US Army Views Chinese Military Tactics

08.23.21 | 3 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

How would China fight a war against the US?

A new US Army publication sets out to answer that question, offering a detailed account of the military tactics China could employ. See Chinese Tactics, Army Techniques Publication (ATP) 7-100.3, August 9, 2021.

The 250-page document is mainly intended to help provide a realistic basis for training of US forces. But in doing so it sheds some new light on China’s military forces, at least as they are perceived by US military observers. It is based primarily on open sources.

“This publication presents PLA [People’s Liberation Army] military theory largely as written and prescribed by the PLAA [PLA Army],” the manual says. “Real world practices of PLA units are . . . generally not included as part of the analysis underpinning this document.”

The description of Chinese military tactics is necessarily speculative to some extent. “The PLA has not participated in an active conflict in nearly half a century, so real-world applications are minimal. [But] available information on Chinese military training exercises and the few recent examples of conflict seem to indicate that PLA practices — including those of the PLAA — conform closely to its military theory.”

As for the command structure of the Chinese military, it “is complex and opaque to outsiders. . . . There are no fewer than ten different national-level command organizations in China, organized across at least three different levels of a complex hierarchy.”

“Deception plays a critical role in every part of the Chinese approach to conflict,” according to the document. “Rather than focusing on defeating the opponent in direct conflict — as most Western militaries do — [Chinese military] stratagems consider deception, trickery, and other indirect, perception-based efforts to be the most important elements of an operation.”

*    *    *

The current volume on China is the second in a new Army series on foreign military tactics. A previous volume on North Korean Tactics (ATP 7-100.2) was published last year. Two more volumes on Russian Tactics (ATP 7-100.1) and Iranian Tactics (ATP 7-100.4) are expected to appear later this year.

While unclassified, “these assessments are based on the most up-to-date information available,” wrote Army intelligence specialist Jennifer Dunn (“Training Today’s Army for Tomorrow’s Threats,” Military Intelligence Professional Bulletin, Oct-Dec 2020). “Subject matter experts within the Department of Defense and intelligence communities have vetted them, ensuring their veracity and applicability to the greater Army training and intelligence community.”

“It is also essential for the Army, especially for the regionally aligned elements, to thoroughly understand the adversary they are most likely to encounter in future conflicts,” she wrote, in an unwitting paraphrase of Sun Tzu’s famous dictum about knowing the enemy.

*    *    *

The US government can and should do far more to produce such open source materials on national security and foreign policy, say some members of Congress. A bill (HR 4747) sponsored by Rep. Joaquin Castro and several bipartisan colleagues, would create a new “Open Translation and Analysis Center (OTAC).”

“OTAC would be charged with translating into English important open source foreign-language material from the People’s Republic of China, Russia, and other countries of strategic interest,” according to a July 28 news release. “The translated material would be available on a public website, serving as a key resource for the U.S. and allied governments, media outlets, and academics and analysts around the world.”

“Along with translations, OTAC would provide information to help readers understand the meaning and significance of the published material. It would also produce key analyses of translated material to enhance the understanding of the governments and political systems it covers.”

For decades the US intelligence community provided open source materials to the public through the CIA’s Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS). But that mission has been abandoned by US intelligence and the Open Source Enterprise, the successor to FBIS, has gone completely dark as far as the public is concerned.