In 1991, Chinese military officers watched as the United States dismantled the Iraqi Army, a force with more battle experience and somewhat greater technical sophistication than the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). The Americans won with casualties that were trivial by historical standards.
This led to some soul searching. The PLA hadn’t quite been on autopilot in the 1980s, but the pace of reform in the military sector had not matched that of social and economic life in China. Given the grim performance of the PLA in the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese War, as well as the collapse of the Soviet Union, something was bound to change. The Gulf War provided a catalyst and direction for that change.
To get a sense of why the Gulf War matters for the PLA, we need to take a quick detour into organizational theory. Armies learn in several different ways; experiments, experience, grafting (taking members from other, similar orgs), vicarious learning and scanning. In 1991, the PLA lacked any relevant experience in modern warfare since the disastrous campaign against Vietnam in 1979. It lacked the funds and the political wherewithal to undertake the kind of large-scale exercises necessary for modern war. Grafting is notoriously difficult for modern military organizations, as it’s become awkward to simply hire sergeants and colonels from foreign countries.
This leaves scanning and vicarious learning, both of which involve trying to learn as much as possible from the environment (scanning), and from the experiences of other armies. In 1991, the Gulf War made apparent both what worked (the United States military) and what didn’t work (the Iraqi military). It’s not surprising, in this context, that the Gulf War would have such a big effect on the PLA.
One big problem came on the equipment side.
By 1990, the technical sophistication of the PLA had deteriorated to the degree that Iraqi forces enjoyed a considerable advantage over their Chinese counterparts. The Iraqi Air Force included MiG-23s, MiG-25s and MiG-29s, while the PLAAF relied on Chinese-produced copycats of the MiG-21, as well as older aircraft such as the MiG-19. Similarly, the Iraqi air defense system, which had failed to incur major damage on waves of attacking American aircraft, was at least as sophisticated as the systems China was capable of employing.
The Chinese had also discovered, through access to Iraqi tanks captured by the Iranians in the Persian Gulf War, that the Iraqi T-72s that presented no challenge whatsoever to the U.S. Army were considerably superior to extant Chinese tanks. Although the Gulf War didn’t involve serious naval combat, it wasn’t hard to infer that the problems likely afflicted the naval sector, as well.
The balance between quality and quantity has shifted back and forth historically. In the Chinese Civil War and in Korea, the PLA took advantage of numbers and tactical effectiveness to defeat (or at least level the ground with) more technologically sophisticated opponents. In Vietnam, injections of critical anti-access technology had helped blunt U.S. air offensives. Historically, the PLA had hoped that numerical advantage would help even the playing field against one of the superpowers, but the U.S.-led coalition cut through quantitatively superior Iraqi forces like a hot knife through butter. Iraq demonstrated that, at least as far as conventional warfighting was concerned, the balance had shifted heavily in favor of technology.
This understanding of the Gulf War helped drive PLA modernization. Especially in air and naval forces, China took immediate steps to update its military technology, generally through purchasing the most-advanced Soviet hardware. Strapped for cash, Russia was eager to make deals, and didn’t worry overmuch about the long-range consequences of technology transfer. China also attempted to acquire technology with military applications from Europe, but sanctions associated with the Tiananmen Square massacre hamstrung this effort. Finally, China accelerated efforts to increase the sophistication of research and development in its own military-industrial base.
Along with the changes in technology came changes in doctrine and in expectations for how war would play out. The PLA began to emphasize airpower more than ground power, and in particular, investigated the potential for long-range precision strike. Historically, the PLA has never had the opportunity to carry out significant, operationally relevant strikes behind enemy lines, cooperation with guerrilla formation in the Civil War notwithstanding. Indeed, the PLA even lacks experience with traditional, “deep battle” maneuver warfare, in which the exploitation of breakthroughs gives armored spearheads the ability to disrupt enemy logistics and command.
While the Gulf War did not demonstrate that deep strike could decisively win modern wars, it undoubtedly did show that long-range precision strike could help disrupt enemy operations, and even seriously attrite fielded enemy forces. The PLA immediately began to develop its capability in this area. The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) and the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) grew in importance relative to the ground forces of the PLA (although, this has as much to do with the disappearance of the Soviet threat and the decline in importance of North Korea as it does with a new understanding of technology), and both began to concentrate on platforms that offered long-range strike opportunities. The two services also began to shift towards smaller numbers of higher-technology systems.
For its part, the Second Artillery shifted its focus from nuclear deterrence to long-range precision strike, with both ballistic and cruise missiles. Developing a modern appreciation of military-systems integration, the PLAN, PLAAF and Second Artillery have also emphasized joint operations, with a focus on developing command, control and communications procedures that allow the efficient, coordinated use of military force. However, it’s hard to evaluate the success of such planning in the absence of wartime experience.
Did the Chinese overstate the implications of the Gulf War? Yes and no. Revised scholarship on the Gulf War has made clear that whatever the impact of “shock and awe,” the coalition’s conventional military superiority carried the day. American and British forces had significant technical advantages, but they also had much better training than the Iraqis, the experience of the Iran-Iraq War notwithstanding. The air war set the stage for coalition victory, but the coalition still needed to excel at conventional maneuver warfare in order to succeed.
Still, the Gulf War provided Chinese military and civilian decision makers with a ready example of what modern war looked like, and gave some lessons about how to fight (and how not to fight) in the future. The PLA has become a radically more sophisticated organization—with much more effective learning capacity—than it was in 1991. We have yet to see, however, how all the pieces will fall together in real combat.
Robert Farley is an assistant professor at the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce.