U.S. Naval Institute
China's Desert Storm Education
China took lessons from Operation Desert Storm and remade itself with foreign technology to build a formidable joint military force with expeditionary ambitions.
By Commander Michael Dahm, U.S. Navy (Retired)
THE 1991 GULF WAR was a harbinger of change for the Chinese military. In just 42 days, a United States–led coalition eviscerated the Iraqi military and expelled it from Kuwait. Before Operation Desert Storm, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was aware of its shortcomings relative to the West, but the war underscored the magnitude of the problem. The similarities between the PLA and the vanquished Iraqi military—an army-centric force organized for a defensive campaign—created a sense of urgency, as Beijing realized its military was ill-prepared to face a modern foe like the United States. The transformations in Chinese military strategy, technology, and force structure born out of the Gulf War have been seismic, shifting the balance of power in East Asia and portending global challenges for the U.S. military.
The 30th anniversary of the Gulf War is an appropriate time to examine where the PLA was three decades ago and what it may become. Chinese President Xi Jinping recently set a goal for the PLA to become a “world class military” by 2049, the centennial of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. What the U.S. military accomplished in Operation Desert Storm certainly represents a world-class standard in terms of joint force, expeditionary operations. Well before Xi’s edict to achieve this status, however, China understood its military needed a complete overhaul to achieve three outcomes: a joint force featuring a substantially improved air force and navy; precision-strike capabilities; and a modern command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR) system. As impossible as those lofty goals may have seemed in 1991, in just a few decades, the PLA has made stunning progress toward them.
Chinese researchers have referred to the Gulf War as the “epitome” of information warfare.1 Alongside stealth, precision-strike, and joint operational capabilities, the war showcased psychological operations, electronic warfare, and computer network operations. PLA lessons learned from the Gulf War led almost inevitably to China’s 2004 shift in military strategy toward “informationized warfare”—warfare transformed by information—which is still the prevailing form of war that drives PLA force structure and strategy. Informationization and information-control are not a Chinese sideshow, they are central to PLA operational concepts and campaign design.2
The Gulf with Wars Past
Until the Gulf War, Chinese military strategies had been based on a “People’s War” concept—a total war, counterinvasion approach that emphasized large ground formations and national mobilization. Potential strategic adversaries included the United States (following the Korean War) and Soviet forces arrayed along China’s northern border since the 1960s. China’s 1979–91 conflict with Vietnam also primed the PLA for a shift in military strategy.