Friday, November 27, 2015

Book Review: Chinese Warfighting: The PLA Experience Since 1949

Mark A. Ryan, David M. Finkelstein and Michael A. McDevitt, Editors
Chinese Warfighting: The PLA Experience Since 1949
Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 2003
Category: People's Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF)

Rating: 4-Stars

It has often been said that generals have a tendency to re-fight the last war.  Human nature tends to drive us to become creatures of habit, re-visiting past episodes, good or bad, that we know so well.  This is why a book such as this, which reviews the history of China's war fighting experience, is crucial to understanding the corporate culture of China's military today.

China won the Great War against Japan, and indeed all of the smaller wars that it has fought since, as wars of attrition.  In these confrontations, it was a question of superior Chinese numbers that negated any technological advantage that China's adversaries (such as in the Korean War) may have possessed.  This was why, up until the early 1990s, the People's Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) was so under-funded relative to similar armed forces abroad.  The value of a modern air force, equipped with modern munitions, was unrecognized.

All of this did, of course, change during the 1990s and afterwards, as the Chinese political and military establishments absorbed the lessons of the 1991 Gulf War and as China's burgeoning economy fueled its military expansion.  But the scars from those decades of neglect still remain.

In the Korean War, the first war that the PLAAF participated in, the purpose of the Chinese air force was to provide protection against opposing fighters.  The concept that air power might make a significant impact against opposing ground forces was never seriously considered.  This experience led directly to the lack of air power as a substantive component during the 1979 border war between China and Vietnam.  The PLAAF was charged with protecting Chinese skies from a potential Vietnamese counter-attack, not with assisting to prosecute the war on the ground.

How much this old mentality has truly been broken is still not entirely clear.  There has been significant investment in the past two decades in modern aircraft and missiles for the PLAAF, but whether the training, tactics and weapons employed have fully adjusted to new realities remains an open question.

Which is why, again, learning from history and understanding how the People's Liberation Army, and the PLAAF evolved into what they are today remains so vitally important.  This particular book contains a series of essays, collected from scholars in the field, examining China's individual wars and border skirmishes, as well as the evolution of different branches within China's armed forces.  Taken together, it's one of the best historical collections available on this subject.

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