By Eli Kravinsky '24
Amidst rising tensions between the U.S. and China, analysts attempt to calculate the balance between the world’s two most powerful militaries with increasing anxiety. One often hears that whatever advances the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, or PLA, makes, it is far behind the U.S. in terms of experience. Proponents of this viewpoint argue that because the PLA has not fought a war since 1979, when it attacked Vietnam, it will struggle to defeat the U.S. military, which has been frequently engaged in wars across the globe since the Second World War. This viewpoint is fundamentally false, because it fails to take into account opportunity costs, the reality of the conflicts the U.S. has engaged in, and the efforts by the PLA to close the gap.
The Global War on Terror has generated countless American casualties, both physical and psychological, sapping the U.S. of sorely-needed potential human capital. The resultant perception that the U.S. is casualty-averse may convince the PLA’s that it can take on and beat the U.S.. Throughout these conflicts, vast investments have been made into capabilities that serve no purpose in a potential conflict with China, such as IED-resistant vehicles. Huge investments were essentially sunk into a morass of corruption – both that of the U.S. defense-industrial establishment as well as that of allies – leaving American troops less prepared to face the PLA. Finally, almost every major conflict the U.S. has engaged in has increased its military commitments abroad. Today, more than 75 years after the end of the Second World War, the U.S. still has 80,000 troops in Europe, a continent clearly wealthy enough to defend itself. Similarly, the U.S. devotes not one but two multi-billion dollar aircraft carriers to face off against Iran’s tiny-by-comparison naval forces. These forces are irrelevant in a conflict against China, and even if they could be released from their current commitments it would take much time and money to reposition them anywhere near the Pacific.
While the average U.S. service member likely has significantly more experience than their Chinese counterpart, they have also spent the last several decades essentially learning the wrong lessons. Engaging in low-intensity counterinsurgency conflicts are fundamentally different from full-scale wars against peer adversaries. While some skills clearly translate (for example, one positive outcome of the Global War on Terror has been a vastly improved MEDEVAC system), most do not. In some ways, this counterinsurgency experience is worse than having no experience because the military has to force troops to un-learn the lessons they learned in Iraq and Afghanistan. The last time the U.S. fought anything close to the conventional peer-to-peer war conflict with China would consist of was in 1991, in the First Gulf War. It essentially steamrolled over Saddam Hussein’s brittle and anemic forces, but any conflict with China will not nearly be as easy.
While almost no PLA troops have direct combat experience, their military theorists are hard at work learning lessons from wars fought by other countries. For example, the PLA discovered the vulnerability of ships to missiles by closely following the Falklands War, which is today reflected by their considerable arsenal of anti-ship missiles. Interestingly enough, the U.S. experience gained in the First Gulf War created a panic mentality within the PLA that their forces could be similarly defeated. The end result was significant reforms that improved the PLA’s ability to counter American technological advantages. Thus, despite being inexperienced itself the PLA has managed to relatively cheaply ensure its doctrine is updated. China has also rotated large numbers of troops – more than 40,000 – through UN peacekeeping operations, in part to gain combat experience without starting wars.
In conclusion, many commentators confidently repeat a misconception that the U.S. military outclasses the PLA due to its superior experience. They do not realize that due to the opportunity costs entailed in earning this experience, the way this experience was generated, and China’s efforts to mitigate its own lack of experience, this advantage is more myth than reality. This speaks to not only American overconfidence but also a fundamental problem of comparing military forces – while one can sometimes just compare the number and quality of weapons systems each side faces, it is immensely difficult to compare the human factors that often prove crucial in war. One should always be wary of reliance on an unquantifiable variable that supposedly proves superiority; many armies that have lost major wars were confident that their supposed superior spirit would win the day. This fact should serve as a sober reminder of just how tenuous the military balance between the U.S. and its largest military rival really is and should also serve to increase preparations to maintain an American edge.