objectives and strengthen its positions both regionally and globally through soft power, it can achieve its desired end state without resorting to armed conflict. As stated by Sun Tzu in the Art of War, “the greatest victory is that which requires no battle,” and that is exactly what China aims to do. U.S. Army planning and modernization requirements should reflect this as well. 

The Army’s current approach to combating China is driven by the visualization of a decisive land campaign against the PLA. While there is a renewed emphasis on cyber, there remains an overemphasis on movement and maneuver on land to combat China. The terrain and geography alone show China is not Eastern Europe, or the Middle East. It is unlikely we would see a repeat of 73 Easting in China or its environs.

Contemporary discourse also calls into question the relevance of armor’s decisive role against China. In Europe, NATO recognizes the Suwalki Gap as key terrain in a conflict with Russia. Army leaders have visualized armor’s decisive role in defending this terrain. No equivalency exists in a conflict with China. It is notable that border conflicts between India and China employ armor. However, the land component of these conflicts only plays a minor role and they are resolved diplomatically.  If armor was truly decisive in conflict with China, one might expect the U.S. Army to focus on armored conflict at high altitudes. One might also expect INDOPACOM to conduct large scale ground exercises with India as EUCOM does with NATO. It seems visualization on employing armor against China requires more effort if it is truly decisive.

Digital Warfighter Exercises (WFXs) can refine senior leaders’ perspectives on conflict with China. One lesson learned from WFX is that more often than not, targeting air defense and fires is prioritized over adversary maneuver forces. In relation to China, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) emphasizes superiority in the three main domains of air, maritime, and information, with the latter as the most important of the three. The PLA does not place the same focus on maneuver as the U.S. Army. Thus, movement and maneuver with Armor should not be the Army’s central focus in a modern campaign against China, due to its limited effectiveness in countering the PLA in its three most prized domains.

Another point of consideration is that the solutions in Multi-Domain Operations ends with the Re-Compete phase. It envisions that in a modern conflict with a peer or near-peer, the conflict will involve limited tactical objectives in pursuit of strategic, regional goals. It does not assume a total war such as the World Wars of the 20th century. We should not assume an armored push to Beijing is in the cards. It is likely that if U.S. competition with China transitioned to armed conflict, the conflict would involve control of airspace and strategic waterways in the Pacific. It may also involve a campaign to counter a Chinese incursion into Taiwan or the Spratly Islands. Any armed conflict with China would likely seek a return to the pre-conflict status quo with a few added concessions.

It is also possible a conflict with China won’t involve any direct action at all. Conflict with China might remain in the cyber and information realms. This must also be considered in examining a Multi-Domain approach towards China. Envisioning a conflict that exists only in cyberspace or the info space is not yet fully realized. However, the PLA does include war control, which dictates the pace and escalation of the conflict as one of its core strategic command tasks. It is worth noting that their strategists have determined the best way to achieve this is through information dominance, in which cyber will play a key role as will “the three warfares” of public opinion, legal, and psychological operations. Despite the salient role cyber will likely play in future conflicts with China, it is still lower on Army Futures Command’s modernization priority list than long-range precision fires and next-generation combat vehicles. Although the targeting cycle is executed at virtually all WFXs, the non-kinetic aspect of targeting is oftentimes overshadowed by kinetic targeting and in order to prepare our forces for a limited scale conflict against China, this prioritization may need to be re-balanced or even reversed.

In sum, current U.S. Army’s focus on armor, rather than aspects such as cyber, air defense and information warfare, risks the U.S. falling short in competition or conflict with China. The U.S. Army must rethink what maneuver warfare against China would truly look like through revised, Warfighter Exercises, a shared understanding of PLA doctrine and strategy, and greater understanding of contemporary conflicts between China and India. In addition, it must undertake a greater effort to visualize maneuver in cyberspace and how it might apply to the division and below.

CPT Howard Zhou is an active duty Army officer and graduate of the United States Military Academy with previous professional experience in the China and Taiwan mission sets.

CPT Adam Wendoloski is an active duty Army officer and holds a Master of Arts in International Affairs from the University of North Georgia.

The views expressed herein are those of the authors and do not reflect the position of the United States Military Academy, the Department of the Army, or the Department of Defense

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