China's 'Three Warfares'

A recently released Pentagon study examines how China is preparing for future conflict and it is vastly different from the future wars envisioned by many in the Pentagon.  Over the past decade, many have said the United States was playing checkers during conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan while its adversaries were playing chess; it appears as though America is heading in that direction again.

The new report, obtained by the Free Beacon, identified that China recognizes the limited utility of nuclear and even conventional military force, and to pursue its political objectives, China is preparing for what is called the three warfares:  psychological, media, and legal.  These warfare techniques allow China to achieve strategic objectives using new military technology that has not been considered in the past by the West. The report concludes the Pentagon is not ready to counter these tactics and the White House must take action.

While these approaches may appear to be benign, they are not. Chinese strategists believe that psychological warfare, for example, should be included in any long-term strategy. Nonviolent intimidation, media manipulation, economic sanctions, financial attacks, information isolation, and network attacks are all valid tactics. All three warfares fit neatly into a much broader coercion model.

The American approach to future conflict is best personified by mixed-martial artist Brock Lesnar. Lesnar is big, slow, expensive, and wields devastating power, yet he has achieved mixed results inside the cage.  America’s approach is articulated in the Pentagon’s concept of Air-Sea Battle. Air-Sea Battle is an updated version of the Air-Land Battle strategy for the defense of Europe during the Cold War. Air-Sea Battle fundamentally relies upon the western view of military force, a view succinctly characterized by defense expert Richard Betts’ definition: “killing people and destroying things for some political purpose”.

While China is developing less-lethal approaches to warfare, the Pentagon appears to moving in the opposite direction.  The latest studies have shown that weapon systems are becoming more lethal and some programs have been criticized by Pentagon insiders for not being lethal enough.  Recently, Christine Fox limited the production of a class of Navy ship and demanded a new, more lethal model be built.

This push for greater lethality is occurring during a period of decreased casualties in state-level conflicts. As some foreign policy experts recognize, during World War II hardly any Americans objected to the incineration of hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians, and throughout the Cold War few objected to the principle of killing on an even wider scale in retaliation for a Soviet attack. Today, post-Cold War norms and Pentagon lawyers have put those ideas out of bounds and that type of thinking is no longer deemed legitimate.

This disparity in approaches to conflict may lead to strategic paralysis if America does not explore other options. As renowned military strategist Colin S. Gray remarked, during irregular conflicts in the future the U.S. armed forces “will need to curb their traditional, indeed cultural, love affair with firepower. ”American military leaders must fully consider options below the lethal threshold and create a broad strategy for non-lethal force.  The emerging fields of information-based weapons, wide-area non-lethal weapons, and directed energy weapons may provide policy makers with better options outside the traditional warfighting paradigm.

State-level conflicts are certainly undesirable but history has shown they are largely unavoidable, particularly during periods of power shifts, which appears to be underway in the Asia-Pacific region.  As technology matures, these capabilities could be used as coercive levers on a spectrum between imposing economic sanctions and going to war.  For example, information blockades could be used to limit all forms of electronic communications, wide-area denial weapons could be used to prevent the occupation of disputed territory, and non-lethal force could be used to terminate conflicts and prevent escalation. There are many options and it is likely the most effective ones have yet to be conceptualized.

By comparing Israel’s use of conventional military force against Iraq’s Osirak reactor in 1981 to the use of the Stuxnet computer virus on Iranian nuclear facilities in 2010, it is clear that the way states engage in interstate conflict is evolving.  As technology continues to advance, new military capabilities will emerge.  As some futurists argue, wars will be fought without human fatalities and with far less human involvement. This scenario will make today’s international relations models obsolete.

The White House, Congress and the American public should compare the findings of three warfares report to the current U.S. military strategy. America is headed down a path that may leave it ill-prepared to counter future challenges, particularly as it attempts to maintain its position within the internal system.  As society has witnessed a dramatic transformation from the industrial age to the information age, we should expect to see a commensurate level of change in how we prepare for interstate conflict. Brock Lesnar’s retirement from mixed martial arts should be a harbinger to all.

Robert Kozloski works for the Department of the Navy. The views expressed herein are his alone.