GREAT-POWER CONFLICTPreparing for Great Power Conflict

Published 14 July 2023

How has the military experience gained by both the U.S. military and the PLA since 2001 shaped the way both militaries train? What effect do these experiences and training trends have on readiness for major power conflict?

The U.S. and Chinese militaries have been shaped by a distinct set of direct and indirect experiences. The U.S. military has focused its energy and resources on combating terrorism and performing counterinsurgency operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Even in 2023, U.S. emphasis on major power competition contends with other national security priorities, including current crises and continued deployments around the globe.

The People’s Liberation Army (PLA), on the other hand, has largely focused its military modernization and restructuring to prepare for a regional conflict that would likely involve U.S. military intervention. Despite having no combat experience since the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese War, the PLA has conducted an in-depth study of all aspects of the U.S. military’s technological and operational capabilities — including its organization, command and control, logistics, joint operations, and concepts of operation — since the 1990s.

A new report from RAND notes that the dichotomy presented by the experiences of both militaries raises several questions about how they are preparing for the possibility of a major power conflict. Since 2001, the U.S. military has gained significant direct combat experience, but has done so against technologically inferior, nonpeer adversaries. In contrast, the PLA had no direct combat experience. Even though its concepts of operation are designed to fight a major power, these concepts are largely derived from indirect observations and lessons from U.S. operations since 1991. The ways that each side gains and processes experience and incorporates it into training will heavily affect readiness for and performance in a future war.

Key Findings

·  The PLA gains experience through a structured process involving observation of wars and the study of military science, concept development, experimentation, demonstration, and implementation and training across the force.

·  The U.S. military has an experiential model based on direct combat, but indirect experimentation figures more prominently as the global threat picture changes to include more near-peer adversaries.

·  The nature of both militaries’ experiences since 2001 raises questions about preparations for major power conflict and whether the training component of those preparations will be sufficient for operational success.

·  China has an advantage in the focus it applies to concepts and capabilities needed to deter, delay, or defeat a U.S. force entering China’s neighborhood. China might have the means to make such intervention prohibitively costly, putting U.S. forces into reactive mode.

·  The U.S. military has advantages in adaptive and innovative capacity. Ultimately, one of the most significant and enduring advantages enjoyed by the U.S. military has been the quality of its training and the ability to update that training to meet changing conditions and threats.

·  Time is an advantage for the United States when it comes to conceptual and functional change in preparing for major power conflict. The PLA’s focus on preparing to fight the United States involves massive revisions to the PLA’s command culture in an environment already fraught with changing priorities.

·  Training and exercise approaches, tools, and infrastructure needed for PLA joint operations are improving but nascent in the absence of experiential pressures like those faced by the United States.


·  Further comparative study on U.S. and Chinese experimentation, training, and exercises related to major war concepts and capabilities would benefit U.S. planners and strategists in campaign development. A comprehensive database that quantifies the number, scope, and scale of these activities, along with qualitative assessments of the capabilities and vulnerabilities in evidence, would inform net assessments and scenario-specific games and analyses.

·  U.S. policymakers and senior warfighters should seek additional insight on how China’s leadership assesses PLA readiness for major power conflict from the intelligence community and federally funded research and development centers. Understanding how senior Chinese Communist Party decisionmakers evaluate PLA experience as a factor in decisions to employ military force is a key component in designing U.S. deterrence approaches.