During the 1980s and 1990s, American and Chinese authors pointed to a new revolution in military affairs, a discontinuity in how warfare might be conducted with new organizations, operational concepts and materiel.1 The authors agreed that the information revolution and long-range precision guided weapons would be central to the transformation's materiel dimension. There was also general agreement that this materiel would be available to many militaries and that the real competition would depend on doing well with organizational and doctrinal change.
Since then, US and China transformation decisions and programmes have been driven in large part by how each saw its top strategic challenges, the urgency of the challenges and the resources available to respond to the challenges.2 Based on its transformation decisions, China seems to see countering US power projection, an enduring keystone of US military strategy, as a top strategic challenge.3 At least for the Chinese, US power projection vs. Chinese anti-access became a major, long-term military competition and driver of transformation. Because the US and China have taken different transformation paths, important issues have arisen. To understand and appreciate these issues, it is necessary to first look at some of the key differences in US and Chinese transformation structure and processes.
Transformation Goals and Results
US transformation goals are bottom-up. For China, they are top-down. Bottomup goals are sought throughout US transformation policy statements - e.g., one of the five top aims of the US Office of Force Transformation is to 'Change the force and its culture from the bottom up through the use of experimentation, transformational articles (operational prototyping) and the creation and sharing of new knowledge and experiences.'4 This management policy is also regularly stated by the US 'transformation command', the US Joint Forces Command: 'We are aggressive about reaching out through all possible venues to the warfighter to listen to them and communicate their needs. We then seek to translate those needs into increased capabilities.'5
Looking to the field and fleet for transformation needs is not a new policy; indeed, it is part of the Defense Department's pre-transformation, legacy business model. As then, this approach seems to assume today's joint warrior has more than a short-term focus and has the time and ability to understand the revolution in military affairs and articulate what discontinuous operational, organizational and materiel changes are needed to do well. The approach also assumes a willingness to discard no longer effective and efficient legacy organizations and platforms.
Whether the US approach will succeed is an open question. In earlier transformation periods, dramatic changes were not executed by 'the warfighter' as much as by conspiracies of US officers and civilians sitting in positions of power and acting on transformational concepts. Such changes included the establishment of the Special Operations Force, the Airmobile Division and the Aircraft Carrier Battle Group. Field and fleet organizations participated in experiments leading to change but with few exceptions, provided little conceptually and even less bureaucratically and politically.
Because of the bottom-up approach, it is not surprising that US transformation goals and the resources committed to pursue those goals are not uniform. For example, Department of Defense transformation goals have consistently stressed the high importance of being able to project power in the face of enemy anti-access initiatives. But while acknowledging the Department's goal, the US 'transformation command' has expressed only a minor understanding of the goal and appears to have taken only marginal initiatives to address it.6
Asymmetric to the US bottom-up, laissez-faire approach, Chinese goals and policies have been consistently topdown, focused and consistent.7 Have top-down military transformation policies been applied before? If so, did they work? The answer, at least in some cases, seems to be yes. For example, Eliot Cohen points to the top-down US military transformation success during the American Civil War.8 James Corum describes the successful top-down, General Staff led military transformation by Germany during the 1920s and 1930s.9
The new Central Military Commission supports transformation and the Peoples Liberation Army and has used transformation criteria for war planning, officer training and promotion, doctrine, organizational change and materiel acquisition.10
China's first top-down transformation czar was Jiang Zemin, Central Military Commission Chairman. His transformation vision and programme appear to have full backing from the military leadership and from China's new President, Hu Jintao.11 Jiang apparently saw transformation as a key competition with the pace and quality of transformation determining the winner.12 Top transformation leadership will be in place for many years. Promulgation of revolution in military affairs awareness and transformation is extensive; responsibility to transform seems to exist at every PLA level. Taking their lead from Jiang and Hu, the Central Military Commission, the General Staff and academic institutions, especially the Academy of Military Sciences have weighed in with insightful concept papers and direction of field and fleet experiments.13
Second, the PLA is intent on quickly and urgently leapfrogging from an 'early warfare stage mechanization' to 'mechanization and informatization' and then to 'informatization warfare'. The PLA knows it must 'unlearn' the past. Leapfrogging competitors to become superior seems to apply across the board, not just to materiel.
Third, armament criteria have been redefined to accommodate the ongoing revolution in military affairs and transformation. Resources have been taken from legacy investments to free up resources for transformation investments. In striving for the 'military after next', China may indeed gain materiel superiority in key areas. If, for example, in the ongoing conventional ballistic missile vs. anti-conventional ballistic missile competition, China succeeded in fielding the 'conventional ballistic missile after next' - i.e., leapfrogging planned US missile defences - the consequences for the US would be unacceptable.
Fourth, PLA education is being overhauled to advance transformation. Leadership positions of military universities and academies are going to the very best officers as a stepping stone to positions of higher responsibility. Civilians have apparently been given grades from non-commissioned officer to General.14
Fifth, widespread officer reshuffling has occurred. The land army has been decreasing in importance while the naval, air and conventional missile forces have been increasing. New, younger, transformation-oriented officers are being recruited and promoted. Key transformation people are evident. Transformation criteria are used to grade and promote officers.
Last, China has fielded a transformational organization, the conventional ballistic and cruise missile force.15 As with the German Panzer division, this Chinese organization represents a discontinuity in warfare and is likely to cause China's enemies lots of problems for a long time. In doing this, China has reduced to practice what students of the revolution in military affairs pointed out a few decades ago: the information revolution and long-range precisionguided weapons, when combined with innovative organizational and doctrinal change, would be central to transformation and doing well in future warfare.
Special Casing vs. Mainstreaming
The US treats military transformation as a special case. China is mainstreaming transformation. In
Washington, the unique, Defense Department-level, Office of Force Transformation, a bully pulpit with little real authority has been established.16 In Virginia, a 'transformation command', the US
Joint Forces Command has been established to 'develop concepts, test these concepts through rigorous experimentation, educate joint leaders, train joint forces, and make recommendations on how the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines can better integrate their warfighting capabilities.'17 Neither the transformation office nor command has authority to do more than to recommend change to the power brokers of real transformation change [or no change], the Services.18
In contrast, the Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party has the clout to make transformation happen. He largely controls the military budget and is not troubled by such things as parliamentary oversight. He is the agent of change, not individual Services. He can, and he does, hire and fire. He has established transformation policy, oversees its implementation and is making sure transformation is swift and mainstreamed.
Consistent with its policy to mainstream, China's senior service schools apparently have overhauled their programmes of study in order to promote transformation. The Commandant of the Chinese Academy of Military Sciences, the source of many transformation initiatives, and the Political Commissar of the Chinese National Defence University have been made full Generals. The latter was apparently responsible for a key transformation effort, a major syllabus change for the National Defence University leading to officers who understand the importance of leapfrog development for modernizing the military and who have the ability to lead the building of an informationized army and direct informationization operations.19
Other special case-mainstreaming asymmetries are apparent. Transformation courses in US senior service schools are few and usually electives, not part of the required syllabus. For example, the US National Defense University once offered core transformation topics in a School of Information Warfare, but this has been largely discarded. In China, information warfare is a major transformation and mainstreamed topic: Five new information warfare institutes have been established and information warfare courses are required throughout Chinese military schools.20
A striking asymmetry is the sense of urgency in pursuing transformation. It is difficult to read a Chinese military journal not addressing transformation without also stressing the need to do so with great urgency. The need to move quickly started with Jiang Zemin and has permeated throughout the Chinese officer corps. The need to transform quickly, to 'leap frog' US capabilities is compelling and not empty talk.
The US transformation focus is short term. China's focus is long term. US transformation management focuses on near-term needs as defined by the 'joint warrior' in the field and fleet.21 While
Chinese authors stress transformation urgency, they are referring to meeting the top-down, long-term goals set forth by Chinese transformation management.
In spite of guidance, including that of President Bush to transform quickly while successfully executing a war and worldwide deterrence, the US military has demonstrated little evidence of transformation urgency. The attitude seems to be one of 'we have time to get this right' or 'all ahead, slow'. This can be explained. First, US military Services have done well in their last wars and many see no need to meddle with success; the next war will mostly be like the last ones and there is no need to dramatically change the baseline of legacy planning tools. Second, US military Services continue to have major jurisdiction over how the US military will fight, and resists any and all challenge to this jurisdiction and to its Service cultures. Service sponsored wargames are normally used to highlight 'land' or 'sea' or 'air power' and not to determine what a transformed military might do.22 Third, the US apparently believes there is no need to promote, protect and keep in long-term positions innovative [even disruptive] officers enthusiastic about transformation concepts. Fourth, the enormous, near-term focused US defence budget gives the false sense that no adversary can arise as a military peer. Fifth, transformation requires field, fleet and aerospace experiments of a discontinuous nature and there is little evidence of US experiments going beyond groping with issues of 'jointness' - i.e., connecting existing and dissimilar organizations to achieve marginal efficiencies. In the few cases of budding US innovation, transformation seems to be led by materiel not ideas.
A US policy apparently meant to accelerate transformation is the parallel development of concepts, experimentation and doctrine.23 One may ask however, how a meaningful transformation field experiment can be conducted without first having in-hand at least a preliminary transformation concept. And does not adoption of doctrine require carefully selecting, after repeated experimentation, one concept while discarding many others? By contrast, China seems to be emphasizing General Staff and especially Academy of Military Science concept development before experimentation and then considering experimental results to doctrine, a serial approach.
Assessments of Chinese Military Power
In May 2003, the US Council on Foreign Relations issued a report24 concluding, 'China is pursuing a deliberate course of military modernization, but is at least two decades behind the United States in terms of military technology and capability.' Of interest here are the criteria used and not used by the
Council task force in arriving at that conclusion. For starts, there is no mention in the report of the revolution in military affairs, warfare discontinuity, or military transformation. Also, the authors (and many others who believe the US military is enduringly superior to China's) do not recognize Chinese crushing military superiority in a limited time battle space - e.g., a battle for Taiwan.
After acknowledging the pitfall of mirror-imaging, the Task Force does just that: 'The Task Force notes, however, that while China will have the enduring advantage of proximity to Asia, it is the maritime, aerospace, and technological dimensions of military power in which Beijing has traditionally been weakest and the United States traditionally strongest. Consequently, a continued robust U.S. naval and air presence can offset the ability of Beijing to leverage future military capabilities into real advantage against U.S. and allied interests in the Asia-Pacific region over the next twenty years, if not longer.' Here, the Council task force shares a common and faulty assumption with many other studies, assessments and war games that start with US forces already deployed into position, ready to fight, and with allies and friends furnishing forward bases and support. Having bypassed consideration of the power projection issue, these studies, assessments and war games get underway with demonstrating US military superiority using legacy US military metrics.
The task force treated Chinese developments such as conventional ballistic missile attacks on US Navy aircraft carriers as a new addition to existing military capabilities, and not as a dramatic discontinuity with strategic implications. But if such a breakthrough occurred, the carriers the US might bring to a Taiwan or other crisis could be quickly neutralized or destroyed. Likewise, it was disappointing for the Council task force to merely note the development of other advanced Chinese conventional ballistic and cruise missiles without pointing out that these missiles might be able to neutralize or destroy most US forward airbases. Loss of the carriers, the air bases or both would essentially render ineffective most US power projection capabilities in Asia and remove US military presence for many years.
Similarly, a recent RAND report addressing Chinese military power started by assuming China is not a military peer to the US and argued China would have fiscal and other constraints limiting any peer ambitions for many years.25 As in other reports, legacy military effectiveness metrics and mirror imaging are employed.
Last, the US Congress requires the Department of Defense to annually report26 'on the current and future military strategy of the People's Republic of China'. The legislation
requires the Department to report 'Developments in Chinese military doctrine, focusing on [but not limited to] efforts to exploit a transformation in military affairs'.27 Over the last few years, this report has limited its findings to this latter requirement to Chinese interest in the notion of transformation and in particular to Chinese study of US recent wars. This suggested to the reader that the US is the transformation leader and that China, standing in awe, would take decades to catch up and probably not then.28
Many studies and assessments start off by talking about the 'Taiwan Strait military balance' and the need not to upset that balance. This impression and possibly policy premise persists in spite of long-standing and overwhelming evidence that China has utterly changed that balance in its favour.29 The faulty impression can lead to policy recommendations - e.g., the Council on Foreign Relations urges the US not to overreact to Chinese military advances because it could 'become a self-fulfilling prophecy, provoking an otherwise avoidable antagonistic relationship with China that would not serve long-term U.S. interests.'
Studies and reports such as those mentioned are driven by the questions of the sponsor. There is significant pressure on the study and report authors to keep the work within the sponsor's 'comfort zone'. This means the end result can be seen as a reflection of what the sponsor is actually focused on - in many cases, what is seen as really important to the policy-maker. What seems to be regarded as really important in past reports on Chinese military power is particularly disappointing.
Asymmetric military transformation matters. The Secretary of Defense, the National Security Adviser and others set policy based on their understanding of the most pressing security challenges. This understanding is their basis for acting, their premises for policy, and that often comes from studies, assessments and wargames. If these fail to address, much less assess, the profound impact of a discontinuity in warfare brought about by Chinese military transformation, faulty premises And policies will follow.
Issue 1: US National Security Policy Premises.
Over the last decade, a major premise for US planning and programming seems to be that the US has an unassailable advantage in military capability. But China's transformation effort and the asymmetries challenging the U.S. suggest this may not be the case for long, if it is the case today. What is the US policy-maker's awareness level of Chinese transformation progress and momentum? What might all this mean for US military planning, programming and especially, the structure and processes for US transformation? Should the US change direction?
Issue 2: US Intelligence.
Intelligence collectors and analysts use criteria to guide their efforts. Military transformation leading to a warfare discontinuity requires discarding old, legacy criteria and replacing them with new, very different ones. Second, intelligence should focus on the things that can really hurt the US - e.g., a threat capability to deny power projection, something the US must do today to be successful.
Issue 3: Net Assessments and Wargaming.
Has China's top-down, mainstreamed transformation been more or less successful than the US bottom-up, special-case transformation? What are the key trends in this competition? If the US and China continue along current transformation paths, what will be their resultant military capabilities in one year, five years, ten years? When will a point of superior capability be evident - or is it now evident? If it is unacceptable to do poorly in transformation then it is vital to know where the US stands in the transformation competition with China. The issue is not whether the
Chinese or the US approach to transformation is 'better'. Rather, the real issue is how well the US might do in confronting the military capabilities coming out of Chinese transformation. US defence and intelligence agencies may want to consider net assessments and wargaming to answer these kinds of questions.
A consultant, the author produces classified and unclassified assessments, net assessments, and warning indicators for high consequence, long-term, military developments. His government service included ten years in the Office of Net Assessment, Office of the US Secretary of Defense.
1 The best US example is Andrew F. Krepinevich, Jr., 'The Military-Technical Revolution: APreliminary Assessment', Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments,Washington, DC. 2002, reproduces this July 1992 Office of the Secretary of Defense assessment. Over the last 14 years, at least seven US government-sponsored commissions and task forces have also addressed what the end of the Cold War and revolution in military affairs mean for US military policy: Bush Base Force 1991, Bottom-Up Review , Commission on Roles and Missions , Quadrennial Defense Review , National Defense Panel , US Commission on National Security/21st Century , and the Rumsfeld Strategy Review .
2 Michael Pillsbury points out another important driver of transformation asymmetry: strategic tradition including Chinese ancient military thought.
3 Thomas J.Welch, 'Transformation of a Chinese Military Organization', Chinese Military Update, Vol. 2, No. 6, June 2005.
4 Top Five Goals for the Director, Force Transformation, Office of Force Transformation web site, accessed, 1 July 2005.
5 BG William Rajczak, US Joint Forces Command Deputy Director for Joint Requirements and Integration, USJFCOM Public Affairs, Norfolk,VA.,
30 June 2005. Eliot Cohen noted this kind of bottom-up approach in describing changes in
American warfighting in the Afghan war: 'These changes had not come all at once, nor were they the result of a top-down overhaul of the military system; rather, they had percolated up as a result of the steady accumulation and improvement of new technology and a dimly understood process of innovation and experimentation in the field.' Eliot Cohen, 'Supreme Command', page 233, Anchor Books, New York, 2003.
6 Joint Forces Command anti-access actions can be obtained by reviewing their complete and detailed public affairs announcements covering the period from the inception of the command through today. These are available on the USJFCOM web site.
7 Thomas J.Welch, 'Warning Indicators for China's Military Transformation', International Journal of Intelligence and Counter-Intelligence, Volume 18, Number 1, Spring, 2005.
8 Eliot Cohen, Supreme Command, Anchor Books, New York, 2003.
9 James Corum, 'The Roots of Blitzkrieg', University of Kansas Press, 1992.
10 You Ji, 'China's New Top Command and PLA Professionalism', CAPS Papers no. 37, Taipei, Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies, 2004.
11 Jiang Zemin's vision of future warfare is based on the ongoing revolution in military affairs and has been articulated in numerous writings. His major points have been summarized in Thomas J. Welch, 'Warning Indicators for China's Military Transformation', International Journal of Intelligence and Counter-Intelligence,Volume 18, Number 1, Spring 2005.
12 Jiang had the advantage of focusing on mostly one enemy and mostly one strategic problem. The enemy was the U.S. military and the strategic problem was anti-access, denying the US military its strategic backbone: power projection. Later, Jiang may have also reasoned the US would be preoccupied with terrorism and would tend to ignore the transformation progress of other militaries, and possibly their own.
13B Michael Pillsbury, 'China Debates the Future Security Environment ' and also 'Chinese Views of Future Warfare, National Defense University Press, Washington, revised edition, 1998.
14 This is not unprecedented. See, for example, how this was done in the military transformation during the American Civil War in Eliot Cohen, 'Supreme Command', pages 34-38, Anchor Books, New York, 2003.
15 Thomas J.Welch, 'Transformation of a Chinese Military Organization', Chinese Military Update, Vol. 2, No. 6, June 2005.
16 This Office is said to be set apart from others: 'Only office solely dedicated to transformation; Work at the intersection of unarticulated needs and non-consensual change;Work outside the normal course of business activities; Concept technology pairing to explore and experiment with new ways of operating.' Office of Force Transformation web site, accessed 3 July 2005. 17 From the USJFCOM website accessed 3 July 2005. Italics added.
18 An example of Service transformation views is a recent $12 billion request for Army transformation. It is part of a supplemental request and not the annual defence budget.18
19 'The Central Military Commission Approves and Forwards the Report of the NDU to Promote Reform and Development', PLA Daily, June 6, 2004. Additional mainstreaming evidence suggests serious RMA and transformation 'intellectuals' are highly regarded and advanced within the PLA. A former Deputy Chief of the General Staff, General Xiong Guangkai, also chairs of the China Institute for International Strategic Studies and recently edited a book 'International Strategy and Revolution in Military Affairs.' Xinong Guangkai, 'International Strategy and Revolution in Military Affairs', Tsingua University Press, 2002.
20 Timothy L. Thomas, 'Dragon Bytes, Chinese Information-War Theory and Practice', Foreign Military Studies Office, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, 2004.
21 ' … we are there working in partnership with senior levels in acquisition, technology and logistics, intelligence, networks, information and infrastructure, and programme analysis and evaluation, as an honest broker to identify what the joint warfighter most urgentlyneeds.' BG William Rajczak, US Joint Forces Command Deputy Director for Joint Requirements and Integration, USJFCOM Public Affairs, NORFOLK, VA., June 30, 2005. Italics added.
22 See for example, 'Wake-up Call', The Guardian, 6 September 2002. The article describes a US multi-million dollar war game built on the assumption that the enemy force would fight as we would want him to and that US legacy doctrine would prevail. It did not.
23 Websites for the Department of Defense Office of Force Transformation and US Joint Forces Command.
24 'Chinese Military At Least Two Decades Away from Rivaling U.S. Forces, Concludes Newly Released Council Task Force Report'. The Councilsponsored Independent Task Force on Chinese Military Power was led by former Secretary of Defense Harold Brown and Admiral USN (Ret.) Joseph Prueher.
25 Keith Crane, et al., 'Modernizing China's Military, Opportunities and Constraints', RAND Project Air Force, RAND Corporation 2005. 26 U.S. Public Law 106-65, Sec 1202. 'The report shall address the current and probable future course of military-technological development on the People's Liberation Army and the tenets and probable development of Chinese grand strategy, security strategy, and military strategy, and of the military organizations and operational concepts, through the next 20 years.'
27 U.S. Public Law 106-65, Sec 1202, subparagraph [b] . Italics added.
28 As of early July 2005, the 2005 report has been delayed reportedly because its contents may upend the US relationship with China. But perhaps the delay is also due to an increasing awareness that past metrics used and issues addressed have not been correct
29 Maintaining the 'balance' is China's public line and it remains in its interest to maintain this impression in the minds of the victims.