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The War China's Military Is Completely Obsessed With (Losing)

This understanding of the Gulf War helped drive PLA modernization. Especially in air and naval forces, China took immediate steps to update its military technology, generally through purchasing the most-advanced Soviet hardware. Strapped for cash, Russia was eager to make deals, and didn’t worry overmuch about the long-range consequences of technology transfer. China also attempted to acquire technology with military applications from Europe, but sanctions associated with the Tiananmen Square massacre hamstrung this effort. Finally, China accelerated efforts to increase the sophistication of research and development in its own military-industrial base.

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Along with the changes in technology came changes in doctrine and in expectations for how war would play out. The PLA began to emphasize airpower more than ground power, and in particular, investigated the potential for long-range precision strike. Historically, the PLA has never had the opportunity to carry out significant, operationally relevant strikes behind enemy lines, cooperation with guerrilla formation in the Civil War notwithstanding. Indeed, the PLA even lacks experience with traditional, “deep battle” maneuver warfare, in which the exploitation of breakthroughs gives armored spearheads the ability to disrupt enemy logistics and command.

While the Gulf War did not demonstrate that deep strike could decisively win modern wars, it undoubtedly did show that long-range precision strike could help disrupt enemy operations, and even seriously attrite fielded enemy forces. The PLA immediately began to develop its capability in this area. The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) and the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) grew in importance relative to the ground forces of the PLA (although, this has as much to do with the disappearance of the Soviet threat and the decline in importance of North Korea as it does with a new understanding of technology), and both began to concentrate on platforms that offered long-range strike opportunities. The two services also began to shift towards smaller numbers of higher-technology systems.

For its part, the Second Artillery shifted its focus from nuclear deterrence to long-range precision strike, with both ballistic and cruise missiles. Developing a modern appreciation of military-systems integration, the PLAN, PLAAF and Second Artillery have also emphasized joint operations, with a focus on developing command, control and communications procedures that allow the efficient, coordinated use of military force. However, it’s hard to evaluate the success of such planning in the absence of wartime experience.


Did the Chinese overstate the implications of the Gulf War? Yes and no. Revised scholarship on the Gulf War has made clear that whatever the impact of “shock and awe,” the coalition’s conventional military superiority carried the day. American and British forces had significant technical advantages, but they also had much better training than the Iraqis, the experience of the Iran-Iraq War notwithstanding. The air war set the stage for coalition victory, but the coalition still needed to excel at conventional maneuver warfare in order to succeed.

Still, the Gulf War provided Chinese military and civilian decision makers with a ready example of what modern war looked like, and gave some lessons about how to fight (and how not to fight) in the future. The PLA has become a radically more sophisticated organization—with much more effective learning capacity—than it was in 1991. We have yet to see, however, how all the pieces will fall together in real combat.

Robert Farley is a Senior Lecturer at the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce.

This first appeared in 2014 and is being reposted due to reader interest.