Tag Archives: asymmetry

Where You Stand Depends on Where You Sit: U.S. & Chinese Strategic Views

Guest post for Chinese Military Strategy Week by Daniel M. Hartnett

A Comparison of U.S. and Chinese Views of the International Strategic Environment

Within approximately a month of each other this year, both China and the United States published official documents detailing their respective views of the current security environment.  China’s assessment was captured in its 9th biennial defense white paper, published in late May, and officially titled China’s Military Strategy. The U.S. view is presented in the National Military Strategy of the United States of America, 2015 (hereafter, U.S. National Military Strategy), published in June. The authoritative nature of each document provides an interesting opportunity to comparatively assess how both nations see the international military and security situation, more clearly understand their similarities and differences, and draw out any relevant implications.

Before comparing the views contained within the two documents, however, it is important to clarify that this is not a perfect comparison. Although both documents are official and therefore represent the approved views of the respective government, they are not exact equivalents. China’s defense white paper, while drafted by the Chinese military, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), is actually coordinated with and vetted by China’s foreign policy making community, to most importantly include the Chinese Communist Party.1 Therefore, it represents the view of the Chinese Party-State, not just the PLA.  On the other side of the ledger, the Joint Chiefs of Staff is responsible for producing the U.S. National Military Strategy. This document draws closely from other U.S. government statements, most importantly from the President’s National Security Strategy. However, ultimately the U.S. National Military Strategy is a U.S. military document, not a whole-of-government product. As a result, comparing it with China’s Military Strategy is imperfect at best. However, such an exercise is still of value, particularly given the authoritativeness of the two documents combined with the general lack of publicly released official Chinese statements on national defense issues.    

Going forward with this imperfect yet still useful comparison of these two views on the international security situation yields four findings of interest. First, both documents describe the international security situation as experiencing great change. According to the U.S. National Military Strategy, “complexity and rapid change characterize the strategic environment, driven by globalization, the diffusion of technology, and demographic shifts.” China’s defense white paper paints a similar picture, stating that “profound changes are taking place in the international situation.” Although China’s Military Strategy is silent on what is causing these changes, it does assert that the changes in question are changes to the international balance of power, global governance structure, and Asia-Pacific geostrategic landscape, as well as an increase in international economic, military, and technological competition.

Second, although they both maintain the international system is in flux, the two documents disagree about the impact these changes will have.  The U.S. National Military Strategy takes a more pessimistic view, stating that these changes are giving rise to a host of problems. As General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, writes in the foreword to the U.S. National Military Strategy, “today’s global security environment is the most unpredictable I have seen in 40 years of service,” and that “global disorder has significantly increased while [U.S.] comparative military advantage has begun to erode.” Concerns noted include increasing societal tensions, resource competition, political instability, military challenges, and non-traditional security concerns. More concerning, the document also asserts that the risk of “U.S. involvement in interstate war with a major power is assessed to be low but growing” [emphasis added].

Deng Xiaoping, Time Man of the Year in 1979

China’s assessment, on the other hand, is more positive. It asserts that overall the international situation is good, although it also recognizes that some problems exist. For example, the document maintains that “peace, development, cooperation and mutual benefit have become an irresistible tide of the times,” continuing a basic position held since the mid-1980s when then Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping took China off the constant pre-war footing of Mao Zedong.2 That doesn’t mean that China’s Military Strategy doesn’t recognize the existence of international problems; the document notes such issues as “hegemonism, power politics, and neo-interventionism,” as well as increasing competition for power and interests, international terrorism, and ethnic, religious, and territorial disputes. However, it does assert that “the forces for peace are on the rise, [and] so are the factors against war,” and as a result, a major war is unlikely and the “international situation is expected to remain generally peaceful”—although minor conflicts and wars can occur.  More importantly, China’s Military Strategy states explicitly that China confronts a “generally favorable external environment,” something the document claims is a prerequisite for China’s continued development.

Third, the two documents focus on different levels of the international system. The U.S. National Military Strategy, for example, squarely assesses the international situation from a global perspective. For example, the four countries mentioned by name as revisionist (Russia, Iran, North Korea, and China) span much of the globe. Similarly, when discussing the threat of violent extremist organizations, the document notes this is a global concern (although it does highlight the Middle East and North Africa for exceptional concern). Furthermore, the U.S. National Military Strategy explicitly rejects the notion of emphasizing any one region or issue, stating that “the U.S. military does not have the luxury of focusing on one challenge to the exclusion of others.”

In contrast, China’s Military Strategy emphasizes China’s periphery, and in particular the maritime areas of the western Pacific Ocean. Although global issues are mentioned, they are done so only briefly and ambiguously. Instead, China’s Military Strategy mainly discusses regional concerns. Concerns noted include the U.S. rebalance to Asia, especially efforts to strengthen the U.S. military presence and alliances in the region; Japan’s ongoing adjustments to its defense policy; tensions on the Korean Peninsula; relations with Taiwan; and extremist movements that could spill over China’s borders. Of particular note is China’s focus on maritime concerns, such as the growing tensions concerning its disputed claims in the East and South China seas, U.S. special reconnaissance operations, and alleged outside interference in China’s maritime disputes. The only non-peripheral concern expressly noted in the document reflects the recognition that China’s growing overseas interests are creating new security issues, such as sea lane security and the security of Chinese foreign investments and overseas citizens. 

Land Reclamation in the South China Sea, Economist.

Fourth, each document portrays the other country as part of the problem.  According to China’s Military Strategy, the increase in China’s peripheral insecurity is partially due to U.S. actions in the region, such as the U.S. rebalance to Asia and its interference in China’s maritime disputes with other East Asia states. For its part, the U.S. National Military Strategy also explicitly calls out China, stating that its “aggressive land reclamation efforts” in the South China Sea could allow the PLA to position forces “astride vital international sea lanes.” As a result, “China’s actions are adding tension to the Asia-Pacific region.” This mutual finger pointing in order to assign blame for tensions in the South China Sea exemplifies what Dr. David M. Finkelstein, director of CNA’s China Studies division, has referred to as a “perception gap” between China and the United States on regional security concerns.

From this simple comparison of the two authoritative documents, it is easy to see that a large divide exists between the U.S. and Chinese views on security issues.  While the United States sees the rapidly changing international systems as a potential concern, China sees it as an opportunity for continued development. The U.S. focus on the global level is indicative of its position as an established global power with global interests. Conversely, China’s focus, although gradually expanding to the international level, emphasizes the East Asia region, reflecting that Beijing continues to be primarily concerned with its immediate periphery. Each country also sees the other as part of the problem, especially in the case of the South China Sea issue.

Ultimately this difference in views should not be shocking since both countries have their own set of national interests and related concerns. The more important questions, however, are: Is it possible, as some claim, to bridge these differences and build “mutual trust” between the two militaries? Or will asymmetries of interest on certain issues prevent reaching a peaceful accord? Can the two militaries reach a middle ground on issues where they see the other as the main culprit? For this author, it would seem a difficult challenge, for as the Truman-era senior bureaucrat Rufus F. Miles said in the late 1940s, “Where you stand depends on where you sit.”3

Daniel Hartnett is a research scientist with CNA’s China Studies division, as well as a member of the Truman National Security Project’s Defense Council. He can be followed at @dmhartnett. The views expressed in this article are his alone.

[1] Daniel M. Hartnett, “China’s 2012 Defense White Paper: Panel Discussion Report,” CNA Conference Proceeding (September 2013), p. i.

[2] For an interesting read on China’s military reforms during the Deng era, see Ezra Vogel, Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011), pp. 523-552.

[3] Rufus F. Miles, “The Origin and Meaning of Miles’ Law,” Public Administration Review Vol. 38, No. 5 (Sep. – Oct., 1978), pp. 399-403.

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Call for Articles: Chinese Military Strategy Week, 3-7 Aug 15

Week Dates: 3-7 Aug 15
Articles Due: 29 Jul 15
Article Length: 500-1500 Words
Submit to: nextwar(at)cimsec(dot)org

In a watershed moment, the Chinese Ministry of National Defense recently published a white paper on the Chinese Military Strategy (with an English-language version made available and published almost immediately by USNI News). This document lays out a policy for future Chinese military engagement with the world, proclaiming the centrality of active defense as the essence of the Chinese Communist Party’s military strategic thought and then describing an approach for implementing this military policy in the air, cyber, land, and maritime domains. This document comes at a particularly interesting time as General Martin Dempsey, Chairman on the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has since approved a new National Military Strategy for the United States, a strategy that names China explicitly as culpable for increased tension in the Asia-Pacific region and establishes an explicit interactive dynamic between the Chinese and U.S. strategies. While this is not the first time a U.S. National Military Strategy names China as a consideration, the shift in tone here is noteworthy.

During the first week of August, CIMSEC will host a series focused on exploring the relationship between the new Chinese military strategy and the strategic policies of the United States and others. Of particular interest are the dynamics of symmetry and asymmetry in their respective National Military Strategies (ideological, technological, doctrinal, coalitional, etc.); the implicit and explicit assumptions in each; the potentially divergent social and political purposes of such documents given their sources; and the implications for the other elements of national power in China, the United States, and the other actors (state and otherwise) in the international system. If the United States and China were to pursue their stated military strategies in whole or in part, what are the implications for their relative and absolute advantage? What are the acknowledged and unacknowledged risks for each in their stated policies?

Contributions should be between 500 and 1500 words in length and submitted no later than 29 July 2015. Publication reviews will also be accepted.

Eric Murphy is a Strategist and Operations Research Analyst with the United States Air Force and a graduate of the School of Advanced Air and Space Studies.

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TLAMs and ISIS: Insane and Cynical Ways to Blow Things Up

Several days ago (Tuesday September 23), I drove to work listening to the report of the United States’ government’s latest military adventure in the area of the Levant at the confluence of northeastern Syria and western Iraq.     The National Public Radio (NPR) announcers intoned dryly on the launches, among other things, of 50—yes fifty—tomahawk land attack cruise missiles (TLAM) as part of a major strike against the threat de jour of this season, the brutal Islamic State.[1]   At 1.4 million dollars a pop, tomahawks[2] are a very very expensive way to kill people and blow up their sinews of war, the most expensive of which were captured from the Syrian and most recently Iraqi armies—in other words less expensive stuff (like towed artillery and armored personnel carriers) that originated mostly in Russian and US factories.[3]


USS WISCONSIN launches a BGM-109 Tomahawk missile against a target in Iraq during Operation Desert Storm.
USS WISCONSIN launches a BGM-109 Tomahawk missile against a target in Iraq during Operation Desert Storm.

23 and a half years ago the US launched its first TLAMS as a part of the opening air campaign of Operation Desert Storm, the combat phase of the US-led coalition’s successful effort to liberate Kuwait from the military forces of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and to restore stability, of some kind, to the Persian Gulf region.[4]   That use was part of an overall suppression of enemy air defense (SEAD) campaign that built on the lessons learned from Vietnam in 1972, the Yom Kippur War in 1973, and finally the Israeli Bekka Valley SEAD campaign in 1982. TLAMS served as a means, along with electronic countermeasures like radar jamming and use of anti-radiation missiles (ARM), to suppress Iraqi air defenses. Their use made sense because they were part of an overall campaign to achieve air superiority before launching the ground war that quickly liberated Kuwait under skies dominated by US and coalition aircraft.

Since then, TLAMs have been used in a similar fashion in Bosnia (Deliberate Force, 1995), Kosovo (Allied Force, 1999), Iraq again (Desert Fox, 1998, and Iraqi Freedom, 2003), and most recently in Libya (Odyssey Dawn, 2011).[5] One sees a trend here, with the exception of Iraq in 2003, of using these weapons as a means to show resolve without risking the lives of US service personnel on the ground.     Arguments can be made to support this use, although similar arguments can be made against their use, especially in the air-only campaigns. Today, they are again supposedly a part of a larger air campaign against the thug-regime of the Islamic State (for our purposes here ISIS).   One supposes that they were being used because of the air defense capabilities of ISIS, especially captured surface-to-air missile (SAM) equipment, anti-aircraft artillery, and radars.   Some of this concern for both manned and unmanned aircraft attacking ISIS is also directed at the Syrian regime, which has not guaranteed that its air defense system will remain silent during this expansion of the air war into Syria to attack the “capital” of the ISIS caliphate at Raqqa. However, ISIS’s air defenses have been assessed by some as being “relatively limited.”[6]

One must ask the question, why expand the war, both geographically and in terms of means, for the purposes of this essay, the means equating to TLAM use?   Has anyone done a cost benefit analysis (CBA) of this usage or is their use more an informational tactic meant to show sexy pictures of TLAM use to convey the seriousness of the intent by the Obama Administration?   A CBA notwithstanding, these other things may all be true to varying degrees, but it points to a more troubling suggestion. Is the use of TLAMs, like the use aircraft carriers to deliver the air power to these land-locked regions, simply a reflection of the strategic poverty of American thinking?

There are very few positive benefits in all these results.   Strategic poverty? Or cynical public relations campaign? Or wasteful expenditure of high technology smart ordnance against a very weak target (the ISIS air defense “system”)?   None of these choices offers much in the way of reassurance to this writer.

Further, the criteria for the use of these expensive “kamikaze drones”—my characterization for TLAMS—seems to be lower and lower. More and more, in the 1990s and since, when the US government wanted to blow up some meaningless bit of sand or dirt to display US resolve it sent these weapons in to do the job—or not do the job in most cases. We think we are sending a signal of resolve but our enemies, like the North Vietnamese during the ineffectual Rolling Thunder campaign, “hear” us sending a message of weakness, lack of resolve, and even cowardice.[7]   A friend of mine, who shall remain anonymous, refers to the TLAM as: “the 20th Century equivalent of a diplomatic note, meant to convey disapproval without really doing anything.”


Alcoholics Anonymous—among others—has a saying: “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result is the definition of insanity.”   This latest gross expenditure of US tax dollars by the US Navy at the behest of its strategic masters to blow things up in a remote corner of the globe provides more evidence that US policy is either insane, impoverished, cynical, or all of the above. Let us hope it is impoverished, because that we can change; one day, and one election, at a time. But first the US must quit its knee jerk reactions to these sorts of events, like an alcoholic going on another binge.


John T. Kuehn’s views are his own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.


[1] http://news.usni.org/2014/09/23/implications-expanding-isis-airstrikes-syria, (accessed 9/23/2014).

[2] http://fas.org/man/dod-101/sys/smart/bgm-109.htm, (accessed 9/23/2014).

[3] http://www.infowars.com/isis-is-taking-over-iraq-using-captured-american-weapons/, (accessed 9/23/2014).

[4] Ed Marolda and Robert Schneller, Jr., Shield and Sword: The United States Navy and the Persian Gulf War (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press), 167-183.

[5] http://www.navy.mil/submit/display.asp?story_id=59476, (accessed 9/23/2014); and http://fas.org/man/dod-101/sys/smart/bgm-109.htm, (accessed 9/23/2014).

[6] http://news.usni.org/2014/09/23/implications-expanding-isis-airstrikes-syria, (accessed 9/23/2014).


SURVIVABILITY OVER NORTH VIETNAM,” 2014, unpublished masters thesis (Fort Leavenworth, KS: Combined Arms Research Library, 2014), passim.

Lessons from History: The Parthian Defeat of Rome

This is the first article of our “Sacking of Rome” week: red-teaming the global order and learning from history. It is also the first of Merighi’s independent “Lessons from History” regular series for CIMSEC.

They poured gold down his throat, cut off his head, and sent it back as a warning to others.

No, this is not a scene from the latest episode of Game of Thrones; this was the passing of Marcus Licinuis Crassus in 53 BC.[1] Rome’s richest man, a member of the First Triumvirate with Julius Caesar, and the man responsible for putting down the pirates that menaced the Mediterranean, met his ignoble end fighting the greatest challenge the Romans ever faced in the east: Parthia.

Map of the Achaemenid Persian Empire at its height with the region of Parthia marked in a red circle (Wikimedia Commons)


Persia was the preeminent military, political, and cultural power in the ancient world from 550 B.C. to 330 B.C. With its heartland in modern day Iran, its empire spanned from Afghanistan to Turkey at its apex. It all came crashing down in spectacular fashion when Alexander of Macedon rose to power and led a ruthlessly efficient military machine on a path of conquest that brought him all the way to the Indus River. He tried his hardest to unify the Persian state with his own but, when he died at the age of 33 in 323 B.C., his empire immediately collapsed into a host of warring factions. Three of his Greek generals went on to found the three largest states in the Eastern Mediterranean by the time Rome rose: the Seleucids in Turkey and Syria, the Antripatrids (later the Antigonids) in Greece, and the Ptolemians in Egypt. In the Persian heartland, however, ethnic Persians waging a proto-nationalist campaign kicked out the remnants of the Greek invaders. Known as Parthians due to the origins from the titular province in north-eastern Iran, they established a small state that expanded outward as the Alexandrian generals quarreled with one another.

For centuries after his death, every Greek warlord in the Western World claimed their legitimacy through Alexander and the desire to rebirth his Empire. Rome, too, took up this mantle as it expanded eastward into the Greek mainland. Beginning first in Greece and Macedonia, they waged a brutal war with the beleaguered Seleucids and conquered all the territory they possessed in the modern Middle East. This brought Rome’s borders right onto those of Parthia. Both were rising states with expansionist ambitions and a border that sat on porous, easily invadable territory. The stage was set for an epic confrontation between the two great powers.

Map of the Roman-Parthian border with the location of Carrhae shown in a red circle (University of Guelph)


Unfortunately for Rome, this manifested in the ill-fated expedition of the afore-mentioned Crassus in 54 BC. The expedition met its unfortunate end on the plains of Carrhae in south-eastern Turkey along the Syrian border.

How did the Parthians manage to resist Rome for so long? Their success rested on three key disparities between them and their Roman opponents:

1)     Assymmetric Military Advantage

A Roman Legionnaire (left) facing his greatest threat since Hannibal: Parthian horse archers using the Parthian Shot (Wikimedia Commons)

The Roman legion was the paragon of military efficiency in its day. The strict discipline, advanced military technology, and sheer numbers were widely feared even before they began leaving the Italian peninsula. It was by no means a perfect force, as its travails against Hannibal in preceding centuries demonstrated, but the system itself was markedly better than any other fielded even with bad generalship. How then was it so ineffective against Parthia?

Unlike the other opponents the Romans fought in the preceding six centuries, the great bulk of the Parthian army were horse archers rather infantry or melee cavalry. Noted for the infamous “Parthian Shot,” their horsemen would rush forward to engage Roman infantry, retreat, then abruptly turn in their saddles to fire a shot directly behind them. The slow, methodical legionnaires were then rendered ineffective since they could not physically reach their assailants. The horse archer can be equated with modern fears about Medium-Range Ballistic Missiles (MRBMs); they were mobile, highly survivable, and could take out slower assets with near impunity.

These techniques were perfect for the open terrain on the Roman-Parthian border. If the topography had been less open, such as the forests of Gaul or Germania, Parthian tactics would have been less effective. The Parthians, though, did not need an army that could fight on different terrain because that is not where they needed to fight nor chose to fight. This brings us to the second advantage Parthia held over the Romans.

2)   Strategic Focus

The Parthians never harbored ambitions to conquer Rome; their strategy consisted of resisting Roman incursions and making their own when Rome was politically weak (see discussion below). Since the Parthians did not commit their resources into futile all-or-nothing fights with Rome or engage them on disadvantageous terrain, they always maintained a strong conventional deterrent that altered Rome’s calculus away from intervention.

Map showing the Parthian Empire in relation to the territory of the Scythian nomads. Without a central government, the Scythian tribes could only pose occasional threats in Parthia’s east (Wikimedia Commons)

The Parthians also had the strategic benefit of having fewer serious external competition; its western border was solely with Rome and the neutral kingdom of Armenia (the site of many proxy wars between Rome and Parthia). To their east were far weaker and divided opponents, namely the Scythians and Bactrians. Rome, on the other hand, was beset by strong enemies on all sides. These included: restive tribes in Gaul and the Danube region, lingering discontent in Numidians North Africa, a still-unitary Egypt, and a vascillating client state in northern Turkey. These challenges both demanded military resources and political attention to effectively control. Even if Rome had more money and soldiers than the Parthians, only so many of them could be dedicated toward fighting the Parthians.

3)   Stronger Political Core

(From the Left) Marcus Licinuis Crassus, Julius Caesar, and Marc Antony. All of the men tried to invade Parthia. The first one actually crossed the border and was killed. The other two were killed by Romans before even getting there (Wikimedia Commons and the Musee Des Augustins)

Parthian politics were cold and brutal. Succession crises were common and factions killed one another as they vied for the Parthian crown. There were even instances of Parthian claimants to the throne finding refuge in Rome, like exiled dictators, waiting for the opportune moment to return.

Roman politics during the late Republic and early Empire made Parthia look like Switzerland. The invasion of Parthia planned by Julius Caesar in 44 BC to avenge the death of Crassus (and punish the Parthians for their support of his rival, Pompey) was cancelled when Caesar fell to assassins’ blades on the Ides of March. The resulting civil war claimed thousands of Roman lives both on the battlefield and during the infamous proscriptions during which whatever faction happened to hold power would murder people and then “nationalize” their assets. After years of civil war, Rome finally found its footing under the Second Triumvirate. Marc Antony amassed his own army to take on the Parthians and managed to expel them from Syria in 33 BC only to have to turn around to fight his political partner Octavian in yet another civil war.

Octavian eventually succeeded in unifying the Roman state under his autocratic rule but, by then, he was in no position to challenge any external power. Crippling debts were poised to ruin the state. Opposing factions, though cowed by Augustus’ power, still opposed him behind the scenes. Octavian was forced to reduce to total number of legions to consolidate his hold on the Empire and reduce the risk of another civil war. Rather than risking another Parthian encounter in his weakened state, Octavian instead signed a landmark peace agreement that designated permanent borders in exchange for the legionary standards lost during Crassus’ expedition 33 years earlier. The Roman-Parthian drama would continue in fits and starts over the remainder of their very existences but, after that fateful treaty signed by Augustus, Rome finally admitted that it would fully never replicate Alexander’s conquest of Persia.

The cruel lesson for the United States to take from the Roman experience with Parthia is that an adversary with technology designed specifically to defeats its army, combined with stronger political will, is bound to come out on top of any conflict. Defeat does not just come on the battlefield. Just like Rome, the United States has a great number of serious threats: a bellicose Russia, an increasingly-assertive China, a still-problematic Iran, and trans-national terrorism. Unlike many of these antagonists (and the Parthians before them), the United States does not have the luxury of dedicating its resources to countering just one of these threats. The United States’ political system, after years of war and deep partisanship that conjures images of Caesar’s Rome, is brittle and unable to tackle any of these challenges. The lesson from Parthia is that to defeat the United States is merely to outlast it and negotiate for what you truly want.

Fortunately, for the United States, the peace under Augustus is not the end of the story. Over the following two centuries, the tables would turn and the Parthians’ political structure collapsed. Years of dynastic feuds and rival claimants to the throne made Parthia vulnerable to strong Roman Emperors such as Trajan (115 A.D.) and Septimus Severus (198 A.D.). The Parthian state was overthrown by internal revolution and a new Persian dynasty took its place. The final lesson for the United States is this: it is never too late to recalibrate and nothing is over until it is over.

Matthew Merighi is a civilian employee with the United States Air Force’s Office of International Affairs (SAF/IA) currently transitioning to pursue a Masters’ Degree at the Fletcher School. His views do not reflect those of the United States Government, Department of Defense, or Air Force but hopes his country can stand up to the Parthians.

[1] There is no concrete proof that the gold-pouring incident is true apart from the reports of the Roman historian Cassius Dio but it definitely gets the point across.