#3 - On the Use of 火 in the 国
喷火器 - Pen1 Huo3 Qi4 – Flamethrower
An overlooked news item from last year piqued Vermilion’s interest recently. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) is one of the very few countries which still fields flamethrower equipment, specifically with combat engineer units. The fact that this flamethrower capability has survived multiple rounds of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) military modernization is telling. There are many types of military flame weapons, including firebombs, mechanized flame projectors, fire mines, improvised incendiary devices (think IEDs but with fire), and fire rockets but for this post we will explore the man-portable flamethrower.
The portable flamethrower has a few unique characteristics. First, the fuel ammo used may be thickened or unthickened. Thickened fuel ammo is shot as a rod of flame from the projector, traveling usually around twice as far as the unthickened material. Thickened also sticks to skin and clothing, much like napalm. Another unusual quality is that thickened shot can ricochet off walls and rocks to hit positions not directly in the gunner’s line of sight, ideal for urban operations.
Unthickened fuel ammo shoots out in billows, taking up a larger surface area. While these clouds of fire have half the range of the thickened shot, they burn up more oxygen. While it is plain to see that flamethrowers can set the enemy on fire, the other major method of inflicting casualties is to shoot into confined spaces like bunkers, rooms, and caves. The flamethrower has the potential to burn most of the oxygen up in the enclosed space, asphyxiating everyone inside. Unthickened shot is better for this task. It is also more effective against troops in open air fortifications like foxholes and trenches.
Flamethrower gunners may also fire a hot shot or a cold shot. The hot shot is what everyone already has a vivid mental image of: a hardened soldier or Marine lighting up an enemy position with liquid fire streaming from the projector wand. A lesser-known method of employment is the cold shot, where the gunner shoots fuel out onto a bunker, building, or armored vehicle. The gunner then waits for the fuel to seep deeper into the target and afterwards, hits the cold shot with a hot shot, causing a far deadlier conflagration.
Why do infantry units employ flamethrowers? According to United States Army Field Manual 20-33 Combat Flame Operations (published July 1978), it seems because they are highly effective at two things. First, for closing the very last distance before engaging in close combat. A wall of fire is quite an effective tool to suppress an enemy position in the final moments before assault. Second, the psychological effect of flame weapons was evidently quite high historically. Understandably, troops often flee well-prepared positions or surrender before taking the chance of being burned alive. Winning without fighting is the acme of success, so it would seem the flamethrower had been an especially useful tool throughout the 20th century.
In which combat missions might the PLA plan on using portable flamethrowers? Likely any mission that requires infantry to be in close proximity to fortifications, urban areas, or mountainous regions. According to unverified reports, in 2015 the PLA deployed flamethrower troops to assault “separatists” defending caves in Xinjiang. While other methods of assault failed, the flamethrower forced the opponents to move out of cover.
Flamethrowers would also clearly be useful against defensive works in the amphibious invasion of the Republic of Taiwan, both on the main island as well as the outlying islands of Kinmen [金门] and the Matsu archipelago [马祖列岛]. All of these areas feature multi-decade investments in defensive fortifications.
Qionglin Civil Defense Tunnel [瓊林戰鬥坑道 / 琼林战斗坑道] Located on Kinmen [金门]
Taiwan also looms large when considering PLA urban combat missions. If red forces make it across the fortified beach, they will quickly need to contend with the massive task of subduing Taiwan’s sizable cities. Defenders dug into cities have historically been able to inflict very high casualties on attackers, and the PLA likely sees the flamethrower as key to driving the Republic of China (ROC)/Taiwan Army from their well-prepared positions and saving a good number of PLA lives.
If the PLA are able to hold Taiwan’s beaches and cities, they will be in control of the most important political objectives in a Taiwan campaign. However, ROC forces and the Taiwan people may choose to continue the fight, taking refuge in the enormous mountains that run along Taiwan’s spine. Here again, flamethrowers would be very useful in ferreting out Taiwan resistance hidden amongst the caves, crags, and highland bunkers scattered across the ridges. This is an indicator that the PLA may have given planning consideration to facing down a long-term asymmetric insurgent threat on the island.
Another important mission for the PLA in mountainous terrain is attacking across and defending the line of actual control (LAC) against India. Here is another set of mountain fortifications that the PLA may have to reduce, easier done with flamethrowers than without.
Finally, all of this flamethrower equipment may eventually be mated to unmanned platforms and deployed as an operator-led or autonomous swarm. An advancing wave of flamethrower drones acting as scouts and bunker-burners for the first wave of infantry sounds like it may be a sound tactic in 21st century warfare.
Consequences for Strategic Competition:
It seems the PLA has given serious planning consideration to which weapons systems would be most effective on the ground in a Taiwan scenario, international opinion be damned. This should surprise no one. While the US is caught in limbo on its own Taiwan policy, let alone force structure and equipment for warfighting on the island, the PLA plans and advances. Beijing is carefully crafting a credible capability. This gives Beijing the dual advantage of possessing both a warfighting advantage and an edge in being believable when messaging threats about Taiwan declaring independence.