This article is part of a series examining the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) white paper “Unrestricted Warfare” from 1999. You can read the previous parts here.
Previously, we explored the strategic paper “Unrestricted Warfare” by Chinese colonels Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui, focusing on technology’s impact on warfare, decentralization, and the need for adaptable military strategies in the global landscape. We also covered the concept of “Fighting the Fight That Fits One’s Weapons” versus “Making the Weapons To Fit the Fight” and the implications for modern conflicts like the Global War on Terror (GWOT).
In continuation, Qiao and Wang present the concept of “Weapons of New Concepts and New Concepts of Weapons.”
In their thought-provoking analysis, both Chinese military veterans challenge conventional notions of “new weapons” and delve into the profound impact of technology on modern warfare.
Qiao and Wang argue that true innovation lies not in advanced weaponry but in the strategic concepts that can turn everyday elements into potent weapons of war.
Refinement of Traditional Weapons
In their analysis, Qiao and Wang challenge the idea of revolutionary “new” weapons and emphasize that most advancements in weaponry are evolutionary rather than revolutionary. To illustrate this, let’s consider the analogy of a bow and arrow.
The bow and arrow is an ancient weapon that has been refined and improved over thousands of years. From the basic design of a simple wooden bow with flint-tipped arrows used by early humans, it evolved into more sophisticated versions like the longbow used in medieval times and the composite bow used by ancient civilizations like the Mongols and Persians.
Throughout these advancements, the core concept of the bow and arrow remained the same: to project a projectile with force and accuracy to kill or disable an enemy from a distance. Similarly, modern ballistic missiles are the refined versions of the archaic trebuchets and catapults used in ancient warfare. The concept of launching a projectile at a target with force remains unchanged.
Another analogy can be drawn from firearms. From the invention of gunpowder and the early black powder muskets, firearms technology has progressed to modern-day rifles, machine guns, and even nuclear warheads. Despite technological advancements, the fundamental purpose of firearms remains constant: to propel a projectile with lethal force.
Qiao and Wang’s argument highlights that while technological innovations have undoubtedly made weapons more lethal, accurate, and effective, weaponry’s underlying principles and objectives have not fundamentally changed over time. The core concepts of killing and neutralizing threats have persisted throughout history, with advancements merely refining the methods and means of achieving these objectives.
The Pitfall of Overemphasizing Technology
The pitfall of overemphasizing technology lies in the relentless pursuit of always having the latest and most advanced weaponry, often driven by the belief that newer technologies automatically guarantee superiority in warfare. This fixation on “newness” can lead to a dangerous cycle of arms races among nations, where each country strives to outdo the other in terms of military technology and capabilities.
During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union engaged in an intense arms race, where both nations invested heavily in developing and acquiring more advanced weapons and military systems. The Soviet Union, in particular, pushed itself to keep up with the technological advancements of the U.S., pouring significant resources into its military development. However, this relentless pursuit of new and more sophisticated weaponry came at a high cost, straining the Soviet economy to the point of bankruptcy.
The Soviet Union’s downfall serves as a stark warning of the consequences of excessive focus on military technology at the expense of other critical sectors of the economy. By pouring enormous resources into military endeavors, the nation neglected areas like infrastructure, social welfare, and economic development. As a result, the Soviet Union faced financial instability, leading to its eventual collapse.
This historical example demonstrates the danger of prioritizing technological prowess over overall economic stability and long-term sustainability. While advancements in technology can undoubtedly enhance military capabilities, there needs to be a balanced investment approach, considering the broader needs of a nation.
Qiao and Wang’s cautionary message reminds us that while technological innovation is essential, it should not be pursued blindly and must be balanced with strategic planning, economic prudence, and a comprehensive understanding of the nation’s overall security needs. Rather than solely focusing on “new” weapons, governments should assess their existing strengths, vulnerabilities, and strategic goals to develop a well-rounded and effective defense strategy that considers both traditional and innovative approaches. By avoiding the pitfall of overemphasizing technology, nations can ensure a more sustainable and robust national security posture without falling into the traps of an unending and costly arms race.
Expanding the Definition of Weapons
Qiao and Wang’s perspective on expanding the definition of weapons challenges conventional notions of warfare and highlights the evolving nature of conflict in the modern world. They suggest that weapons are not limited to traditional instruments of destruction like guns and missiles; instead, they encompass a much broader range of elements with the potential to harm.
This expanded definition includes non-physical weapons that leverage the interconnectedness of the global landscape. For instance, they delve into cyber warfare, where digital attacks can cripple critical infrastructure, disrupt communication networks, and compromise sensitive data. Often launched from the shadows, these cyber-attacks can be as destructive as traditional military offensives.
Furthermore, Qiao and Wang introduce the concept of using financial systems as weapons, exemplified by stock market crashes and economic manipulations. By striking at a nation’s economic stability, adversaries can cause widespread damage and undermine the financial foundation of a target country.
The authors also examine exploiting social vulnerabilities to weaken a nation from within. By sowing scandals, corruption, and disinformation, external forces can create internal divisions, erode trust in institutions, and destabilize governance.
In essence, their approach broadens the understanding of warfare beyond the traditional battlefield and physical weaponry. It emphasizes that modern conflicts are increasingly multidimensional, combining military strategies with unconventional tactics that target not just military assets but also a nation’s economy, society, and political stability.
Both Chinese strategists emphasize the importance of strategy and understanding the diverse elements that can cause harm in shaping the outcome of conflicts. They advocate for a comprehensive and adaptive approach to national security, moving beyond relying solely on advanced technologies and instead focusing on intelligence gathering and understanding adversaries’ capabilities and intentions. By broadening the definition of weapons and embracing a broader view of warfare, they highlight the need to stay ahead in the global geopolitical landscape, where battles may extend into realms like information, economics, and technology. This approach challenges leaders to think innovatively and develop holistic strategies to protect their nations in an ever-evolving world.
The Role of Commonplace Things
Qiao and Wang’s visionary perspective envisions a future where seemingly harmless everyday objects could be repurposed as deadly weapons. This concept gains relevance in today’s world, especially considering the ongoing cyber warfare emanating from China.
In this digital battleground, shared devices and systems can be wielded as potent tools to disrupt and inflict harm on a global scale, showcasing the significance of non-traditional weapons in shaping modern conflicts. Thus, underscores the importance of understanding and countering these unconventional threats, where the boundaries of warfare extend far beyond traditional battlefields and into the interconnected realms of technology, information, and society.
Qiao and Wang’s comprehensive analysis challenges military strategists to think beyond traditional weapons and focus on innovative approaches. Their vision of “unrestricted warfare” redefines the landscape of conflict, emphasizing strategy as the primary driver of successful engagements. As technology continues to evolve, their insights provide critical guidance for navigating the complexities of modern warfare.