China’s Military Is Growing but Untested, Former Top US Admiral Says

  • China’s military expansion and improvement have worried its neighbors and countries around the world.
  • But China’s ground forces haven’t had to conduct large-scale operations, a former US Pacific commander says.

The Chinese military’s increasing size and improving capabilities have worried military leaders and policymakers in the US and around the world.

China’s People’s Liberation Army is the largest active-duty military in the world. It fields the world’s largest navy and its air force and navy together have the world’s third-largest aviation force. It continues to build warships, expand its fighter aircraft fleet, and develop long-range missiles.

For all that new and impressive firepower, the PLA remains untested in large-scale military operations, which means it may struggle in a prolonged conflict, according to Harry Harris, a retired US Navy admiral who led US Indo-Pacific Command from 2015 to 2018. .

Speaking at the WEST conference in San Diego in February, Harris contrasted the Chinese military’s experience with that of the US military, which has fought campaigns of varying intensity for much of the past 20 years.

“They’re not tested, for one thing,” Harris said when asked to compare the PLA’s ground forces to those of the US military.

Navy admiral Harry Harris

Adm. Harry Harris Jr., then-commander of US Pacific Fleet, at a conference in Honolulu, December 11, 2014

US Navy/MCS1 Amanda Dunford


Harris, who was also US ambassador to South Korea from 2018 to 2021, added that while PLA forces have skirmished with Indian troops along their disputed border, Chinese troops have not been “tested writ large like US ground forces and the Marine Corps.”

While China’s military is investing in logistics capabilities and expanding its overseas presence, Harris said the PLA’s ability to move its forces “to the point of need is severely limited.”

The US’s withdrawal from Afghanistan was a “debacle,” but the US’s evacuation of 120,000 people from that country in just a few weeks with no notice is something China likely wouldn’t be able to do, Harris said.

“I don’t see that PRC as having that ability to deliver those ground forces anywhere in the world at the level that America can,” Harris said.

If they had to fight on the Chinese mainland, PLA ground forces “would probably do well,” but they would likely be at a “a disadvantage” if they faced sustained combat against the US or its allies in a different part of the world, Harris added.

China’s military services also lack experience fighting together, while the US military’s service branches have been refining their joint operational ability for decades.

US troops are “going to be enabled by the joint force,” Harris said. “I don’t see that joint architecture robustly in existence in the [Chinese] military.”

‘Peacetime disease’

US China soldier training

A US and Chinese soldier during a joint disaster-relief training in Kunming in China’s Yunnan province, November 18, 2016.

STR/AFP via Getty Images


China fought its last major war in 1979, when it invaded northern Vietnam. That conflict lasted only a few weeks — though skirmishes dragged on for years — but China’s performance is widely regarded as poor.

Estimates of Beijing’s losses range from 7,900 to 26,000 soldiers killed and 23,000 to 37,000 wounded. China’s air force and navy also had no role in combat operations during the short war.

To the US Defense Department’s most recent report on the Chinese military, leaders in the Chinese Communist Party and in the PLA “are keenly aware that the military has not experienced combat in decades nor fought with its current suite of capabilities and organizational structures.”

That knowledge has led military leaders and state media to make frequent calls for the PLA to remedy the “peacetime disease,” which is characterized as “lax training attitudes and practices that are viewed as hindering combat readiness,” according to the Pentagon report.

The PLA has tried to bolster its experience with more exercises focusing on combined-arms operations and by sending its warships on port calls and senior-level visits abroad.

The PLA also plays a large role in UN peacekeeping missions, to which it currently contributes 2,235 troops, making it the ninth-largest participant. Beijing’s personnel and financial commitment to those missions give its forces practical experience and burnish its international influence.

China’s efforts to close the experience gap may be undercut by its breakneck military modernization. New, sophisticated military hardware continues to arrive, but personnel trained to operate it take longer to acquire — a problem especially relevant for China’s navy.

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