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A ‘System of Systems of Systems’ for the PLA

By Taylor Marvin

Over at The Diplomat’s Flashpoints blog, Robert Farley insightfully discusses the branch interoperability challengers facing the PLA:

“I’ve belabored the organizational aspects of China’s system of anti-access systems because bureaucratic boundaries matter… As of yet there is little indication that the PLAN, PLAAF, and 2nd Artillery have developed the practices necessary to ensure an efficient, effective partnership in battle.  To be sure, we have little evidence that the three organizations cannot collaborate effectively, but what we know of the history of inter-service conflict suggests a high potential for friction.  The Chinese military has not had the opportunity to work through that friction in realistic, wartime conditions.”

I think Farley makes a very important, and under-appreciated, point about the  PLA’s lack of combat experience. Aside from the brief, but destructive, 1962 Sino-Indian and 1979 Sino-Vietnamese wars the PLA hasn’t fought a major conflict since Korea, and this experiential deficiency is a major challenge to creating a responsive institutional culture able to function under the stress of wartime. Importantly, the PLA’s lack of combat experience means that it likely cannot even identify the existing interoperability problems that it must focus on. In a recent piece for Foreign PolicyDmitri Trenin argued that deficiencies revealed by the Russian military’s poor performance during the 2008 Georgia War have spurred modernizing efforts and a shift away from a force benchmarked on a Cold War-style great power struggle:

“The resultant soul-searching in the Kremlin and the brooding over the price of victory created an atmosphere propitious for military reform to begin openly and in earnest. The ‘lessons of the war’ also weakened the unreconstructed traditionalists, military and nonmilitary alike, who were driven by inertia and who had clung to the decaying remnants of the Soviet military system for nearly two decades, in the vain hope that it might be revived.”

While I’m deeply skeptical of Trenin’s optimistic thesis — the Russian military faces huge demographic, institutional, and funding barriers between it and a modernized professional force — he makes an insightful point: it is extremely difficult to assess an armed force’s deficiencies in the abstract. This shortsightedness can encompass equipment — for example, it took the painful experience of air combat over Vietnam to demonstrate that the 1960s-era USAF’s near-total reliance on missiles in air-to-air combat was premature — but is even more apparent, as Farley notes, in organizational assets. This of particular concern to the PLAN because, as shown by Eric McVadon in 2007’s “China’s Matring Navy”, its human capital and organization assets lag behind its platforms and weapons, though training programs appear to be improving and the acquisition of the Liaoning aircraft carrier is at least partially intended for training and doctrine-development purposes.

But a peacetime emphasis on organizational reform can only take you so far. To twist Farley and Roger Cliff’s phrase, using the feared DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile in combat requires a “system of systems of systems”: the weapon itself, the parallel surveillance and communications systems required to operate and target the missile, and the ‘system’ of strong human capital and effective organizational communications and culture required to translate peacetime procedure to wartime action.

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