As the Iraq war concludes, there have been plenty of debate in the United States about what specific lessons can be learned from the conflict and the ongoing counterinsurgency war in Afghanistan. Curious about what the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) made of the whole enterprise? Andrew Scobell, David Lai, and Roy Kamphausen have edited a remarkable collection of essays about specific conflicts over the last 30 years that PLA authors have analyzed. Unfortunately, this collection seems to have been mostly overlooked by many defense analysts.
While the PLA’s opinions about conventional American warfare are well-known, their opinions on COIN are less prominent. Granted, the PLA has less of a pressing need to understand counterinsurgency operations because the People’s Armed Police (PAP) have primary responsibility for domestic counter-rebellion missions. As Martin Andrew details in an essay on Chinese perceptions of Afghanistan, the PLA were interested primarily in technical and tactical lessons of the conflict.
US military operations in Afghanistan prominently feature the use of helicopters for movement and sustainment across austere and frequently mountainous conditions, the ability of small dispersed forces to use network-centric joint warfare to double their combat power, and the power of space control (GPS and satellite communications) on the tactical battlefield. As Andrew details, the PLA paid careful attention to all of these developments. As a force transitioning from an infantry-based ground army to a mechanized military built around combined arms mechanized operations, the PLA is looking to develop modular force structures and logistics to support informatized out-of-area operations in high altitudes and complex terrain. The network-centric capabilities of the modular Army of the 2000s were thus keenly observed.
American army aviation in Afghanistan was of interest to the PLA, especially due to high-altitude operational needs in Tibet and Xinjiang. The US Army’s ability to use helicopters as a main, rather than supporting arm, for sustainment, maneuver, and attack could conceivably have spurred a January 2006 PLA reorganization of aviation assets and 2005 exercises in Jinan that simulated an opposing force vertical maneuver and a long-range helicopter insertion. The PLA’s interest in deep insertion, however, ironically comes at a point when some in the American defense community entertain doubt about the usefulness of attack aviation in conventional war.
Equally of interest is the American method of timely and accurate fire support on the battlefield. As Andrew notes, the prevailing PLA model of high-altitude combat borrowed from the Russian concept of Reconnaissance Combat Operations (RBD). RBD involved the employment of signals intelligence, special forces, and helicopters supported by blocking forces and artillery support in high altitude operations. However, the American model of Joint Terminal Attack Controllers and the use of GPS by maneuver and special forces to call in accurate precision-guided fires meshed well with the emerging PLA concept of joint firepower strikes and precision strike by all-arms. The PLA were particularly impressed by the American ability to hit small targets in urban and rural areas rapidly with minimum collateral damage.
The major difference, however, in PLA and American approaches to joint firepower strike is that the American approach is tactical in orientation whereas the PLA concept emphasizes operational-level effects. Andrews suspects that this may be due to a need to husband scarce resources. Hence a focus on making joint fire strikes create a disruption in the opponent’s operational system rather than the American concept of supporting tactical units. Andrews also covers adjustments to the PLA mechanized infantry brigade and fixed wing close-air support that may have been inspired by American counterinsurgency operations, but perhaps the most interesting question is whether or not the overall COIN philosophy made an impression on the PLA.
Some authors, Andrews notes, took notice of the Army’s focus on limiting noncombatant casualties and the overall American attention to the news media. One military writer observed that “killing too many of the enemy on the battlefield may be strongly condemned by international public opinion.” That being said, the PLA and PAP’s political masters do not need an American lesson in the importance of using force carefully in a counter-rebellion scenario. Andrews argues that the expanded role of the PAP itself and an increasing focus on non-lethal weaponry is proof of the Central Military Commission (CMC)’s desire to use force more carefully in internal settings.
In sum, while the war in Afghanistan grows more unpopular in the US, the PLA may have a more positive view of American military performance on the tactical level. However, it is unclear exactly what kind of influence US operations have had on PLA doctrine and practice, and whether or not the “lessons” learned from American warfare merely confirmed preexisting ideas and biases. If so, they certainly aren’t alone. Conflicting American lessons from the 2006 Lebanon war–and the history of American analysis of foreign military developments–are a case in point about the difficulty of learning from other people’s wars.
Adam Elkus is an analyst specializing in strategic theory. His articles on subjects ranging from grand strategy to cartel tactics in the Mexican drug war have been published in The Atlantic, Small Wars Journal, Defense Concepts, and OpenDemocracy. He is currently pursuing graduate study in Georgetown and lives in Washington D.C, is an Associate Editor at Red Team Journal, an Associate at Small Wars Journal's El Centro, a Technology Research Analyst at CrucialPoint LLC. All opinions are his own.
Adam Elkus has 5 post(s) on Asia Security Watch