In shaping patterns of future warfare, there is little doubt that militaries across the world will be seeking to absorb the key lessons of the Russia-Ukraine War, ranging from the employment of tanks to the use of anti-ship cruise missiles and the ubiquitous drones. For the Chinese military, these lessons might even assume a greater importance, since the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) both lacks major, recent combat experience, and has also leaned heavily on Russian weapons and doctrine for its rapid modernization over the last few decades.
Chinese media coverage of the war in Ukraine has been extensive. The close nature of the China-Russia “quasi-alliance” means that Chinese military analysts have not engaged in the ruthless critiques of Russian military performance that have been commonplace in the West. Yet, Chinese military analyses are still probing deeply for lessons to understand the shape of modern warfare. They have taken particular interest in the U.S. employment of novel weapons and strategies.
To fully grasp the scope and depth of these Chinese analyses it is important to take assessments from a full range of Chinese military media, which is more extensive than is often appreciated in the West. These articles are generally associated with research institutes that are directly involved in the Chinese military industrial complex.
This exclusive series for The Diplomat will represent the first systematic attempt by Western analysts to evaluate these Chinese assessments of the war in Ukraine across the full spectrum of warfare, including the land, sea, air and space, and information domains.
While China has been quite critical of U.S. and NATO policies in the Ukraine War, Beijing has so far not opted to send direct aid to the Kremlin’s military effort, but this could be changing. The U.S. government appears to believe that China is reassessing that position. Whether or not Beijing chooses a more direct role in supporting Russia, it is clear that Chinese strategists are working overtime to glean military lessons from this most acute occurrence of high intensity, inter-state warfare since World War II.
Throughout the war in Ukraine, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has largely refrained from overt criticism of Russia’s poor military performance. However, a recent prominent article in the PLA Daily from January 12, 2023, on proposed Russian military reforms, reveals a rare degree of criticism of the Russian military performance in Ukraine. This newspaper is China’s leading official military periodical, and so may be considered authoritative. This article may also provide a glimpse into inter-service military politics in China.
After having seen the poor performance of Russia’s army over the past year, the PLA ground forces may be pushing for renewed investment and increased troop levels. In 2019, Dennis J. Blasko, a leading U.S. expert on the PLA, assessed that China’s ground forces were the “biggest loser” from Xi Jinping’s sweeping reforms of the armed forces, both “now and far into the future.” Indeed, Blasko revealed that the PLA saw a 55 percent reduction in ground troops from 1997 to 2018. During this period, a correspondingly greater emphasis has been put on the development of Chinese naval, air, space, and nuclear forces.
The PLA ground forces may be maneuvering to change this trend in light of PLA analysis of the Ukraine War. “The outcome of the land battlefield is still the key to the outcome of the war,” the article proclaims.
On a positive note, this signals that the PLA is not looking at the Russian invasion of Ukraine through rose-colored glasses. They may indeed acknowledge that a hypothetical invasion of Taiwan would be far from easy. It could also involve extremely high personnel and equipment losses, not to mention a risk to the prestige that the Chinese armed forces now enjoy both at home, and to some extent, abroad.
Rebuilding the Army
The article’s appraisal of Russian military performance in Ukraine is uncharacteristically blunt. The analysis concludes that Russia’s military, especially its ground forces, were too weak and their capabilities too limited to achieve their objectives. The core weaknesses of the Russian army are characterized as a lack of sufficient quantity of forces, especially with respect to manpower, and major deficiencies in joint combat capabilities.
The most glaring critique, according to this Chinese military assessment, is that the Battalion Tactical Group combat units have not been adequate to the task at hand. The report notes, “Deficiencies of the Russian battalion-level tactical groups have been exposed, such as their lacking the ability to be self-sustaining in combat and that they are too weak to be effective.”
Perhaps with an eye to a potential conflict over Taiwan, the report calls the brigade unit “unable to effectively fight protracted and high-intensity conflicts of attrition.” The proposed reform is “to transform from a brigade back to a division system.”
In addition to moving back to a division system, the report highlights the great degree to which Russia’s ground forces had been reduced in size prior to the war. It notes that the million-person army is now “barely able to perform homeland mobile defense and overseas garrison missions.”
This again could hint at possible PLA concerns that China’s ground forces may also be undermanned, when taking into account their own internal security mission, as well as a potential Taiwan contingency. In a move that could be connected with Russia’s manpower travails in Ukraine, China’s National People’s Congress recently enacted a new Reservists Law.
This Chinese military analysis also notes that Russia will build up its airborne troops into two full assault divisions and marines up to five divisions. For China, both of these types of specialized forces would be key elements in a Taiwan scenario and would likely bear the brunt of initial fighting. To deal with the overall manpower shortage, Russia is taking corrective measures by “improving the military service recruitment system” and “perfecting the equipment and material reserves systems.”
Reinforcing the Importance of Combined Operations
In addition to manpower issues, the PLA Daily assessment recognizes that Russia has struggled with combined arms. “The Russian military has been unable to effectively execute combined warfare,” it states.
Western analysts have speculated on the absence of Russian airpower over the battlefield. The Chinese analysis criticizes the Russian Air Force with having “executed too few sorties,” and says that “the effectiveness of precision strikes was inadequate and coordination with the army was limited.” It is suggested that Russia’s proposed remedy will be to assign “mixed aviation division and army aviation brigades” to each army group to improve “integrated air-ground operations.”
Chinese strategists also have a great interest in the concept of information warfare. In this PLA analysis, it is also assessed that “the Russian army’s informatization combat capability is insufficient.” Since Russia has been unable to effectively execute information warfare, according to this understanding, “They have had to rely on traditional tactics of mechanized warfare.”
From their studies of U.S. forces deployed in the Balkans and the Middle East in the 1990s and 2000s, the PLA came to believe that future combat would be information-based, relying to a large extent on, “non-contact warfare” (非接触战争). In practice, this meant the utilization of long-range precision strikes from the periphery of conflict zones. The PLA questions the degree to which Russia has succeeded in pacifying Ukraine through long-range strikes.
To deal with Russia’s current inadequacies in information warfare, the Chinese analysis expects that three areas will be prioritized. These include the expanded use of automated command systems, with priority given to equipping combat units below the battalion level with command automation system terminals, and greater adoption of drones. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) will be utilized at the squad and platoon levels to improve battlefield situational awareness, transmit real-time information, and to improve the “reconnaissance-strike loop” (侦察-打击回路效能).
The Russian Army is realizing the value in empowering the lowest levels of troops and commanders with ISR platforms to speed up target acquisition, reconnaissance, and attacks. Having already studied U.S. adoption of UAVs and drones, and with China’s massive domestic drone industry, this finding looks set to accelerate already the high level of drone use by PLA forces at all levels and within each of its service branches.
Playing the Nuclear Card
Notably, the article also pays close attention to Russia’s repeated nuclear warnings. The PLA analysis notes that while Russia lags in conventional military strength, it is relying on its nuclear deterrent to balance against the United States and NATO. Russia is identified as having pushed back against collective Western pressure by “conducting nuclear exercises, raising the level of nuclear force combat readiness, and warning that the third world war will be a nuclear war.”
While the point seems debatable, the article also credits Russia’s use of conventional hypersonic missiles as having a deterrent effect against NATO, saying, “the Kinzhal hypersonic missiles show determination and strength and deter NATO from direct military intervention.” This conclusion could reflect the PLA’s confidence in their own strategic rocket force’s potential ability to deter U.S. intervention in the Indo-Pacific. Like Russia, China has missiles that could be used for either conventional or nuclear strikes and are thus similarly “dual use” in nature.
China is sometimes surprisingly transparent. After mostly refraining from criticism of weak Russian military performance in Ukraine, this PLA Daily article provides a candid appraisal of Russian military failures. It suggests three conclusions. First, the PLA is closely observing and learning from Russian military lessons in Ukraine. Second, the PLA ground forces may be using these lessons to push for an increased profile within China’s inter-service struggle for resources and influence.
Finally, this analysis indicates that the PLA understands very clearly that the war in Ukraine has been no cakewalk for Russia – to put it mildly. Hopefully, the resulting skeptical view will be applied to a Taiwan contingency. The major lesson in Beijing could very plausibly be that high-intensity wars that look favorable on paper can easily bog down into long grueling wars of attrition, with major related risks of escalation.
It is too soon to say ultimately whether Chinese leaders simply see this as a series of military technical problems to be overcome or a warning that conflict should be avoided in the first place. We hope that it is the latter and not the former, but significant Chinese-language evidence indicates that Beijing strategists are working night and day to remedy gaps that the PLA thinks the Ukraine War has revealed.