The Chinese military learned one primary lesson for the overwhelming victories the U.S. and its allies achieved in the first Gulf War in 1991 and in Kosovo in 1999: That Western military victories were not reliant on complete annihilation of enemy forces, but rather in taking away the enemy’s ability to move and function on the battlefield.
As such the Chinese People’s Liberation Army now sees modern warfare “as a confrontation between opposing systems, or what are specifically referred to as opposing operational systems,” a RAND expert, Jeffrey Engstrom, writes.
As such, the way in which the PLA views warfare has influenced how it conceptualizes 21st-century warfare.
Engstrom notes further:
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, 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.
This theory of victory is enshrined in China’s most recent Defense White Paper that stated the PLA’s “integrated combat forces . . . [are to be] employed to prevail in system-versus-system operations featuring information dominance, precision strikes, and joint operations.” According to this understanding, successfully winning wars, or at the very least, not losing wars, requires developing an operational system or operational systems that are superior to those of one’s adversary.
Recent PLA literature suggests that there are four target types that PLA planners seek when attempting to paralyze an adversary’s operational system. First, the PLA literature calls for strikes that degrade or disrupt the flow of information within the adversary’s operational system. Second, the literature mentions degrading or disrupting that system’s essential factors, which include, but are not limited to, its command and control (C2), reconnaissance intelligence, and firepower capabilities. Third, the literature advocates degrading or disrupting the operational architecture of the adversary’s operational system. These include the physical nodes of the previously mentioned capabilities and consist of, for example, the entire C2 network, reconnaissance intelligence network, or firepower network. Finally, the literature calls for disrupting the time sequence and/or tempo of the enemy’s operational architecture. This, the PLA said in its literature, is to degrade and ultimately undermine the operational system’s own reconnaissance-control-attack-evaluation process.
It is important to note that many of the PLA’s own envisioned operational systems do not exist in peacetime, but rather are purpose-built when the need for impending operations becomes apparent…
Needless to say, improving U.S. understanding of systems confrontation—what the PLA considers the contemporary mode of warfare—as well as system destruction warfare—its current theory of victory—is crucial if it seeks to understand how China will prosecute future conflicts. Both concepts play crucial roles in determining how the PLA will prioritize and adjust future training and modernization programs, as well as shape how the PLA further refines its organizational structures. [source]
Analysis: Engstrom helps explain China’s prioritization in cornering the global market on information technology. As the great powers race to develop AI for their weapons platforms, it’s important to note that accurate machine-learning can theoretically be disrupted if the data used in the learning process is corrupted; could this be one of China’s future warfare objectives to “disrupt the flow of information within the adversary’s operational system,” for instance? Also, the first developer of AI may also be able to devise a way to use the technology to attack other systems while protecting its own systems; who knows?
What is clear is that future U.S. military systems will be more dependent upon information technology than today; AI/machine learning will be a huge part of that. Having the ability to disrupt those is high on the Chinese military’s to-do list.