Russia and China Look at the Future of War

This paper is part of ISW's Military Learning & The Future of War series. Click here to go to the series homepage. 

Russia and China share a common modernization objective: achieving dominance in decision-making in future wars. Both states are struggling to improve their military personnel quality and integrate the lessons from the wars of the past two decades. Russia is attempting to innovate within a narrower band of military doctrine and operations while addressing the early failures of its Ukraine invasion. China aims to use new doctrine, technology, and integration of civilian expertise with the People Liberation Army (PLA) to leapfrog over US military superiority. The United States must assess the threat from China’s and Russia’s modernization efforts and seek to exploit their respective blind spots and weaknesses.
Russia’s views of future war focus on the concept of “superiority of management” and the importance of the information domain. Russian military thinkers emphasize the need for better and faster decision-making than opponents and for shaping the adversary’s actions within a Russian decision framework. Russian theorists believe that information superiority is crucial for successful kinetic operations, contrary to the US’ conventional concept of information operations. The Russian military views hybrid war as an effort to shape the governance and geopolitical orientation of a target state, combining information campaigns with conventional military actions. Russian leadership saw the invasion of Ukraine in 2022 as the culmination of a hybrid war but the conflict exposed strategic and operational failures of their military planning. Russia had observed valuable lessons from its experience in Syria and developed concepts such as “limited actions” and coalition operations for future conflicts. The war in Ukraine, however, revealed Russia’s limitations and its failure to close the gap in command-and-control capabilities with Western militaries. Despite this, Russia aims to prepare its conventional armed forces for large-scale conventional war in the future while continuing to prioritize the information domain in conflict.
China’s military modernization efforts are aimed at achieving decision dominance through a three-pronged approach: doctrinal transformation and ideological rigor; exploitation of advanced technology to shape the character of modern conflicts; and innovation of its training methods to compensate for the lack of wartime fighting experience. China has modernized its military since 1993 to close the capability gap with the US, with the goal of reaching parity or even superiority by 2049. PRC doctrinal thinking emphasizes “systems warfare,” which involves comprehensive contests between highly integrated systems, such as logistics, surveillance, and communications. The objective is to establish information and decision systems dominance over air, maritime, and other domain-centric approaches. Cognitive warfare, including information manipulation and subversive operations against adversary leaders and the population, is seen as crucial for shaping the battlefield before and during conflicts. China is additionally exploring the concept of hybrid warfare and its relationship to systems warfare. Strengthening Chinese Communist Party orthodoxy, loyalty, and control of the state have been central themes for President Xi Jinping since 2012, including bolstering the role of the political commissar in the PLA chain of command and reviving the Maoist concept of “people’s war.”
Achieving “informatization” and “intelligentization” has also guided the PLA’s technological modernization in recent decades. Informatization focuses on information technology to aid precision targeting and disrupting the adversary’s command-and-control systems, while intelligentization involves the integration of artificial intelligence (AI), autonomous weapons, and brain-controlled weapons to enhance the speed and complexity of warfare. Finally, the PLA’s lack of engagement in major conflicts since the 1979 Sino-Vietnam War poses a significant training and human capital development challenge. China is studying US and Russian military successes and failures since the end of the Cold War. The PLA tests potential US and Taiwan conflict scenarios by employing realistic opposition forces (OPFOR) in training, exercising against US and allied forces operating in the region, and conducting AI-enabled computerized wargames integrating expertise from technology firms and civilian gaming communities. Comparing Russia’s and China’s recent military experiences and modernization efforts reveals several strategic opportunities for the United States and its allies:
  • The PRC’s modernization effort is more expansive and complex than Russia’s. The PLA lacks the testing and refinement that comes from real-world combat, however. Chinese future war concepts and execution are consequently less coherent as a whole and require greater speculative assessments. 
  • Russia’s strategic and operational military deficiencies during the Ukraine campaign exposed systemic weaknesses in training, personnel, and leadership. Lessons learned from campaigns in Syria have not effectively transformed Russian military thinking and Syrian experience within the Russian officer corps has been depleted due to casualties and demotions during the Ukraine war. Russia’s efforts to centralize military control and improve command-and-control-systems implementation have also been hindered by issues such as micromanagement and a culture of fear among officers.
  • PRC ideological constraints and overconfidence in its ability to integrate AI and other modern technology into military decision-making and fix long-term human capital management challenges will inhibit the level of clarity it seeks in wartime strategy and operations.
  • The subsequent Russian military failures after the US campaign of selective intelligence disclosures before the invasion of Ukraine illuminate the effect of over-reliance on information warfare in Russian doctrine. China’s more balanced approach employing information and conventional military operations to cognitive and hybrid warfare doctrine will likely prove more challenging for the United States than Russia’s.
  • Russia’s experience in Syria focused on pre-structured coalition operations and expeditionary operations. China’s concepts for expeditionary warfare are still under development.
  • The PLA’s modernization program relies on strong defense and technology industries, but a slowdown in economic reforms and re-prioritization of state control of industry under President Xi Jinping may limit resources and innovation.
  • Russian forces have overall struggled with heavy urban combat in Ukraine but are making advances in surveillance and UAV tactics in urban environments. The PLA may face significant challenges in future urban warfare from its overdependence on drones, hesitancy to allow small unit autonomy and misreading of the political environment and public perceptions in operational areas.
  • China has likely surpassed the United States in employing modeling, simulation, and OPFOR. The more the PLA relies on gaming and simulations, however, the greater the chance of flawed strategic and operational concepts becoming embedded in PLA doctrine.
Exploiting adversary vulnerabilities and building on relative strengths will be crucial for the United States to succeed in its long-term military competition with China and Russia. At the operational and tactical level, the United States has battle-tested forces with extensive lessons learned from recent conflicts. The United States benefits from superior training and a decentralized command structure. However, at the strategic level, the United States struggles with slow and incoherent decision-making processes, making it difficult to establish clear objectives and execute coherent plans. The United States also tends to bifurcate war and non-war operations, unlike Russia and China, which see them as part of a singular conflict. The United States must integrate diplomatic, information, and conventional operations to counter Russian and Chinese hybrid warfare and political campaigns effectively. Despite these challenges, the United States possesses strengths in its alliances, partnerships, transparency, and advanced technologies that can mitigate structural and be the foundation for future success.