The Emperor Has No Clothes

Commentary Fear over Chinese aggression dominates the headlines, and most analysts think that China will succeed in any potential invasion. But carefully studying the Russian military reveals similar problems for China and suggests the Chinese military is the emperor with no clothes. Probably the biggest revelation during the Russian invasion of Ukraine has been the utterly dismal performance of the Russian military. For months, analysts wrung their hands at the Russian juggernaut. It had 190,000 soldiers, attacking from three directions using a variety of methods, ranging from amphibious invasions to paratroopers, and that was after its vaunted hybrid (cyber, psychological) warfare would supposedly drop Ukraine into Russia’s lap. Who could stop the Russians?! But it turns out that fuel, poor training, civilians that never touched a rifle before, and a former comedian turned president could make the Russian army look pathetic. In short, the overwhelming impression the conflict has left is that the emperor has no clothes. It is easy to say that Russia was a paper tiger after the fact. But there are just as many warning signs in the same areas to suggest that the Chinese threat is an emperor that has no clothes. Lack of Experience A great deal could be said about Russian and Chinese training. But the short summary is that the Russian soldiers were not well trained—they were poorly motivated and poorly led before the war started, and the stresses of combat only make that worse. The Chinese army faces many of the similar problems, including poor retention of junior officers, leadership that is more worried about making mistakes, and rote training. On a larger scale, the Russian army had experience in swift takeovers in Georgia and the Crimean Peninsula. But it didn’t have experience fighting in a longer campaign. Russian forces took a long time taking the capital city of Grozny during the war in Chechnya. This should have given Russia pause because Ukraine has several cities—like Kharkiv, Kyiv, and Mariupol—that seem even more difficult to capture. And yet, somehow, everyone thought Ukraine would just fall into Russia’s lap. China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has less combat experience than the Russians, and greater obstacles. Simple geography, for example, makes an amphibious invasion tougher than simply driving a tank down the road. And yet Russians are having trouble with a column of tanks that can’t drive to, or around, Kyiv. The Wrong Experience The Russians did have some experience, but it ill-prepared them to suddenly destroy the armed forces of a large country and absorb them. The Russian air experience in Syrian operations was often two-by-two. The failure to gain air superiority in Ukraine has shown they simply don’t have the staff to plan and organize large-scale aerial maneuvers. The small Ukrainian Air Force can engage the pilots one-on-one without being overwhelmed by superior numbers. Once engaged, the pilot training of the Russian Air Force often consisted of rote maneuvers with limited flying hours overall. This makes Russian pilots easy targets for the “Ghost of Kyiv” (whose kills are unverified but believable), as well as easy targets for stingers and manpads that the West supplied Ukraine. Chinese fighter pilots don’t have the experience in a brush war like Russia does, but do have significant problems, including a long and ineffectual training program that “utterly failed” to prepare them for combat. The PLA Air Force only took measures to improve these deficiencies in 2021. Moreover, Chinese jets like the J-20 use inferior engines that have either exploded or required the use of afterburners at the cost of their stealth to reach top speeds. Simply applying air force to air force, without the use of additional ground- or naval-based air defenses, even with a 4 to 1 numbers advantage, won’t suffice. It’s tough to imagine a fresh batch of recruits with a year of good peacetime training, flying inferior jets, suddenly outmatch the Taiwanese pilots flying F-16s over their homeland. And this is assuming the United States won’t intervene by using the extended range sensors of the F-35 or directly engaging with the incomparably trained and experienced fighter pilots flying peerless aircraft. Chinese J-20 stealth fighter jets fly past during a military parade at the Zhurihe training base in China’s northern Inner Mongolia region on July 30, 2017. (STR/AFP/Getty Images) Fear and the Soldier I’ve been saying for years that weapon systems don’t fight wars. They are simply tools employed as dictated by strategy, and used by a soldier, sailor, or airman. Chinese history has examples that show a small number of well-trained soldiers defeating larger forces. The Northern Song Dynasty collapsed on the plains around its capital of Kaifeng. But the Southern Song was safe for over 30 years in the 12th century because of its impressive navy. It had lost most of its northern territory and

The Emperor Has No Clothes

Commentary

Fear over Chinese aggression dominates the headlines, and most analysts think that China will succeed in any potential invasion. But carefully studying the Russian military reveals similar problems for China and suggests the Chinese military is the emperor with no clothes.

Probably the biggest revelation during the Russian invasion of Ukraine has been the utterly dismal performance of the Russian military. For months, analysts wrung their hands at the Russian juggernaut. It had 190,000 soldiers, attacking from three directions using a variety of methods, ranging from amphibious invasions to paratroopers, and that was after its vaunted hybrid (cyber, psychological) warfare would supposedly drop Ukraine into Russia’s lap. Who could stop the Russians?!

But it turns out that fuel, poor training, civilians that never touched a rifle before, and a former comedian turned president could make the Russian army look pathetic. In short, the overwhelming impression the conflict has left is that the emperor has no clothes. It is easy to say that Russia was a paper tiger after the fact.

But there are just as many warning signs in the same areas to suggest that the Chinese threat is an emperor that has no clothes.

Lack of Experience

A great deal could be said about Russian and Chinese training. But the short summary is that the Russian soldiers were not well trained—they were poorly motivated and poorly led before the war started, and the stresses of combat only make that worse. The Chinese army faces many of the similar problems, including poor retention of junior officers, leadership that is more worried about making mistakes, and rote training.

On a larger scale, the Russian army had experience in swift takeovers in Georgia and the Crimean Peninsula. But it didn’t have experience fighting in a longer campaign. Russian forces took a long time taking the capital city of Grozny during the war in Chechnya. This should have given Russia pause because Ukraine has several cities—like Kharkiv, Kyiv, and Mariupol—that seem even more difficult to capture. And yet, somehow, everyone thought Ukraine would just fall into Russia’s lap.

China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has less combat experience than the Russians, and greater obstacles. Simple geography, for example, makes an amphibious invasion tougher than simply driving a tank down the road. And yet Russians are having trouble with a column of tanks that can’t drive to, or around, Kyiv.

The Wrong Experience

The Russians did have some experience, but it ill-prepared them to suddenly destroy the armed forces of a large country and absorb them. The Russian air experience in Syrian operations was often two-by-two. The failure to gain air superiority in Ukraine has shown they simply don’t have the staff to plan and organize large-scale aerial maneuvers.

The small Ukrainian Air Force can engage the pilots one-on-one without being overwhelmed by superior numbers. Once engaged, the pilot training of the Russian Air Force often consisted of rote maneuvers with limited flying hours overall. This makes Russian pilots easy targets for the “Ghost of Kyiv” (whose kills are unverified but believable), as well as easy targets for stingers and manpads that the West supplied Ukraine.

Chinese fighter pilots don’t have the experience in a brush war like Russia does, but do have significant problems, including a long and ineffectual training program that “utterly failed” to prepare them for combat. The PLA Air Force only took measures to improve these deficiencies in 2021.

Moreover, Chinese jets like the J-20 use inferior engines that have either exploded or required the use of afterburners at the cost of their stealth to reach top speeds. Simply applying air force to air force, without the use of additional ground- or naval-based air defenses, even with a 4 to 1 numbers advantage, won’t suffice.

It’s tough to imagine a fresh batch of recruits with a year of good peacetime training, flying inferior jets, suddenly outmatch the Taiwanese pilots flying F-16s over their homeland. And this is assuming the United States won’t intervene by using the extended range sensors of the F-35 or directly engaging with the incomparably trained and experienced fighter pilots flying peerless aircraft.

Epoch Times Photo
Chinese J-20 stealth fighter jets fly past during a military parade at the Zhurihe training base in China’s northern Inner Mongolia region on July 30, 2017. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

Fear and the Soldier

I’ve been saying for years that weapon systems don’t fight wars. They are simply tools employed as dictated by strategy, and used by a soldier, sailor, or airman.

Chinese history has examples that show a small number of well-trained soldiers defeating larger forces. The Northern Song Dynasty collapsed on the plains around its capital of Kaifeng. But the Southern Song was safe for over 30 years in the 12th century because of its impressive navy. It had lost most of its northern territory and faced a massive invasion from the Jurchens, who aimed to finish the job. But the navy broke the pontoon bridge of the invading force, which severed the invading armies’ logistical connection, and this prevented them from retreating to the north side of the river.

The 8,000-man naval force of the Southern Song Dynasty tied down a 100,000-man army for a significant amount of time. A short time later, it faced another engagement. Despite being outnumbered six to one, the Song navy charged into the much larger force, secure in its superior training, and annihilated the opposing fleet. A small number of well-trained forces succeeded in defending their homelands.

But the perception of Chinese supremacy has been built up for a few reasons. Fear sells. Being afraid of the communist Chinese menace and wanting more information about them likely made you click on this article. When the Chinese regime tested a hypersonic missile, Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, called it a “Sputnik moment,” even though the United States is constantly upgrading its already ample and proven missile defense systems. Milley had probably said that because he was hoping for the massive infusion of funding that the space program received.

China has a rather large military, and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has stepped up its aggression with other countries—for example, through its “wolf warrior” diplomacy. The CCP tries to buy its way into influence with the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI, also known as “One Belt, One Road”). It illegally build islands in the South China Sea to claim additional territory. Since 1949, China had border disputes with every one of its neighbors and launched preemptive wars to settle them. The regime has flown planes in Taiwan’s air identification zone dozens of times. It commits genocide against the Uyghurs, oppresses its own people, and encroaches on Hong Kong’s autonomy, among other things. There is reason for caution and preparation against that aggression.

But that aggression doesn’t mean the Chinese military will perform any better than Russia. As I predicted, the Russia invasion would likely look like the disastrous Winter War with Finland. And there are indicators in things like geography, training, and equipment that suggest China might even fare worse.

Unlike most analysts looking at the Russian invasion with fear, we should boldly proclaim that Xi Jinping and the CCP are the emperor with no clothes. The West and Taiwan should maintain a healthy concern over Chinese aggression, but not an irrational fear.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.


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Morgan Deane is a former U.S. Marine, a military historian, and a freelance author. He studied military history at Kings College London and Norwich University. Morgan works as a professor of military history at the American Public University. He is a prolific author whose writings include "Decisive Battles in Chinese History," "Dragon’s Claws with Feet of Clay: A Primer on Modern Chinese Strategy," and the forthcoming, "Beyond Sunzi: Classical Chinese Debates on War and Government." His military analysis has been published in Real Clear Defense and Strategy Bridge, among other publications.