The 1991 Gulf War and the 1999 Kosovo War heralded a new era of warfare for the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA). Stunning victories by U.S.-led coalitions over Iraq and Yugoslavia were unique not only because they emphasized stealth and precision-guided weaponry, but more importantly, because victory did not require the annihilation of enemy forces on the battlefield. Indeed, the ability of Iraqi and Yugoslav forces to function on the battlefield, had become according to one PLA source (PDF), “limited, deprived, and rendered useless,” and their annihilation was not necessary to achieve operational success.
As a result of extensive examination of these conflicts and others, the PLA now views modern conflict as a confrontation between opposing systems, or what are specifically referred to as opposing operational systems. As I argue in a recently released RAND report, such systems thinking has had wide-ranging implications for how the PLA conceptualizes warfare in the 21st century.
Numerous Chinese military publications indicate that the PLA sees war as no longer a contest between adversarial units, arms, services, or even specific weapons platforms, but rather a contest among numerous adversarial operational systems. This is referred to in PLA literature as systems confrontation and is considered the “basic operational mode of joint campaigns under informatized conditions.” “Informatized,” according to a recent U.S. Department of Defense report (PDF), is the PLA term for “real-time data-networked command.”
Systems confrontation is waged not only in the traditional physical domains of land, sea, and air, but also in outer space, nonphysical cyberspace, electromagnetic, and even psychological domains. Whereas achieving dominance in one or a few of the physical domains was often sufficient for warfighting success in the past, systems confrontation requires that “comprehensive dominance” be achieved in all domains or battlefields. Furthermore, within the various battlefields where systems confrontation takes place, the forms of operations and methods of combat have evolved. As a result, operational systems, as conceived by the PLA, must be sufficiently multidimensional and multifunctional to wage war in all of these domains.
Under this new reality, the PLA's current theory of victory is based on successfully waging system destruction warfare, which seeks to paralyze and even destroy the critical functions of an enemy's operational system. According to this theory outlined in PLA literature, the enemy “loses the will and ability to resist” once its operational system cannot effectively function. Paralysis can occur through kinetic and nonkinetic attacks, as either type of attack may be able to destroy or degrade key aspects of the enemy's operational system, thus rendering it ineffective. Similarly, paralysis can also occur by destroying the enemy's morale and will to fight.…
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Jeffrey Engstrom is a senior policy analyst at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.
This commentary originally appeared on The National Interest on February 9, 2018. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.