(Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed in this story are those of the panel members and not of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Please contact the Modern War Institute for the full presentation of this panel.)
“China is, in fact, our pacing challenge and it is my priority focus,” said Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin during a hearing on the 2022 Budget Request for the Defense Department on June 17, 2020.
That ominous look into the future through Austin’s words took hold as the Chinese Communist Party’s Air Force completed its largest strategic show of force into liberal democratic Taiwan’s air defense identification zone. This happened all within days of the Modern War Institute hosting its annual USMA Class of 2006 War Studies Conference Oct. 5 via Microsoft Teams. This year’s conference was centered around “Adversary capabilities and strategies,” specifically between the United States and the People’s Republic of China (PRC).
The digital conference session brought together a group of top analysts and professionals from across academia, the military and the interagency to discuss new ideas and forge effective solutions to the complex problems facing today’s military.
Members of the panel were encouraged to discuss their views and opinions on multiple issues regarding the state of the PRC.
The panel was moderated by Col. John Gregory, who serves as the director of the Chinese Academic Program in the Department of Foreign Languages at the U.S. Military Academy. Panel members included Larry Wortzel, Ph.D., senior fellow in Asian Security at the American Foreign Policy Council; Lauren Dickey, Ph.D., Taiwan and Mongolia advisor for the Office of the Secretary of Defense (Policy Division); Ian Sullivan, senior advisor for Analysis at the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command; Elsa Kania, adjunct senior fellow with the Center for New American Security; and Rachel Burton, China Policy advisor at the U.S. Department of Defense.
Gregory introduced the panel members then allowed each panelist to make opening remarks.
Wortzel opened the discussion with three main topics — Intrastate Wars: expansion and contraction in China, the political culture from the communist party propaganda and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) strategy versus the U.S. Army strategies.
He explained how China’s strategy is to develop a world class Navy by the year 2040 and stated that he believes they are on track to completing that goal.
To be prepared for a world class Chinese Navy, the U.S. Armed Forces have developed a plan to first establish sea control then dominate ground forces with ground forces.
“If there’s a war ... the U.S. strategy basically is to block their key sea straits/channels and to destroy Chinese forces ... inside the first island chain,” Wortzel said. “While we maneuver in the second island chain, this is where the U.S. Army comes into play.”
The big picture topic at hand for Dickey was how she viewed the PRC as trying to “get after their issues” with Taiwan and its goal of unification.
“We’re seeing a consistent and stronger commitment by PLA leadership to the political goal of unification with Taiwan. This has long been framed as part and parcel of the broader goal of national rejuvenation,” Dickey said. “We’re seeing that continuity manifest in political statements over the last couple of years.”
She continued her discussion into detailed specifics on PLA strategy and what it means to the region.
“There’s always a political end goal or end state to all the military operations or activities that you see. And that’s designed and the way their system operates,” Burton later added.
Sullivan then took the floor and immediately focused on the PLA Army and what their land power means.
To better understand the tactics one might use against the U.S. military, he acknowledged that the PLA Army has been studying the war responses from the U.S. since Desert Storm.
“When they studied us, they essentially came up with two conclusions,” Sullivan said. “When it comes to conflict with the United States, the most optimal way to prevail is to win without fighting. The second point is if it comes to a conflict, the best approach is to rely on standoff capabilities in order to prevent the United States from doing what it does best, which is closing within and defeating the enemy.”
He believes that since 2015, the PLA has been building a force that can not only separate the U.S. internally as a nation but also separate the U.S. from its allies, partners and the constituent elements of the Joint Force.
By 2049, the goal for the PLA’s modernization plan is to create the dominant world’s military, Sullivan said. This just so happens to be the 100-year anniversary of the founding of the PRC.
Sullivan later moved his conversation into the challenges of the PLA. Although, the PLA is set to make major moves toward their military goals, he said that they have no real-world experience in executing modern war tactics. Kania agreed, however, she posed a thought of her own.
“I think that it certainly requires an adjustment in our thinking and assumptions about the technological supremacy and military superiority that the United States has enjoyed in recent history,” Kania said. “We are seeing new domains and frontiers of warfare whether it’s starting to introduce and operationalize drones across every domain in every service of the PLA or thinking how to introduce space and cyber capabilities.”
In the 2022 Budget Request for the Defense Department on June 17, 2020, Gen. Mark A. Milley echoed some of the thoughts of this panel.
“We are in the midst of a change in ... war that’s the biggest change in 100 years,” Milley said. “We are investing in hypersonic, robotics, 5G, microelectronics and all kinds of investments in this (budget). This is the beginning of a pivot to a future U.S. military that will be able to maintain its overmatch in some future conflict against a pacing threat like China.”
The panel came to an abrupt end as the allotted time expired, however, the panel members and onlookers were encouraged to continue the China conversation through email.