What are the origins of social media? It is hard to say; all media is inherently social in that it shares and conveys information to others beyond what we as individuals can do face-to-face. By this definition, anything presented to a public audience, whether through print, images, TV, radio, electronically, or other means, meets this criterion. In that case, does it begin with Martin Luther’s literal post of the “95 Theses” to the door of a church in Germany in 1517? Or does social media begin in a more contemporary setting in the nascent years of the 21st century, where the medium is the internet in which we “post” information to share our lives with others?
In David Patrikarakos’ book, War in 140 Characters, the definition of social media falls within the content of the latter. My first interaction with social media came in the form of the website Myspace in 8th or 9th grade. I created a Myspace account for a singular reason – everyone else was doing it – and I got my first social media friend, Tom.
What Myspace may have sparked, Facebook perfected. Users can message friends, family, and strangers. They can post images and videos, and other people could tell you how great you were by “liking” your posts. Groups of community interests could form and interact in this virtual forum. In doing so, Mark Zuckerberg had done something unprecedented in that Facebook recreated the affirmation and rejection that face-to-face social interactions would otherwise provide, but in the cyber realm. Nothing provided greater ego inflation than dozens of likes on your post, and nothing hurt more than being “unfriended” by someone.
Since my time in high school, social media has grown, morphed, and evolved into dozens of different styles, platforms, and languages. Twitter, Instagram, QQ, WeChat, WhatsApp, Youtube; the list goes on and on. Unfortunately, as with all things in life, those with a determined motive can pull all sorts of means and materials to their cause. As a military officer, I am hyper-aware and keenly curious as to how this plays out in conflict.
What do you do when you cannot buy missiles? You fly planes into buildings. What do you do when you cannot get C4 explosives? You build bombs out of pressure cookers or fertilizer. What do you do when you cannot acquire firearms? You rent trucks and drive them down pedestrian walkways. The principle is simple: those who wish to engage in conflict or commit acts of violence will always find a way. Social media is no exception to this immutable law of human nature, and David Patrikarakos’ book shows how actors across the world are leveraging and weaponizing social media to their cause.
War in 140 Characters introduces a series of case studies exemplifying the various means by which social media influences the ideas and opinions of a public audience, rallies them to support or confront a cause, while also obfuscating the truth, undermining the credibility of existing institutions, and tipping the balance in a physical battlespace. Patrikarakos’ investigation takes readers into the heart of the fear and sadness of Farah Baker, a 16-year-old Palestinian girl residing in the Gaza Strip during the 2014 Israel-Palestine war. Farah’s tweets, retweeted thousands of times globally, brought to the attention of the global community the effects of the war on her and her family and radically altered public perceptions of who was the aggressor and the victim in the conflict. Farah, a young girl with no weapon nor political position, but rather a single social media persona coined as Homo digitalis, redirected the discourse surrounding the entire conflict and effectively cast Israel as the aggressor in the eyes of the global community. Israeli forces, seeing their loss of global legitimacy, were put on the defensive and had to master the art of the counter-narrative.
Patrikarakos introduces readers to Anna Sandalova, the “Facebook warrior” of Ukraine resisting Russian aggression. “It’s all about networks,” Anna states in an interview with the author. “Facebook is the main tool I use because there is an entire community on there who can find solutions.” Unlike Farah, Anna as Homo digitalis uses the social network to directly influence battlefield conditions. When government institutions become inept, hyper-connected private citizens assume the functions of the state, including waging war. Anna stands in the frigid air of the eastern European winter passing out uniforms sourced from supporters in the West after a plea for aid she posted on Facebook. “They really like the German uniforms. They’re really high quality,” Anna comments as soldiers line up for sizing. Anna posts images of soldiers with new supplies to her Facebook page, bringing faces to otherwise faceless fighters. Moreover, Anna’s posts ensure the benefactors see the results of their donations, ensuring the donations will continue.
War in 140 Characters shines a spotlight on several other Homo digitali whose influence in conflict is something any information warrior must understand. Another is Vitaly Bespalov, an internet troll in Russia’s state-sponsored troll farms whose sole responsibility is to delegitimize the narratives of media outlets and institutions that do not support the official Russian line. Vitaly doctors images, fabricates hoaxes, falsifies facts, and misrepresents truths to create “a post-truth world.” Eliot Higgins, a British uber-gamer turned online investigator, pieced together images posted to social media websites to trace the path of the Russian Buk surface-to-air missile system from the 53rd Brigade of the Moscow Military District based in Kursk, across the Ukrainian border, to the field just outside of the village of Chervonyi Zhovten, where it shot down Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 in 2014. From the comfort of his home in the U.K., Eliot unequivocally proved Russian culpability.
War in 140 Characters was thoroughly enjoyable. Written for a general audience, David Patrikarakos’ writing style is clear, articulate, and replete with vivid detail. His choice in case studies provides breadth and depth to social media’s use in conflict and will capture the reader’s attention through every page. For an information warrior, the work will provide clear ideas for the murky battlefield of social media.
For a non-warrior, it will shock you. When you finish reading, you will want to delete your Facebook, turn off your cable news, unfollow everyone on Twitter, and insist your friends and family do the same. You will realize how pervasive social media is in your life. But on the other hand, perhaps you will be inspired, and endeavor to bring your cause to social media to turn the tides in favor of your struggle. Either way, no one will ever escape social media’s influences, and for Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines, public figures or private citizens, social media is going to be one of the most powerful weapons in any arsenal, and also any adversary’s.
In modern conflict, victory will not go to whose military causes more casualties on the battlefield, but whose story garners more support. Who comes out on top will be heavily influenced on how effectively one aims the social media barrel. And that is on you.
LTJG Robert Solonick is a naval intelligence officer stationed at the Office of Naval Intelligence, Washington, D.C., where he serves as a collections strategist and operations officer. LTJG Solonick has a Master’s Degree in Public Administration from the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University with a concentration in U.S. national security policy and an advanced graduate certificate in post-conflict reconstruction. He and his wife, Mariah Lopez, a ballet instructor, reside in Virginia with their German Sheppard, Cairo. These views are presented in a personal capacity.
Featured Image: “Social Media Marketing Strategy” via Wikimedia Commons.
When Dwight Eisenhower assumed command of Allied forces in Europe in early 1943, he faced a daunting task. Not only did he need to prepare to assault the vaunted Germany army, but he faced a complicated set of command relationships. His three subordinates, Harold Alexander, Arthur Tedder, and Andrew Cunningham, were all British officers. Two of the three were from different services. Moreover, they all outranked him! Later in his life, Eisenhower would define leadership as “the art of getting someone else to do something that you want done because he wants to do it, not because your position of power can compel him to do it, or your position of authority.” Eisenhower’s allied command would test, if not forge, this philosophy. InEisenhower and the Art of Collaborative Leadership, author Kenneth Weisbrode describes Eisenhower’s leadership style both as an Army officer, and later as president.
Two traits stand out in supporting Ike’s “Collaborative Leadership” – his capacity for empathy and his self-discipline. As a middle child in a large family, Eisenhower grew up needing to recognize, adapt to, and shape the feelings of others. In command, he applied these skills. He sometimes reworded messages to subordinates to ensure they had generous interpretations. He spent time in informal conversations with his subordinates outside of meetings to better understand their perspective. As Weisbrode notes, empathy is “not easy in asymmetrical relationships: for the senior there is every incentive to dismiss the views of the less powerful and to get on with things; for the junior there is often thus every incentive to feel undervalued to begrudge this.” The difficulty of displaying empathy highlights the second theme: the importance of personal discipline to Eisenhower’s leadership.
Ike’s particular forte was leading, and keeping together, alliances. Yet, he often complained about exactly that process. In 1942 he wrote in his journal, “My God, how I hate to work by any method that forces me to depend on someone else.” Later he wrote, “What a headache this combined stuff is. We spend our time figuring out how to keep from getting in each other’s way rather than in how to fight the war.” Historians have called Ike’s leadership as president “the hidden hand.” He carefully chose his moments of intervention in discussions so as not to influence them too early, even though he had frequently already thought through the issue at hand.Even his apparently offhand remarks often were not. To so carefully control his own behavior, as well as to excel in work he found frustrating, required immense self-discipline. Perhaps this combination helps explain why, when it flared, his temper was so famous.
While Eisenhower’s understanding of leadership is simple to state, implementing it is less straightforward. The naval service could gain by discussing both of empathy and self-discipline more explicitly in discussions of leadership. We speak of “knowing our people,” but rarely of having empathy for them. The two are similar, but not the same. Empathy requires sensing and understanding the emotions of the other party. Perhaps our general discomfort with emotions explains why we avoid a term that highlights them.
Discipline forms the foundation of any naval organization, but we do not often explicitly acknowledge the challenge of self-discipline. Even Weisbrode does not explicitly speak to the issue despite its frequent appearance in his descriptions. Few people will point out their leader’s failings directly until it is too late. Often, the discipline required is not to restrain oneself from misconduct, but from excessive intervention in the affairs of subordinates. The challenge becomes greater as leaders rise in the ranks, the temptations of authority grow stronger, and they become more confident in their own opinions. A leader’s discipline must be self-discipline.
In summary, while occasionally difficult to follow as it shifts between Eisenhower’s experiences and actions and the philosophy of friendship and leadership, Weisbrode’s short 93-page text provides a leadership study that focuses on less-commonly discussed leadership traits as displayed by one of America’s greatest leaders.
Erik Sand is a Lieutenant Commander in the Navy Reserve and a PhD candidate in the MIT Security Studies Program. The views expressed here do not represent those of U.S. Government, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Navy.
Featured Image: 01/10/1944-Algiers: Prime Minister Winston Churchill,shown here w/ some of the ‘boys’, is smiling for the camera for the first time since his recent illness and donned his famous siren suit and a colorful dressing gown for the occasion. From left to right: General J.F.M. Whitely Air Marshal Sir Arthur W.Tedder, Deputy Commander of the Allied Forces in the European Theater; Admiral Cunningham; Gen.Dwight D.Eisenhower; Gen. Harold Alexander; Prime Minister Churchill; Lt.Gen.Sir Humprey Gale, Gen. Sir Henry Wilson and Gen. Smith.
There is a special challenge in reviewing the fourteenth book in an iconic, best-selling series. The point of a book review is to advise potential readers if they should invest their time and money toward reading the work in question. For true fans of author David Weber, who have thirstily imbibed the first thirteen installments of the Honor Harrington saga, nothing offered in this essay could possibly deter them from immediately engaging with this long-awaited tome.
For those who are not yet smitten by the charms of the science fiction milieu known as the Honorverse, book fourteen, while highly entertaining in its own right, is best experienced as a follow-on to the earlier books in the story. The task of this review is then two-fold; to entice those who have yet to experience David Weber’s art to begin a literary journey that will eventually culminate in the reading of this outstanding book, while at the same time whetting the appetite of the experienced Honorphile before he or she feasts upon Uncompromising Honor.
A Classic and Engrossing Universe
David Weber’s Honorverse consists of fourteen books in the main Honor Harrington series, the four books of the Saganami Island series, the three books of the Crown of Slaves series, and various other short story anthologies, prequels, and novellas. The first book of the Honor Harrington series, On Basilisk Station, introduces the reader to Commander Honor Harrington who serves in the Royal Manticoran Navy during tumultuous times.
The books of the Honor Harrington series explore roughly 22 years of the military, political, and social history of Manticore, its allies, and its adversaries, while following the career of a remarkable woman as she rises through the ranks from command of a light cruiser to service at the highest levels of military and political leadership. The two main companion series explore concurrent events in other parts of the galaxy and provide context and backstory for characters that will eventually impact the main series. While the side series are worthy reading in their own right, they are best experienced as background material to the main storyline.
Several factors combine to make Weber’s books both enjoyable as fiction and profound as works of art. Weber works hard to provide a self-sustaining and consistent universe. As an example, any science fiction has to overcome the problem of the impossibility, as our current understanding of physics dictates, of travelling in excess of the speed of light. David Weber handles this in a well thought-out explanation of “new science” that imposes both capabilities and important limitations on the occupants of his universe. All the fictional technology in the Honorverse is self-consistent and does not allow for easy fixes to wish away problems for either the protagonist or antagonist. Manticore’s technology is superior but not magical, and inventive opponents often craft effective counters.
The wide range of political and social systems extant on the worlds with which Manticore must interact allows Weber to explore many different facets of the human condition. 1900 years after human beings first left Earth in an attempt to colonize habitable planets around the galaxy, a wide variety of social and political structures have arisen on the worlds that humanity now occupies. The Star Kingdom of Manticore is a constitutional monarchy that calls three habitable planets in a binary star system home and maintains a range of alliances with foreign star systems. We discover a planet where the Christian religion ennobles and sustains its population, and another where religious fanaticism has created a planet-wide, Christian version of ISIS. Some democracies produce wise government, responsive to the needs of its citizens and others produce entrenched bureaucracies which exploit their people. Others take the form of imperialist welfare states, forced to conquer for the sake of propping up a broken system while using authoritarian means to stifle dissent. These political entities find themselves entangled in vicious wars and subversion as great power competition makes its way into the space age on a galactic scale.
Battles are described in vivid, suspenseful detail. Usually portrayed through the eyes of multiple participants, Weber’s strong writing places the reader on the bridge and in the reactor plant of powerful warships as the crews fight to accomplish their missions and fulfill their duty. A well-crafted formula of naval capability and tactics elegantly combines the sudden destruction of missile warfare with close-range fires reminiscent of the age of sail. Ships often employ signature control, electronic warfare, and drones to gain the upper hand through crafty means. Through this well-formulated vision of space combat Weber thrusts his characters into a wide range of operational encounters and tactical dilemmas that test their ability to command and adapt.
Weber takes the time to create rich backgrounds for multiple characters. The good guys are never entirely perfect and the bad guys are rarely all bad. Weber is also willing to have key characters die along the way and when an important battle is done, readers often feel as if they have lost friends in action. Weber’s characters often have to remain resilient in the face of tremendous loss, lead battered and demoralized crews, and cope with the unsatisfactory taste of bittersweet victory.
War, Deceit, and Honor
Uncompromising Honor picks up at the end of the Second Battle of Manticore and tells the story of what Honorverse fans will likely come to refer to as the Solarian War. The book covers the nine months between July and March in the 1922nd and 1923rd year after humanity began stellar colonization. The Solarian League Navy, unable to defeat Manticore and the rest of its alliance in a battle between the heaviest ships of the wall, embarks upon a campaign of economic warfare against Marticore’s trading partners. Manticore’s response is to cripple the Solarian economy by taking possession of all known galactic wormhole junctions used by merchant ships to reduce their transit times. By seizing control of the geographic chokepoints of galactic commerce Manticore aims to starve the Solarian League of its ability to maintain the industrial production that supports it economy.
These opposing strategies set up the first great battle of Uncompromising Honor, the Battle of Ajay Hyper Bridge. The Solarians, armed with a large fleet of 50 battlecruisers and additional lighter units, need to pass their task force through the Ajay wormhole in order to conduct their assigned system raids. Manticore must hold the wormhole so its supply ships can sustain their deployed forces. The Solarians have numbers on their side and Manticore has superior technology. 78 pages of white-knuckled suspense tell the tale of this key battle in the Solarian War.
The second major battle scene in Uncompromising Honor is the Battle of Hypatia. Hypatia is a star nation that is in the midst of voting to leave the Solarian League. A small task group of Manticoran cruisers and destroyers is in Hypatian space awaiting the results of the plebiscite. Should Hypatia vote to become independent of the Solarian League, the Manticoran ships are ready to deliver the Star Kingdom’s new ambassador to this potential key ally. However, the Solarian League Navy shows up with several dozen battlecruisers with orders to prevent Hypatian secession, even to the point of committing war crimes to achieve their mission.
The choices presented to the Manticoran commander harken back to the solemn “Last View” ceremony at Manticore’s naval academy. Graduating midshipmen are presented with the history of the academy’s namesake, Commodore Edward Saganami, and his final battle against Silesian pirates. In both the Last View and the Battle of Hypatia, Weber masterfully explores the difficult moral obligations of a commander to both his mission and his people. The question of when should a commander risk devastating losses to the forces under his command in order to accomplish a critical mission is on display as both sides grapple to do their duty as they understand it.
Between and after the battles, Weber continues to develop the political and economic storyline of the galaxy. The shadowy Mesan Alignment continues to execute its plan and influence star nations in ways seen and unseen. Characters on Earth, Manticore, Haven, and in the Talbott and Maya Sectors all struggle. Some struggle for power and wealth, some struggle for understanding, and a few noble souls struggle to do the right thing. There are triumphs and tragedies along the way spread out over much of the inhabited galaxy. In the end these struggles and machinations lead to climatic conflicts in the Beowulf system, and finally in the home system of Earth itself.
Despite, or perhaps because of all the military and political action in Uncompromising Honor, it is the human touches that make this book so gripping. We are treated to the planet Grayson’s favorite girl next door (assuming you live next door to a Steadholder’s palace), Lieutenant Abigail Hearns of the Grayson Space Navy, as she goes on her first date with a handsome young man with a questionable background from the Seraphim system in one of Manticore’s more upscale dining establishments. This is also the first of the mainline Honor Harrington books where multiple treecats play important roles and the reader is treated with extensive treecat dialog and monologue. Treecats are the native sentient species of one of the Manticore system’s habitable planets. The close relationship of Honor to her small, furry, cute, and at times lethal, treecat friend Nimitz plays an important role in the plotline of the series. In this book, multiple human characters have important treecat relationships. By the end of Uncompromising Honor, we understand that treecats are not only sentient, but that they bring a unique perspective on understanding humanity in a way that only a non-human species that can experience human feeling could provide.
A Tale Continues…
While Uncompromising Honor does allow for a satisfying conclusion, there is clearly more left to tell and many questions remain tantalizingly unanswered. While David Weber’s fans will greatly enjoy Uncompromising Honor they will be left with the same gripping emotional state at the end of this book as with the others, eagerly awaiting the next installment of this magnificent series.
Captain Mark Vandroff is a 1989 graduate of the United States Naval Academy. His 28 years of commissioned service include duty as both a Surface Warfare and Engineering Duty Officer. He was formerly the Major Program Manager for the DDG 51 program and is currently the Commanding Officer of Naval Surface Warfare Center, Carderock. The views expressed in this article are the author’s personal views and do not reflect the official position of the Department of Defense or Department of the Navy.
Featured Image: Adaptation of the cover of the Honor Harrington’s novel Honor Among Enemies by Genkkis via DeviantArt
Since his rise to power six years ago, thousands of analysts and policymakers across the globe have attempted to understand the intentions of, and the mechanisms employed toward, General Secretary of the Communist Party of China Xi Jinping’s seemingly expansionist vision for China. That vision, dubbed “The Chinese Dream” by Xi in 2012, solidified his plan for “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” Although arguably vaguely defined, “The Chinese Dream” has been viewed by some as Xi’s call for rising Chinese influence on the international stage – economically, politically, diplomatically, scientifically, and militarily, i.e., China’s “grand strategy.”
In support of this vision, Xi has embarked on a multitude of political and military reforms and now, backed by one of the world’s most technologically-advanced militaries, Xi is ready to thrust his revitalized China further onto the world stage. During his opening speech to nearly 2,300 party delegates and dignitaries at the October 2017 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, Xi publicly described the extraordinary complexity of China’s domestic and foreign policy challenges and opportunities: “Currently, conditions domestically and abroad are undergoing deep and complicated changes. Our country is in an important period of strategic opportunity in its development. The outlook is extremely bright; the challenges are also extremely grim.”1
In his new book, Flashpoint China, Chinese Air Power and Regional Security, Andreas Rupprecht, author of Modern Chinese Warplanes: Combat Aircraft and Units of the Chinese Air Force and Naval Aviation, attempts to break out of his comfort zone and succinctly capture the complexities of Chinese foreign policy and the geopolitical environment of the Asia-Pacific Region. The content of Flashpoint China is predominantly focused on Chinese regional security issues; however, in his introductory paragraph, Rupprecht states the goal of Flashpoint China is to “draw upon” Modern Chinese Warplanes and “offer an overview of potential military conflicts along the borders of the People’s Republic of China (PRC).”2 This is a laudable goal, for even attempting to synopsize the complexity of Chinese military history and foreign relations in a mere eighty pages would challenge the most knowledgeable defense and foreign relations expert. Yet for the most part, Rupprecht succeeds. There are some content areas however that could benefit from further research and development.
Following the introduction, Rupprecht utilizes Chapters Two through Five to succinctly introduce the various foreign policy concerns for China in each of its five Theater Commands. Each chapter opens with a succinct description of the nuanced histories behind each foreign policy concern, provides an overview of PLAAF and PLANAF capabilities available to each Theater Command, and closes with well-structured charts of each Theater Command’s PLAAF and PLANAF order of battle. It is through this structured approach that Rupprecht meets his goal of drawing upon Modern Chinese Warplanes and answering the following question: If conflict were to occur at any of the flashpoints, what People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) and PLA Naval Air Force (PLANAF) units and platforms are likely to be involved?
Over the last two to three decades China’s entire military force has undergone a rapid and unprecedented military modernization campaign designed to transform it into a regionally-dominant and globally-significant force. To further tie his two books together however, Rupprecht would be remiss to not include an update of what has transpired within and across the PLA between the books’ publication dates (2012 and 2016, respectively) in the introductory section of Flashpoint China, specifically how PLA reforms and the subsequent establishment of the five Theater Commands have affected the PLAAF and PLANAF. Additionally, Rupprecht briefly describes concepts such as China’s “active defense strategy” and “anti-access /aerial denial (A2/AD)” (what the Chinese refer to as “counter-intervention”) capabilities. Counter-intervention represents how China plans to “deny the U.S. [or other foreign] military the ability to operate in China’s littoral waters in case of a crisis.”3 Collectively, these organizational, doctrinal, and operational changes should weigh heavily in a book of this nature yet Rupprecht does not fully incorporate their significance in his work. To do this, the author would need to answer the following question: How would PLAAF and PLANAF platforms and capabilities likely be employed to prevent U.S. or other regional forces from intervening in a conflict at any of the flashpoints?
Some of these geographical areas and issues carry a higher military priority for China. According to the U.S. Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) in its 2017 Annual Report to Congress, “Taiwan remains the PLA’s main “strategic direction,” one of the geographic areas the leadership identifies as endowed with strategic importance [and represents a “core interest” of China]. Other focus areas include the East China Sea [ECS], the South China Sea [SCS], and China’s borders with India and North Korea.”4 And as the strategic importance of a geographical area increases for China so does its allocation of PLA assets.
For example, the richness and variety of the geopolitical concerns involving the countries presented in Chapter Two of Flashpoint China (Japan, Russia, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), and South Korea), provide significant examples of historical, current, and potential military conflict for China; however, in Chapter Two Rupprecht doesn’t reflect on the order of strategic priority and therefore the military significance of the Northern and Central Theater Commands. Instead, Chapter Two opens with a very brief paragraph regarding Mongolia, thereby dampening the impact of the chapter’s “flashpoint” narrative.
Additionally, the sovereignty dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in the ECS dominates the military significance of China’s foreign policy vis-à-vis Japan; however, Rupprecht merely allocates a single sentence to the situation: “The dispute over the Senkaku Islands – known as the Diaoyu Islands in China – is meanwhile a matter of heated rhetoric and near-open hostility.”5 Since the historical dispute took a dramatic leap forward in April 2012 following the Japanese purchase of three of the eight islets from their private owner, the PLA’s Eastern Theater Command has assumed primary responsibility for this flashpoint area. Unfortunately, Chapter Two mistakenly assigns PLA responsibility for China’s ongoing dilemma with Japan in the ECS to the Northern and Central Theater Commands: “The PLA subordinates responsibility for Japan and the Korean peninsula to the Northern Theater Command and to the Central Theater Command.”6 When the purchase was made public, the PLA immediately began regularly deploying maritime and airborne patrols from Eastern Theater Command bases into the ECS to assert jurisdiction and sovereignty over the islands. Additionally, as Rupprecht alludes to on page 25, in November 2013, China declared the establishment of its first air defense identification zone (ADIZ) over the ECS which included the area over the disputed islands. Subsequently, both the PLAAF and PLANAF established routine airborne patrol patterns and the use of ECS airspace and the straits of the Ryukyu Islands to conduct long-range, integrated strike training with PLA Navy (PLAN) assets in the western Philippine Sea.
Additionally in Chapter Two, Rupprecht aptly describes the history of Sino-Russian relations: “For years, relations between China and Russia have been described as a ‘tightrope walk’, and have frequently oscillated between close friendship and war.”7 However, the author fails to capture the significance of the military connection between Russia and China, especially as it relates to Rupprecht’s stated theme for this book, for China’s military modernization arguably started with mass acquisitions of Russian military technologies in the early 1990s. Over the ensuing decades, China embarked on a widespread effort to acquire Russian military technologies, reverse-engineer that technology, and then indigenously mass-produce similar technologies adapted to Chinese specifications. That period however may be rapidly coming to a close as many China analysts assess that China has now transitioned from a Russian technology-dependent force to a truly indigenous production force. In fact, China’s most recent procurement of Russia’s technologically-advanced Su-35 FLANKER S fighter aircraft and S-400 strategic-level surface-to-air missile (SAM) system, touched on by Rupprecht on page 18, may be the last significant items on China’s military hardware shopping list.
Another example is found in Chapter Three which Rupprecht opens by stating, “The issue of Taiwan is a very special one for the PRC, and certainly the top priority in regard to the PLA’s modernization drive. This is clearly indicated by the official order of protocol, which lists the responsible Eastern Theater Command first.”8 Although the Eastern Theater may have primary responsibility for the Taiwan issue, the extraordinary political, strategic, and economic significance of the Taiwan dispute represents a “core interest” of China. This fact cannot be overstated. The entire essence of Chinese military modernization efforts over the recent decades have been in direct support of the possible requirement to take back Taiwan by force should alternative means of reunification prove fruitless. As Chinese Communist Party legitimacy would ride on the success or failure of a PLA campaign to “liberate” Taiwan, an effort of this magnitude would involve PLAAF and PLANAF assets from multiple Theater Commands, something Rupprecht’s narrative and order-of-battle charts do not capture.
The geography, the respective sovereignty claims, and the strategic and operational scope of each Theater Command’s responsibilities matter greatly with respect to China and its ambitions. Each chapter ends with a wonderful map that provides a highly informative, geographical illustration of each respective theater. The geographical impact of each chapter’s flashpoints may be better served however by moving each chapter’s map to the beginning of the chapters rather than the end.
Rupprecht’s best work is reflected in Chapter Four. China’s sovereignty claims and the controversial Chinese land reclamation and infrastructure construction activity in the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea (SCS) presented in Chapter Four are definitely the most contentious issues facing the Southern Theater Command. And here Rupprecht does not disappoint. The author allocates numerous pages to both describe and illustrate the significance of the SCS dispute to China, its regional neighbors, and the U.S. Just as in Modern Chinese Warplanes, Rupprecht has included spectacular, colored photographs of various Chinese aircraft into Flashpoint China. Various PLAAF and PLANAF fighters, reconnaissance and transport aircraft, along with unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) are presented in wonderful detail throughout the book. Chapter Four however is especially unique for its inclusion of vivid photographs of China’s land reclamation and infrastructure construction activity in the Spratly Islands.
How Chinese, U.S., and regional neighbors approach this issue politically, diplomatically, and militarily carries significant strategic, operational, and tactical implications. History has proven how a single tactical event in the region can carry immediate and substantial strategic implications. For example, the infamous EP-3 incident of 2001 provides just one example of how tactical miscommunication and miscalculation can have significant strategic implications.9 These type of airborne interactions continue on a regular basis as U.S. reconnaissance aircraft operate in international airspace over the SCS. Chinese fighter aircraft routinely intercept the U.S. aircraft, sometimes operating outside the assessed bounds of safe airmanship. Japanese fighters also come into regular contact with Chinese aircraft, regularly scrambling to check Chinese airspace incursions over the ECS and through the Ryukyu Straits. These tactical events often receive attention from the government and military leaders of the respective countries and occasionally result in public demarches.
In a book of this nature, each SCS claimant country deserves its own dedicated section as China’s rise has forced each country’s government to reassess their national security and military means with some countries making substantial increases in their military expenditures. For example, Vietnam is “in the process of addressing its limitations with respect to combating modern threat scenarios with its existing obsolete equipment, and has embarked on military modernization plans over the last few years.”10 Additionally, the 02 May – 15 August 2014 Hai Yeng Shi You 981 oil rig standoff (also referred to as the “CNOOC-981 incident”) provides a real-world event which not only illustrated the contentiousness of the SCS claims between China and Vietnam, but also revealed an operational reaction from the PLA, with specific operational responses from both the PLAAF and PLANAF.11
Finally, the most impactful flashpoint for China in the Western Theater, presented in Chapter Five, regards India. Typically the issue between the two countries revolves around unresolved border disputes; however, much to India’s chagrin, China also continues to advance its military-to-military relationship with India’s rival, Pakistan. This is especially relevant for Rupprecht’s efforts within Flashpoint China as Pakistan’s Air Force and China’s PLAAF conducted the sixth consecutive iteration of the annual “Shaheen” series of joint exercises in 2017. Since its inception in 2011, the Shaheen exercise series has consistently grown in complexity and scope, incorporating a wider variety of PLAAF aircraft and platforms such as multi-role fighters, fighter-bombers, airborne warning and control system (AWACS) aircraft, and surface-to-air missile crews and radar operators.
In Flashpoint China Andreas Rupprecht ambitiously attempts to couple the highly complex geopolitical environment surrounding modern day China with the PLAAF and PLANAF’s ever-evolving order of battle and force projection capabilities – an assignment with which even the most renowned scholars would struggle, especially within the allotment of so few pages. Via the well-structured narrative and fabulous photographs, Flashpoint China goes a long way in tackling the question of what PLAAF and PLANAF assets could China bring to the fight should a military conflict occur at any of the presented flashpoints. Readers however would have certainly enjoyed reading the author’s assessment of how might the PLA use its air power in support of Chinese military intervention into these contentious hotbeds. But this may have to wait for another day. Still, if brevity of space and time were the only options available to the author, then Flashpoint China can certainly prove useful as is. However, with even some minor content and structural improvements, the book could prove irreplaceable.
LCDR David Barr is a career intelligence officer and currently serves as instructor with the National Intelligence University’s College of Strategic Intelligence. All statements of facts, analysis, or opinion are the author’s and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Intelligence University, the Department of Defense or any of its components, or the U.S. government.
1. Buckley, Chris. “Xi Jinping Opens China’s Party Congress, His Hold Tighter Than Ever”; The New York Times; 17 October 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/17/world/asia/xi-jinping-communist-party-china.html
2. Rupprecht, Andreas. Flashpoint China, Chinese Air Power and Regional Security. Houston: Harpia Publishing, 2016. p. 9.
3. Ibid. p. 15.
4. OSD. Annual Report to Congress: “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2017,” OSD, (Annual Report, OSD 2017)
5. Rupprecht, Andreas. Flashpoint China, Chinese Air Power and Regional Security. Houston: Harpia Publishing, 2016. p. 21.
Featured Image: Two JH-7 fighter bombers attached to an aviation brigade of the air force under the PLA Western Theater Command taxi abreast on the runway before takeoff for a sortie near the Tianshan Mountains in late March, 2018. (eng.chinamil.com.cn/Photo by Wang Xiaofei)