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Red Letters #1
Many of our readers reach out to us about China-related issues and we’ve found that most are concerned about the same things and have similar questions. We’ve decided to turn this Q&A into a series called “Red Letters” and we will publish new “letters” as questions come in. If you have any questions that you would like us to answer, please send us a message.
Stationed in Okinawa. Do you think the PLA will strike the island? Some say yes, others say no.
This is an interesting question. It depends on two factors. First, does Beijing think US involvement is unavoidable or not? Second, does the PLA remain true to its enemy-focused doctrine?
If Beijing believes the US is going to join a war over Taiwan no matter what, then it may see surprise strikes on Okinawa as necessary to winning the conflict quickly. Even if the US is not involved at the outset, if it becomes involved, Beijing will likely feel the need to destroy airbases on Okinawa to ensure they can conduct an invasion of Taiwan unhindered.
The PLA historically prefers to focus on destroying enemy forces over seizing key terrain. Under this kind of thinking, the PLA may believe it must seize Okinawa before or while simultaneously conducting a Taiwan campaign, destroying and capturing Marines and SOF on the island in order to allow for complete control of airbases and ports.
What is the PLA’s achilles heel?
Perhaps the concentration of authority into the hands of officers. It is a question of whether or not the PLA is decentralized enough to effectively fight using the “modern system.” Stephen Biddle did great work outlining this philosophy in his book “Military Power.” He identifies six key competencies that lead modern militaries to victory (in the offense) - cover, concealment, dispersion, small-unit independent maneuver, suppression, and combined arms integration.
The PLA is likely competent at cover, concealment, and suppression, and they are actively working to address gaps in combined arms integration. We’ll see if this bears any fruit. The real weakness here is small-unit independence. It is unlikely that standard PLA infantry companies are good at this and it is unlikely that the PLA will give small-unit leaders the freedom they need to improve. We can see that Xi is actively working on ideological tightening within the PLA. It is unknown whether or not this is an attempt to create ideological cohesion at lower levels of the PLA that will make leadership comfortable with giving units more tactical flexibility.
Is the US better defended against intellectual theft since the days of F-35 tech loss?
The US is likely only marginally better off if at all. Keep in mind that the CCP was a political party first, an intelligence organization second, an army third, and only in charge of a country at the very end. It was the CCP’s excellence in intelligence operations that allowed it to avoid extermination by the KMT. It was excellence in intelligence that allowed the CCP to avoid Japanese and KMT offensives before, during, and after WWII. It is excellence in intelligence that allows the CCP to control their own people and keep foreign observers from understanding what is happening domestically in China.
The CCP is just better in certain aspects of intelligence than the US for a number of deep reasons. This is not to say that the US is bad at intelligence, it is arguably the best in the world considering all aspects of intelligence, but China is almost certainly better in the human element, counterintelligence, and penetrating open societies. China can also rely on networks of individuals coerced or co-opted into cooperating with the CCP. In contrast to this, there are few Americans living permanently in China.
What role will Special Operations Forces (SOF) play in a war limited to the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd island chains?
SOF will likely have their hands full in a fight along the First Island Chain. As shown by the Ukraine War, a large number of SOF on all sides will simply be required to conduct counter-SOF/counter-Recon for the conventional ground force. US SOF will likely be busy with advise, assist, accompany, and enable missions. Tier 1 SOF on all sides will likely be involved in deep sabotage operations, something not really done since WWII. Unconventional warfare against China may also be required if the US gets deeply involved. National decision makers (especially on the Chinese and Taiwanese sides) when extremely nervous about losing a particular battle or piece of territory, will also likely have a tendency to deploy SOF as infantry in order to stave off desperate situations.
Tanker here. Interested in the China issue, but not sure what armored brigade combat teams (ABCTs) can do in Taiwan. Thoughts?
In the contact layer, Taiwanese and Japanese armored units will need some help, so think of US armor officers and SNCOs serving as advisors. Also, as we saw during the CSIS wargame, armor is critical to defense and offense on Taiwan, especially when defending or attacking/breaching the multiple rivers running east to west. The Taiwan government almost certainly believes that armor will play an important role in a war and purchased 108 M1A2T (modified version of the SEPv2) Abrams. If US armor units aren’t stationed on Taiwan in the future, they will likely be part of the surge layer.
Don’t listen to people saying that protected, mobile, direct firepower has no role in the Indo-Pacific. The PLA is likely planning on using the Type-15 (ZTQ-15) in the First Island Chain and the Allies will need to have armor to fight back. Please note that this is not a comment about the USMC’s Force Design 2030 and the divestment of their tank units. They have a unique problem set that we have discussed in other articles.
How big of a deal is it that the US has more combat experience than the PLA?
The active US force likely has less than 20% of personnel with any experience in combat operations. This will diminish every year. This means that if combat experience matters, it must either reside in senior leadership (flag officers and E-9s) or be institutionalized. One issue with US combat experience is that fighting a counterinsurgency is very different from fighting a major conventional war. You can imagine that a US field grade officer fighting in Afghanistan will have a different experience when fighting against a conventional PLA force and the lessons learned from these experiences will not be the same. There will be some overlap in terms of individual actions and dealing with the nature of war, but the character of war in these two environments will be unique to their respective theaters.
As the force transitions to peacetime, it is likely that attrition and retirement of combat veterans in combination with a lack of discipline will lead to lessons learned falling by the wayside. Institutionalization of lessons learned is likely be mediocre at best.
Will the PLA/PLAN use the maritime militia as an insertion agency to project raids beyond the South China Sea area?
The People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia (PAFMM) operates hundreds if not thousands of vessels. These vessels are relatively short ranged, which is why their primary area of operations (AO) is within the First Island Chain (FIC). This includes plenty of areas outside of the South China Sea. PAFMM could conduct operations out of this AO (as they likely have in South America), but at scale it would likely require supporting vessels from state-owned companies (like CNOOC’s oilers). PAFMM could almost certainly insert SOF teams into other countries, but if the initiative is on China’s side, these teams could just fly to target countries on commercial air. The PAFMM’s primary AO will likely be the FIC for the foreseeable future.