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China's Americanized Military


The PLA is set to become the largest “American” military force to pose a threat to the U.S.


Two Chinese armored brigades clashed in a week-long training exercise at the Zhurihe Training Base in Inner Mongolia in 2015. Both brigades were equipped with identical armored vehicles and weapons. The Blue opposing forces brigade (OPFOR), however, was organized and fought in the fashion of a United States brigade combat team.


The Red friendly force was crushed. “Within an hour we were hit with airstrikes, enemy satellite reconnaissance, and cyberattacks … Frankly, I never imagined it would be this hard,” said Wang Ziqiang, the armored brigade commander of the Red force. Wang’s political commissar Liu Haitao was caught on camera sobbing after the defeat. In a documentary aired on state television days before the 19th Party Congress in October, Liu said that his unit was initially very confident of victory over the Blue team, which was formerly a sister unit. “But over the course of seven days, we were beaten … we lost because we didn’t meet realistic combat standards when training our troops,” he said.

红军被碾压。“在一个小时内,我们受到了空袭、敌方卫星侦察和网络攻击。坦率地说,我从来没有想象过会如此艰难,”Wang Ziqiang说,他是红军部队的装甲旅指挥官。王建民的政治委员刘海涛失利后在镜头前抽泣。在10月举行的第19届党代会上,在国家电视台播出的纪录片中,刘表示,他的部队最初非常有信心战胜蓝军,而蓝军以前是一个兄弟单位。“但在过去的7天,我们被打败…当我们用不符合现实的战斗标准培训我们的军队,我们失败了。”他说。

Subpar training tells only part of the story. Between 2014 and 2016, the “American” Blue team scored a total of 32 victories and one defeat against Red forces that comprised some of the best and most well-equipped units in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). On average, Red forces sustained 70 percent simulated casualties after clashing with the Blue team. The PLA’s poor performance against a modern military unit gave President and Commander-in-Chief Xi Jinping sufficient reason to seek an overhaul.


In September 2015, Xi announced sweeping military reforms that included a 300,000 troop cut, the creation of a joint command structure that has drawn comparisons with the United States’s Goldwater-Nichols Act, and a military-civilian integration program that appears to draw inspiration from the American military-industrial complex. During his speech at the 19th Party Congress, Xi set three goals for the PLA: By 2020, achieve basic mechanization, make significant progress in using information technology, and elevate strategic ability; by 2035, become a modernized defense and military force; by 2050, become a world-class military.


If Xi is can fully implement his reforms while successfully fending off military and political opponents, the PLA should most closely resemble the U.S. military in terms of organization and chain of command. The reformed PLA, however, is unlikely to best the U.S. military in a conventional war given its technological gap and lack of warfighting experience. But factor in unconventional warfare tactics and next-generation technology, and the PLA may stand a chance of rivaling the world’s strongest fighting force.


Reasons for Reform


Xi’s military reforms appear to be driven by two factors: China’s need as an aspiring world power for a modern military that can fight and win wars, and Xi’s need to consolidate power in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).


The former factor is the more obvious of the two. While previous CCP leaders had carried out some military reform and updated the military’s weaponry, the PLA had long remained organized along the Soviet model. Combat tactics and doctrine didn’t differ much from the low-tech, ground forces-heavy style utilized during the 1950 Korean War. While militaries around the world had been moving toward joint service operations since the 1980s, the army was still the most prominent service branch in the PLA. The navy and air force played an auxiliary role.


From a national defense and overseas security standpoint, the relative backwardness of the PLA is a pressing concern for the Xi administration. China has pledged hundreds of billions of dollars for its Belt and Road Initiative, a major transnational development strategy to promote trade between China and Eurasian countries through an overland route and a maritime route. The PLA also periodically faces border issues with India and Vietnam, and maritime run-ins with neighboring countries in the South China Sea. And in the east, China has to contend with a nuclear-capable North Korea whose leadership is aligned with Xi’s political rivals.


The need for modern tactics and joint operations was firmly impressed upon the commanders who participated in or observed the training exercises in Zhurihe. Previously, training exercises were formulaic affairs that usually ended up with friendly Red teams defeating Blue teams made up of rotated units. Xi, however, required a professional OPFOR to test the combat effectiveness of PLA units more rigorously. So the 195th mechanized infantry brigade under commander Xia Minglong underwent reorganization between 2013 and April 2014 to serve as a dedicated Blue team. State media hinted that the “foreign combat doctrine” embraced by the Blue team was similar to that of the U.S. military, and its organization should more closely resemble a U.S. combat brigade.

参加或观察在朱日和的训练演习的指挥官们对现代战术和联合作战的必要性印象深刻。之前的训练是公式化的,通常是由友好的红军击败由轮换的部队组成的蓝军。然而,中国需要一个专业的假想敌部队(OPFOR)来更严格地测试解放军的作战效能。因此,在2013年至2014年4月期间,Xia Minglong领导的195机械化步兵旅进行了重组,作为一个专门的蓝军部队。官方媒体暗示,蓝军部队所奉行的“外国作战原则”与美国军方类似,它的组织应该更像美国的战斗部队。

A typical training exercise at Zhurihe would see the Blue team launch nuclear strikes, carpet bombing runs, and electronic attacks against the attacking Red force, as well as conduct nightly raids. Special forces tactics were also utilized — Blue team troops impersonating local government representatives delivering goodwill provisions to a Red team force successfully met with and captured their commander. While the Blue team was equipped with outdated Type 59 main battle tanks and Type 63 armored troop carriers, it is likely that they were simulated as M1 Abrams and Bradley Fighting Vehicles using multiple integrated laser engagement systems. Lastly, the Blue team usually emerged overwhelmingly victorious as both a defender or aggressor force.


The sobering performance of the various PLA units at Zhurihe seemed to be sufficient for Xi to convince the top PLA brass to adopt deep reforms for the military to stay relevant. The reforms that have been rolled out thus far appear to largely take reference from the United States:


The Central Military Commission (CMC) was reorganized to accommodate a permanent joint command and control structure. This is reflected in the abolishing of the four General Departments and the creation of 15 new departments, as well as inclusion of top naval and air force generals in the CMC of the 19th Central Committee.

中央军事委员会(CMC) 被重组以适应长期的联合指挥和控制机构。这反映在废除四个一般部门和设立15个新的部门,以及在第十九届中央委员会,中央军事委员会加入了海军和空军的高级将领。

The chain of command was separated into an operational chain and an administrative chain. For instance, the new military theaters oversee combat preparations, while the service branch headquarters see that the various units are organized, trained, and equipped for missions.


The PLA is now organized around brigade combat teams as opposed to divisions.


China’s new civilian-military integration program is geared toward the development of a military-industrial complex like the United States’


On November 10, the CMC announced regulations governing the creation of a new civilian service.


On November 24, state media announced the piloting of a military professional education program.


Operationally, the PLA may more closely resemble the U.S. military after reform, albeit with a Leninist dual command structure that allows the CCP to retain full control over the troops.


China vs. The United States: The Gap

The PLA should become a modernized fighting force if Xi is successful in implementing his reforms, but it will unlikely surpass the U.S. military in a conventional skirmish.


Every year, America spends 3.3 percent of its GDP (about $611 billion in 2016) to develop and maintain a military force that is widely regarded as the strongest in the world. In terms of equipment, the U.S. military has 10 aircraft carriers, combat-proven vehicles like the M1 Abrams tank and the Apache helicopter, next-generation fighter jets like the F-35, advanced military communications satellites, and about 6,800 nuclear warheads. There are about 1.3 million active-duty personnel, of which under 200,000 are deployed overseas. Training standards and professionalism are high, and U.S. troops have participated in conflicts around the world since World War II.

每年,美国花费其GDP的3.3%(2016年大约为6110亿美元)来发展和维持一个被广泛认为是世界上最强大的军事力量。在装备方面,美国军方有10艘航空母舰,有实战经验的车辆,如M1艾布拉姆坦克和阿帕奇直升机,下一代战斗机,如F - 35,先进军事通信卫星,约6800枚核弹头。有大约130万现役人员,其中20 000人部署在海外。训练标准和专业水平很高,美国军队自二战以来就参与了世界各地的冲突

In contrast, China spends just 1.9 percent of its GDP (about $216 billion in 2016) on its military. China’s defense ministry acknowledges a “definite gap” between the PLA’s military technology and that of other developed countries. For instance, China’s maiden aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, is a refurbished Soviet-era steam turbine vessel, while the PLA’s next-generation fighter jet, the J-31, lacks an advanced engine to fly at the supersonic speeds of an F-35. The Type 99 is a modern main battle tank, but it hasn’t been combat-tested. And except for a handful of senior commanders who fought in China’s disastrous war against Vietnam in 1979, most of the PLA’s 2 million-strong military is lacking in combat experience. Worse, the PLA has to overcome a severe professionalism problem: Under Jiang Zemin’s era of dominance (1997-2012), senior military officials had to bribe their way up the ranks, training exercises were routine and conducted for show and profit, and the military had a problem with binge drinking.

相比之下,中国军费开支仅占GDP的1.9%(2016年约为2160亿美元)。中国国防部承认,解放军的军事技术与其他发达国家之间存在“明显的差距”。举例来说,中国的首艘航空母舰辽宁号是一艘翻新的苏联时代的蒸汽涡轮船,而中国人民解放军的下一代战斗机歼-31却缺乏先进的发动机以超音速的速度飞行。99型是一款现代化的主战坦克,但它还没有经过实战考验。在1979年中国对越南的灾难性战争中,除了少数几位高级指挥官外,中国人民解放军两百多万军队中的大多数都缺乏作战经验。更糟糕的是,中国人民解放军必须克服一个严重的专业性问题:在******时期(1997 - 2012),高级军官必须通过贿禄来提高军衔,训练演习是例行公事,而且是为了表演和获利,而军队也有酗酒的问题。

Bypassing the Gap


To match or even surpass the United States, the modernized PLA will resort to the unconventional means that it has already been experimenting with in recent years.


In his bestselling book The Hundred-Year Marathon, Pentagon consultant Michael Pillsbury described simulated war games between the American military and the PLA where the Chinese side “was the victor” whenever it “employed Assassin’s Mace methods.” Assassin’s Mace, or shashoujian, are weaponry that the PLA has developed to cripple or bypass technologically superior militaries. Such weaponry includes anti-satellite and anti-aircraft carrier missiles, high-powered microwave and electromagnetic pulse weapons, and radar jammers. Because Assassin’s Mace weapons are far cheaper than carriers or next-generation fighter jets, they are a cost-effective way for the PLA to gain an advantage over more powerful militaries that rely on satellites, networks, and the internet for communications.


Getting China-manufactured components into the high-tech military hardware of other countries is another way that the PLA can gain an edge. Microchips made in China are known to be counterfeit in some cases or actual spyware in others. In 2010, the U.S. Navy found that it had bought 59,000 fake computer microchips from China. These chips were meant for use in missiles, fighter planes, warships, and other equipment. Reuters reported in 2014 that the Pentagon had approved the use of Chinese magnets in the construction of the F-35’s sensitive hardware. In the best case scenario, the made-in-China parts work as advertised and no harm is done. In the worst case scenario, the Chinese parts could cause catastrophic system failure or serve as surveillance devices for the PLA.

将中国制造的零部件投入到其他国家的高科技军事装备,是解放军获得优势的另一种方式。在中国制造的微晶片在某些情况下被认为是伪造的,或者在其他的情况下是真正的间谍软件。2010年,美国海军发现,它从中国购买了59,000个假电脑芯片。这些芯片用于导弹、战斗机、军舰和其他设备。路透社(Reuters)在2014年报道称,五角大楼已批准在F - 35的敏感硬件建设中使用中国磁铁。在最好的情况下,中国制造的部件就像宣传的那样,没有危害。在最坏的情况下,中国部件可能会导致灾难性的系统故障,或者成为解放军的监视设备。

Perhaps more disturbing is what the PLA could potentially develop. Stuart Russell, an artificial intelligence scientist at the University of California in Berkeley, released a short film on November 13 which highlighted the devastating capabilities of fictional autonomous “slaughter bots” — using tiny weaponized AI drones, malicious figures eliminate politicians and activists in broad daylight. Russell’s vision of the future is stark, but China could make it a reality. Presently, China is at the forefront of drone manufacturing and has a sizable slice of the civilian drone market (Dajiang Innovation alone has 70 percent of the global market share). Meanwhile, Beijing plans to spend $100 billion to grow its semiconductor industry under a Made in China 2025 program. It is not inconceivable that the PLA could eventually develop advanced AI-powered drones and put them to use, even if their ethical use becomes a concern. The CCP has proven that it has no scruples about crushing “anti-revolutionaries” (political opponents, students at Tiananmen, ethnic minorities, and religious groups), and its military will likewise pursue asymmetrical hybrid warfare tactics to achieve its ends against external foes.


Finally, the PLA is a legitimate cybersecurity threat. In recent years, PLA cyber units have successfully breached the networks of U.S. businesses, infrastructure companies, and the government. In May 2014, the U.S. Justice Department announced indictments against five members of the former General Staff Department’s Unit 61398 for hacking Westinghouse Electric, the United States Steel Corporation, and other companies. Chinese hackers backed by the state also allegedly breached the computer system of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, compromising the private data of its 4 million current and former government employees. Militaries that rely on cyber networks for communications may find their operations severely hampered in a conflict with the PLA.

最后,解放军是一个合法的网络安全威胁。近年来,中国人民解放军网络部队成功地突破了美国企业、基础设施公司和政府的网络。2014年5月,美国司法部(U.S. Justice Department)宣布起诉前总参谋部(General Staff)61398号部门的5名成员,指控他们侵入西屋电气(Westinghouse Electric)、美国钢铁公司(United States Steel Corporation)和其他公司。被政府支持的中国黑客据称还侵入了美国人事管理办公室的计算机系统,泄露了400万现任和前政府雇员的私人数据。依靠网络进行通信的军队可能会发现他们的行动在与解放军的冲突中受到严重阻碍。

This year, four U.S. Navy vessels were involved in collisions in the East China Sea. Internal investigations indicated that crew negligence was to blame. But the particularly severe collisions of destroyers USS Fitzgerald and the USS John S. McCain with commercial ships, as well as the frequency and close timing of the accidents, have led government investigators and technology experts to consider the possibility of the warships being targeted by cyber attacks. If cyber sabotage is indeed a reason for the collisions, then the PLA is suspect.

今年,四艘美国海军舰艇涉及了中国东海的撞击事件。内部调查显示,船员疏忽是罪魁祸首。但是,美国菲茨杰拉德公司(USS Fitzgerald)和约翰·s·麦凯恩号(USS John s. McCain)号驱逐舰与商业船只发生的特别严重的碰撞,以及事故发生的频率和时间,已经让政府调查人员和技术专家考虑到军舰可能遭到网络攻击的可能性。如果网络破坏确实是碰撞的原因,那么中国人民解放军是非常可疑的。



Xi Jinping’s military reforms appear to draw inspiration from the U.S. military, and serve the dual purpose of modernizing the PLA and consolidating his control over the CCP. A modernized PLA will unlikely surpass the United States in a conventional engagement, but the outcome will scale toward the PLA if it uses unconventional tactics and weapons. In this scenario, the PLA is set to become the largest “American” military force to pose a threat to the U.S.


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