June 06, 2019

Beating the Americans at Their Own Game

An Offset Strategy with Chinese Characteristics


During the Cold War, the U.S. military relied on technological superiority to “offset” the Soviet Union’s advantages in time, space, and force size. Our military-technical edge allowed the U.S. Joint Force to adopt force postures and operational concepts that largely compensated for the Soviet military’s numerical conventional advantage without needing to match it man-for-man or tank-for-tank. After the Cold War ended, this same military-technical advantage provided the U.S. military a decisive conventional overmatch against regional adversaries for over two decades.

Chinese technological capabilities are growing as rapidly as its economic power. The Soviets were never able to match, much less overcome, America’s technological superiority. The same may not be true for China.

Now, however, the “rogue” regional powers that have preoccupied U.S. attention for so long have been replaced by two great powers with substantially greater capabilities. A resurgent and revanchist Russia and a rising, increasingly more powerful China are taking aggressive actions that threaten regional security and stability and challenge the existing international order. Without question, of these two great-power competitors, China poses the greater challenge over the long term. Since about 1885, the United States never has faced a competitor or even group of competitors with a combined Gross Domestic Product (GDP) larger than its own. China surpassed the United States in purchasing power parity in 2014 and is on track to have the world’s largest GDP in absolute terms by 2030. In comparison, our Cold War adversary, the Soviet Union, was hobbled by unsustainable economic contradictions that ultimately crumbled under pressure. At the height of its power, its GDP was roughly 40 percent the size of the United States’.

The United States has not faced a competitor with a GDP greater than 40 percent of its own since 1885. (2) According to 2017 figures, China’s economy measured roughly 63 percent of the U.S. economy when comparing GDP. (3)

If that is not concerning enough for U.S. strategic planners, Chinese technological capabilities are growing as rapidly as its economic power. The Soviets were never able to match, much less overcome, America’s technological superiority. The same may not be true for China—certainly not for lack of trying. Indeed, China is keenly focused on blunting the U.S. military’s technological superiority, even as it strives to achieve technological parity, and eventually technological dominance.

Chinese strategists do not explicitly describe their aims in this manner. Nevertheless, after considering what the Chinese military has accomplished technologically in little more than two decades and what they plan to do in the decades to come, any objective assessment must at least consider the possibility that the U.S. Joint Force is close to becoming the victim of a deliberate, patient, and robustly resourced military-technical offset strategy. The purpose of this paper is to describe this strategy and outline its key lines of effort.

U.S. Cold War Offset Strategies

Since World War II, the United States has relied on a decisive edge in the military-technical balance to offset the numerical advantage in conventional forces often enjoyed by its adversaries and competitors. This preference grew out if its experience fighting the Axis powers. Dwight Eisenhower put it well, saying shortly after World War II, “While some of our Allies were compelled to throw up a wall of flesh and blood as their chief defense against the aggressors’ onslaught, we were able to use machines and technology to save lives.”

With respect to state-on-state warfare, a military-technical advantage contributes to a comfortable conventional military overmatch at the tactical and operational levels of war. And the stronger the perceived conventional overmatch, the stronger one’s conventional deterrence posture. Having a decisive overmatch is especially important when confronting nuclear-armed great powers, where a weakened conventional deterrence could prompt more aggressive strategic probing that might lead to an overt confrontation, with the attendant risks of nuclear escalation.

The late Secretary of Defense Harold Brown (pictured here), together with Director for Defense Research and Engineering William Perry, recognized in the 1970s the need for a Second Offset Strategy, which centered around the revolution in precision-guided conventional munitions. (Department of Defense)

During the Cold War, the Soviet Union pursued a deterrent approach reliant on overwhelming numbers in conventional forces, embodied in the old military adage that “quantity has a quality all of its own.” But from the outset of the Cold War, President Eisenhower refused to pay the economic penalty associated with trying to match the Soviet Union man-for-man or tank-for-tank. Instead, Ike leaned on his World War II experience—as well as the early U.S. nuclear monopoly—to confront Soviet conventional numerical superiority with a smaller military armed with missiles, rockets, and artillery shells tipped with low-yield atomic warheads. In other words, Eisenhower turned to battlefield atomic weapons to deter a Warsaw Pact conventional attack. This was America’s first Cold War Offset Strategy.

By the early 1970s, the deterrent power of the First Offset Strategy was being undermined by two developments. The first was that the Soviet Union’s nuclear arsenal was every bit as powerful as that of the United States. Under these circumstances, early use of tactical nuclear weapons was no longer a credible threat; the danger of nuclear escalation was simply too great. Second, during the 1960s and 1970s the Soviets modernized their already numerically superior conventional assault forces arrayed along the inter-German border, adding thousands of new tanks, armored personnel carriers, air-defense missiles, aircraft, and artillery that were qualitatively equal to their NATO counterparts.

Secretary of Defense Harold Brown and William Perry, his Director for Defense Research and Engineering, therefore concluded NATO’s deterrent posture was eroding, and drastic action was needed to restore it. One idea was to attack and reduce the massed Warsaw Pact tank armies before they reached NATO’s front-line defenses, making it more likely those defenses could hold. Brown and Perry thus looked to several emerging technologies then under development to give the U.S. Joint Force and its NATO allies the ability to “look deep and shoot deep.” The result of these efforts is now referred to as the Second Offset Strategy.

The Second Offset Strategy was the offspring of the Pentagon’s Long-Range Research and Development Planning Program (LRRDPP). After considering and rejecting a new family of nuclear weapons and studying the use of conventional guided munitions in Vietnam and the Middle East, the members of the LRRDPP concluded that the United States should pursue conventional weapons capable of “near zero miss.” Their report was complemented by a 1976 Defense Science Board study that proposed developing a “deep strike system” able to target and attack Warsaw Pact forces still far from NATO front lines with conventional guided munitions dispensing tank killing sub-munitions.

Airborne targeting radar, such as that provided by the E-8 Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System, underwrote the Second Offset Strategy’s deep strike kill chain. (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency)

In 1978, Perry directed the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to integrate the various deep strike technologies and demonstrate their battlefield potential. The resulting “Assault Breaker” program combined the Pave Mover airborne targeting radar, missiles, and air-delivered bombs with guided anti-armor submunitions, and a ground-based data processing station that linked the two. The data processing or “attack coordination center” was derived from the joint services’ developmental Battlefield Exploitation and Target Acquisition (BETA) project—an early attempt to demonstrate the feasibility of processing tactical battlefield information, fusing it into actionable intelligence, and passing accurate targeting information in near-real time to Army missile attack units.

All these components came together in 1982, when Assault Breaker demonstrated on a small scale what U.S. force designers now refer to as an operational battle network employing conventional guided munitions. And, as historian Norman Friedman noted, Assault Breaker was nothing less than a disaster for Soviet strategists who now “believed that their American rivals were scientific magicians; what they said they could do, they could do.” The Soviet General Staff concluded the appearance of operational battle networks that employed guided munitions— what they called reconnaissance-strike complexes—had triggered a new military-technical revolution. In this new warfighting regime, accurately directed conventional guided munitions could achieve battlefield effects comparable with tactical nuclear weapons. Its emergence thus helped strengthen NATO’s conventional deterrence and end the Cold War without the need for a major NATO force buildup. As Brown put it: “[the U.S.] is better at technology than we are at mass.”

A U.S. F-14A Tomcat aircraft flies over an oil well fire set by retreating Iraqi troops during Operation Desert Storm. The brief ground war demonstrated the might of U.S. operational battle networks to both the U.S. Joint Force and its adversaries. (Lt. Steve Gozzo, Department of Defense)

Thankfully, the U.S. military never had to test this proposition in an all-out battle against Soviet forces in Europe. But it did demonstrate the potential power of a guided munitions battle network against a capable Iraqi Army equipped with Russian and Chinese weapons and trained in Soviet doctrine. During Operation Desert Storm in 1991, Iraqi heavy formations were virtually reduced to an array of targets and aim-points waiting to be serviced. The 100-hour ground war that followed five weeks of aerial bombardment with both guided and unguided munitions was a rout. And even though only 8 percent of all conventional weapons employed in battle by the United States were guided, armies the world over immediately grasped that a new military paradigm had emerged—and the U.S. Joint Force had a powerful conventional warfighting advantage that would be hard to duplicate, much less match in scope and scale.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, the Second Offset Strategy served the U.S. military well; it afforded the Joint Force a dominant conventional overmatch over any potential regional opponent for more than two decades. But the nature of strategic competitions is that serious competitors do not simply cede military advantage to their rivals. This is especially true of emerging and great powers, which understood if they were to compete against U.S. operational battle networks they would have to develop a counter to them first, and then develop reconnaissance-strike complexes of their own. That is exactly what China, determined to break from its status as a second-rate military power, set out to accomplish.

An Offset Strategy with Chinese Characteristics

Although China was a de facto strategic partner of the United States during the latter two decades of the Cold War, the collapse of the Soviet Union automatically made the United States the pacing strategic threat for Chinese military planners. Soon thereafter, in 1993, with America’s impressive demonstration of military might in Desert Storm fresh in mind, President Jiang Zemin directed the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to prepare to fight “local wars under high technology conditions.” He did not have to name the country that represented the most likely potential adversary; the recent stunning results of Desert Storm made that plain.

A PLA parade commemorates the force’s 90th anniversary in September 2017. The PLA’s massive modernization programs seek to counter U.S. technological advantages. (Defense Intelligence Agency)

Planning for local wars under high technology conditions would be shaped by two key assumptions, First, the wars would be limited in geographic scope, duration, and objectives. Second, the wars would be dominated by high-technology weaponry, particularly by guided weapon attacks like those demonstrated during Desert Storm. The implications of these two assumptions focused the subsequent development of PLA strategy and doctrine on short, intense, highly destructive wars. And a key lesson China took from the 1991 Desert Storm campaign was to strike hard and fast during war’s earliest stages, as initiative once lost would be all but impossible to regain against an opponent capable of 24-hour, all-weather guided munitions bombardment.

From the very beginning, then, although not referred to in such a way, the Chinese decided to develop an offset strategy with Chinese characteristics. Instead of pursuing an offset to counter U.S. numerical advantages, it would instead aim to offset the American technological advantage in some way. These plans were given new urgency due to American actions early in the post–Cold War era. In 1996, in response to Chinese missile tests over and into the waters surrounding Taiwan, the United States assembled the biggest naval show of force in the Western Pacific since Vietnam. It sent two carrier battle groups steaming through the Taiwan Strait, demonstrating in vivid fashion that the Chinese were incapable of even tracking U.S. naval surface groups, let alone possessing the means to stop a U.S. intervention to defend Taiwan. Then, on 7 May 1999, during the NATO bombing campaign against Serbia, the US. forces dropped five guided bombs on the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, killing three Chinese citizens and wounding another 20. The United States apologized for the incident, saying it had provided the bombs with incorrect coordinates. The Chinese rejected the apology, believing U.S. joint battle networks incapable of making such a mistake.

PRC Defense Expenditures (16): Annual Chinese defense spending jumped by at least 620 percent in real terms between 1996 and 2015—an average annual increase of 11 percent.

Both national humiliation and anger caused Chinese leaders to accelerate their plans to offset the U.S. military-technical advantage. But the events in the Taiwan Strait and over Yugoslavia underscored to Chinese military planners just how far they had to go before they could hope to face the U.S. Joint Force on equal footing. Their sensor grids were incapable of long-range targeting; their command, control, communications, and intelligence (C3I) grids were incapable of sensor fusion and directing effects-based operations; and their effects grids relied almost entirely on unguided or unsophisticated guided weapons. Fixing all these problems would take time.

With the benefit of hindsight, then, it seems evident a critical aspect of China’s offset strategy was the recognition in the mid-1990s by PLA senior leadership that they were engaged in a long-term military-technical competition with the United States, and their strategic aims would necessarily be achieved through a series of distinct temporal phases:

  • Phase One would see the Chinese military compete with the United States from a position of technological inferiority. Chinese military writings in the late 1990s and early 2000s explored and emphasized ways to defeat a more technologically advanced adversary, until such time that their modernization efforts were able to narrow the advantages enjoyed by the U.S. military. In particular, the PLA would have to accommodate some period of time in which it lacked “deep and multidirectional strike capabilities” comparable to those of the U.S. military.
  • Phase Two would occur when the Chinese achieved a position of rough technological parity in guided munitions and battle network warfare, making it far more likely China might be able to deter a U.S. military intervention in the East Asian littoral.
  • And Phase Three would represent the desired end state, when the Chinese military would establish a position of outright technological superiority over U.S. military forces, enabling the PLA to confidently move out of its first island chain bastion and push U.S. forces out to the second island chain and even beyond.

The temporal phasing of China’s military-technical offset strategy would be supported by a sustained, robust increase in Chinese military spending. Annual Chinese defense spending jumped by at least 620 percent in real terms between 1996 and 2015—an average annual increase of 11 percent. Such a massive increase in military spending was bound to translate into real improvements in military capability and capacity. But these improvements proved strikingly more effective because the PLA’s prioritization of approaches, systems and forces were shaped and guided by a disciplined and coherent military-technical offset strategy. The focus of that strategy was to dramatically raise the costs to the United States of intervening in Chinese military operations in the Western Pacific so that Washington would deem such action prohibitive. In this regard, an analysis of the precise investments made by the PLA since 1996 suggests China’s offset strategy has five reinforcing lines of effort. These are:

  • Industrial and technical espionage and civil-military fusion to rapidly acquire comparable military capabilities to those developed over decades by the United States so that the PLA could compete operationally on something approaching an even footing.
  • Developing the capabilities and concepts to conduct “systems destruction warfare,” —the crippling of the U.S. battle network’s command, control, communication, and intelligence systems.
  • Attacking effectively first by amassing an arsenal of long-range precision missiles and advanced targeting systems that provide a high probability of penetrating U.S. battle network defenses in the opening stages of a conflict.
  • Developing “Assassin’s Mace” capabilities—what DoD terms “black capabilities”—that are held in reserve until unveiled in the event of war, to surprise the adversary with attacks from unexpected vectors.
  • Becoming the world leader in artificial intelligence and then deploying that technology for military superiority.

The following sections address each of these lines of effort in turn.

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  1. Andrew F. Krepinevich, Preserving the Balance: A U.S. Eurasia Defense Strategy (Washington: Center for Stra-tegic and Budgetary Assessments, 2017), 38-43; Mike Bird, “China Just Overtook the US as the World’s Largest Economy,” Business Insider, October 28, 2014, https://www.businessinsider.com/china-overtakes-us-as-worlds-largest-economy-2014-10; and Nicholas Krapels, “When Will China’s economy overtake America’s,” Quora, https://www.quora.com/When-will-Chinas-economy-overtake-Americas. China faces significant challenges on its way to the world’s largest economy. For a balanced appraisal of their economic trajectory, see International Monetary Fund, Asia and Pacific Department, Country Report, People’s Republic of China, https://www.imf.org/en/Publications/CR/Issues/2018/07/25/Peoples-Republic-of-China-2018-Article-IV-Consultation-Press-Release-Staff-Report-Staff-46121.
  2. Krepinevich, “Preserving the Balance,” 39.
  3. “GDP (current US$)” The World Bank, 2017, https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GDP.MKTP.CD?end=2017&locations=EU-US-CN&start=2017&view=bar.
  4. Dwight Eisenhower, Notes for address to the Industrial Associations, Chicago, 1947, Eisenhower Presidential Library, https://www.eisenhower.archives.gov/all_about_ike/speeches.html.
  5. This thinking was in line with President Eisenhower’s New Look Strategy, which relied on America’s then-nuclear superiority to deter a general war with the Soviet Union. For a detailed discussion of this strategy, see Richard M. Leighton, Office of the Secretary of Defense, Strategy, Money, and the New Look, 1953–1956 (Washington: Historical Office, Office of the Secretary of Defense, 2001).
  6. Edward Keefer and Harold Brown, Offsetting the Soviet Military Challenge, 1977–1981 (Washington: Secretaries of Defense Historical Series, Historical Office of the Secretary of Defense, 2017), 576.
  7. Final Report of the Advanced Technology Panel, ARPA/DNA Long Range Research and Development Planning Program, 30 April 30, 1975, vii; DARPA Technical Accomplishments Institute for Defense Analyses, April 1991, Volume II, 4-5.
  8. Barry D. Watts, Six Decades of Guided Munitions and Battle Networks: Progress and Prospects (Washington: Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, 2007), 28-30; DARPA Technical Accomplishments, Institute for Defense Analyses, April 1991, vol. II, 4-5. Assault Breaker demonstrated on a small scale the three interlocking grids of any battle network: Pave Mover was the surrogate for a multi-phenomenology sensor grid to observe the battle space; the BETA ground processing node was the surrogate for a C3I grid to make sense of the observations and data coming from the sensor grid, determine the effects desired to further campaign objectives, develop and select courses of action, and disseminate orders; and the missiles represented effects grid, which employs and directs the application of both kinetic and nonkinetic effects in accordance with direction from the C3I grid. A fourth grid – a sustainment and regeneration grid that supports all three of the aforementioned grids and keeps them functioning during combat operations – was not demonstrated in Assault Breaker.
  9. Quoted in Colin Gray, Strategy for Chaos: Revolutions in Military Affairs and the Evidence of History, (London: Routledge, 2004), 218.
  10. Watts, Six Decades,14.
  11. Roger Cliff et al, Entering the Dragon’s Lair: Chinese Anti-access Strategies and Their Implications for the United States (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2007), 21.
  12. Ibid., 19-23.
  13. J. Michael Cole, “The Third Taiwan Strait Crisis: the Forgotten Showdown between China and America,” National Interest, March 10, 2017, https://nationalinterest.org/feature/the-third-taiwan-strait-crisis-the-forgotten-showdown-19742.
  14. Ironically, this was the only target in the entire campaign organized and directed by the Central Intelligence Agency. The CIA was aiming at what it thought was the Yugoslav Federal Directorate for Supply and Procurement. The Agency was on the same street, but at a different location.
  15. Cliff, Dragon’s Lair, 23-25.
  16. “Military Expenditure (current USD), China,” The World Bank, 2017, https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/MS.MIL.XPND.CD?end=2017&locations=CN&start=1989&view=chart.
  17. See “Strategic Principles for Defeating a Technologically Superior Adversary” in Cliff, Dragon’s Lair, 27-44.
  18. Eric Heginbotham et al., The U.S.-China Military Scorecard: Forces Geography, and the Evolving Balance of Power, 1996–2017, (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2015), 26.


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