Cover: Gaining Victory in Systems Warfare

Gaining Victory in Systems Warfare

China's Perspective on the U.S.-China Military Balance

Published Mar 1, 2023

by Mark Cozad, Jeffrey Engstrom, Scott W. Harold, Timothy R. Heath, Sale Lilly, Edmund J. Burke, Julia Brackup, Derek Grossman

Download

Download eBook for Free

FormatFile SizeNotes
PDF file 2.1 MB

Use Adobe Acrobat Reader version 10 or higher for the best experience.

Purchase

Purchase Print Copy

 Format Price
Add to Cart Paperback282 pages $41.00

Research Questions

  1. How do PRC leaders assess the Chinese PLA's military strength?
  2. What are the implications of these assessments for the U.S.-China military balance?

The People's Republic of China's (PRC's) and the People's Liberation Army's (PLA's) understanding of the military balance is fundamentally based on systems warfare concepts. Systems concepts drive China's perceptions of the successes of its three-decade-old modernization and its identification of enduring or emerging weaknesses. China's leaders recognize the qualitative and quantitative improvements in PLA weapons and technology; however, in key areas essential to conducting systems confrontation and systems destruction warfare, there remain significant gaps that have received the attention of Xi Jinping himself. During Xi's tenure, the PLA has been forced to confront a range of problems that go well beyond technological modernization, force structure, and organizational relationships. Still, both the United States and the PRC, through different evaluation processes, have concluded that war with the other has the potential to be extremely risky from an escalation standpoint, protracted and costly, and fatally harmful to long-term credibility and/or strategic goals. This analysis is one of the first to detail how the PLA understands and assesses military balance.

The PLA sees itself as the weaker side in the overall military balance, largely because it has made only limited progress in those key areas that will define future warfare, most importantly informatization and system-of-systems–based operations. Necessary improvements have not materialized quickly and will likely take time because of the PLA's organizational culture and the improvements' systemic complexity. A refined understanding of Beijing's view of the PLA also has significant implications for U.S. policymakers, military commanders, and planners.

Key Findings

  • The PRC's and PLA's understanding of the military balance is fundamentally based on systems warfare concepts, which view modern warfare as a confrontation between opposing operational systems rather than between units, arms, services, and platforms, as was the case in earlier eras.
  • Systems concepts drive China's perceptions of the successes of its three-decade-old modernization and its identification of enduring or emerging weaknesses.
  • China's leaders recognize the improvements in PLA weapons and technology; however, in key areas essential to conducting systems confrontation and systems destruction warfare, there remain significant gaps that have received the attention of Xi Jinping himself.
  • During Xi’s tenure, the PLA has been forced to confront a range of problems that go well beyond technological modernization, force structure, and organizational relationships.
  • Current PLA self-assessments focus on four broad themes, two of which hardly, if ever, have been addressed in U.S. net assessments: political reliability and mobilization. Two others are somewhat more familiar: fighting and winning wars and leadership and command.
  • Necessary improvements in the PLA have not materialized quickly and will likely take time because of its organizational culture and the improvements' systemic complexity, which particularly affects the PLA's capabilities relative to its primary benchmark — the U.S. military. These self-assessments drive the PRC to very different views of risk in regard to potential great power conflict, namely over the status of Taiwan.
  • The PLA sees itself as the weaker side in the military balance, largely because it has made only limited progress in informatization and system-of-systems–based operations.

This research was sponsored by the Office of the Secretary of Defense's (OSD's) Office of Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation (CAPE) and conducted within the International Security and Defense Policy Program of the RAND National Security Research Division (NSRD).

This report is part of the RAND research report series. RAND reports present research findings and objective analysis that address the challenges facing the public and private sectors. All RAND reports undergo rigorous peer review to ensure high standards for research quality and objectivity.

This document and trademark(s) contained herein are protected by law. This representation of RAND intellectual property is provided for noncommercial use only. Unauthorized posting of this publication online is prohibited; linking directly to this product page is encouraged. Permission is required from RAND to reproduce, or reuse in another form, any of its research documents for commercial purposes. For information on reprint and reuse permissions, please visit www.rand.org/pubs/permissions.

RAND is a nonprofit institution that helps improve policy and decisionmaking through research and analysis. RAND's publications do not necessarily reflect the opinions of its research clients and sponsors.