“The art of conducting warfare consists in amassing material resources, examining [the skill of] artisans, manufacturing weapons, and selecting knights, issuing administrative instructions, training, acquiring a broad knowledge of the realm and an understanding of strategy- all to an unrivalled degree…It is impossible for [the ruler] to hope to bring order to the realm if his material resources do not excel those of the rest of the realm. It is [also] impossible even if he excels in material resources, but fails to excel in [the skill of] his artisans, or if he excels in [the skill] of artisans, fails in weaponry. [Likewise] it is impossible even if he excels in weaponry, but fails in [the quality of] his knights, or if he excels in [the quality of] his knights, fails in his instructions. It remains impossible even if he excels in his instructions, but fails to do so in training, or if he excels in training, but fails in terms of having a broad knowledge of the realm, or excelling in terms of broad knowledge, fails in his understanding of strategy.”
The aforementioned is a quote from a collection of writings attributed to Guanzi. He was an influential minister from around 600 BC that predated Sunzi and had advice on warfare that is sometimes more comprehensive, if less known than Sunzi.
I appreciated the words a great deal because China has a much more broad foundation of military theory than a single writer. And many analysts in both China and America seem to focus on just one item, the weaponry, instead of focusing on a variety of items. The additional items include material resources, quality of knights (or soldiers in general), instructions and strategy.
Their weaponry still makes for rather click-bait headlines, but they are not the entire story. For example, the Chinese economy is smaller than America’s, and there are signs of it having a slowdown. China still lags behind the U.S. in key technologies such as jet engine development. The quality of their soldiers is in question because of significant personnel problems. The Chinese one-child policy results in a lack of quality recruits that are often overweight and afflicted with respiratory problems. China tries to relax standards and train them up but has significant retention problems.
In the matter of instructions and strategy they have problems as well. The culture of the military often prohibits independent and local decision-making. Junior officers often refer decision-making to higher units. Their training exercises are often a way for unit commanders to look good for higher ups. There is severe pressure for Red Units to win, resulting in exercises that fail to identify weaknesses. There is legitimate worry that their fighter pilots are “dumb.” As a result of these reports, there will likely be many units unable to perform because they lack an understanding of how to implement instructions in a combat environment.
The strategy from China relies upon a new use of narrow technology, such as missiles, to counter the American advantage in broad technology like aircraft carriers. But, missiles are simply the newest versions of technology that has been around for 70 years. Much like the battleship that adjusted to the rise of torpedo boats though the use of lighting, nets, and smaller ships called destroyers, the American military has adjusted to the new technology. They have improved the sensor range of their fighter aircraft like the F-35 and Aegis ships like the Burke-class destroyers. They have additional close-in weapon systems like rail guns that, in total, make the Chinese strategy rather dubious. In matters of strategy, they may end up being like the French that tried to challenge the battleship with useless torpedo boats.
Yes, the Chinese seem to succeed in weaponry. But as their sage advisers might say, they must excel in all areas to an “unrivalled degree.” This includes the quality of their knights, artisans, instructions and strategy…and not just their weapons. They have yet to show that they can excel in every area, and that should be taken into account every time you read an article about new Chinese weapons.