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Conflict with China will be on land, not just at sea: US general

Top weapons strategist says Beijing has advanced beyond a 'regional' threat

A U.S. cavalry regiment conducts live-fire gunnery qualification at Orchard Combat Training Center in Idaho: The Indo-Pacific Command, often considered a maritime theater, covers 2.7 billion sq. km of land and 50% of the world's population. (Photo by U.S. Army)

WASHINGTON -- While Chinese President Xi Jinping pressed for a "good start" in his country's military development and combat readiness at the just-concluded National People's Congress, another military planner across the globe pushes for a "modernization to overmatch" the People's Liberation Army, insisting that land warfare -- and not just naval combat -- will be decisive in the China-centric Indo-Pacific theater.

"They're going to use every arrow in their quiver," Maj. Gen. Richard Coffman, director of the U.S. Army Futures Command's Next-Generation Combat Vehicle Cross-Functional Team, said Wednesday at a webinar held by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Coffman focused his comments on a possible conflict with the PLA, which he cited as the "pacing threat" facing the U.S.

Coffman urged a rethinking of how strategists imagine future conflict with China, noting that the U.S. military's Indo-Pacific Command, or INDOPACOM in the military's terminology, covers 2.7 billion sq. km of land and 50% of the world's population.

Many people "look at the INDOPACOM area of operations as a maritime theater," he said. "But the reason you will need a land component in INDOPACOM is because it will be the only component that will be decisive."

"If you want to take land, if you want to hold land, if you want to clear land, you will [need] the ground element," Coffman said. "It's not just about tanks, though China's got plenty of them: 7,000 tanks and 3,000 infantry fighting vehicles -- 10,000 vehicles that will be decisive if we are not there. In order to be decisive, we have to be there with armor to prevent the Chinese from getting into a position of relevant advantage."

Soldiers conduct paradrop operations in Hawaii: An Army general warns that the U.S. must prepare for land warfare with China. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Army)

Critics deride the Army's cavalry and armored elements as relics of the past, when a conflict with the Soviet Union on the plains of Europe was a basic premise in the U.S. military's force posture.

But "our pacing threat does not lie in Europe. It lies in Asia," Coffman said. "And that pacing threat is China, who is also modernizing."

Beijing disagrees. The state-run Xinhua News Agency published an article Wednesday supporting China's growing defense spending, citing China's population of 1.4 billion and stating that the country's planned defense expenditure for 2021 would be about $140 per capita.

"In sharp contrast, the defense budget of the United States for the 2021 fiscal year is $740.5 billion, which makes for a per-capita expenditure of about $2,230, around 15 times the Chinese figure," the article said. "When measured in terms of the proportion of GDP spent on the defense budget, China's military spending is undoubtedly at a low level."

Coffman outlined the scale of Beijing's defense ambitions.

"It used to be that China was a regional threat. They are not regional any longer. They are competing with us globally," he said.

"Any belief that China will self-limit in conflict is shortsighted," he said. "They're using their whole of government -- 24/7/365 -- across diplomatic, information, military and economic [spheres] ... If in competition they're competing globally, then in conflict, you can trust, they will fight globally."

Coffman's comments come as the Pentagon reviews its global posture and force combination to adapt to China, its "greatest long-term strategic threat to security," as described by U.S. Indo-Pacific Commander Adm. Philip Davidson.

On Wednesday, the U.S. Naval Institute reported that the Pentagon is considering a reduction in the aircraft carrier force structure to fit the fiscal 2022 defense budget under a top line of $704 billion to $708 billion.

The USS Nimitz transits the Pacific Ocean: Aircraft carriers, which were crucial during U.S. wars in the Middle East, may be more vulnerable in a conflict with China. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Navy)

One proposal is to take aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman out of the inventory rather than conduct a midlife refit and refueling, according to the institute. This is a tacit acknowledgment that aircraft carriers, which were so crucial in the American wars in the Middle East, are likely to factor less in a war with China. Beijing's advanced anti-ship missiles would put aircraft carriers, with more than 5,000 sailors and 60 jet fighters on board, at risk. A dispersed mix of smaller ships and land-based missiles, as well as land forces, look to be the preferred options.

Coffman was discussing hardware options as the Pentagon's Project Convergence 2020 pushes the force to fight jointly with the U.S. Navy, Marines, Air Force and the newly formed Space Force.

Project Convergence 2020 throws "scientists and engineers in the dirt with soldiers," Coffman said, aiming to synchronize air, ground, naval and Marine assets like "a ship in the desert."

"We can roll them all together," he said, "so that we are passing targets back and forth to the best shooter -- all sensors to the best shooters and the right command post."

Imagining the future of ground combat built on the doctrine of convergence, Coffman painted a picture of manned and remotely piloted vehicles engaging together.

"Do you want a main battle tank with a drone and an unmanned ground vehicle? Perhaps," he said. "Is that the best system with which we can field our soldiers? Then that's what we want. Survivability, mobility, lethality and volume of fire -- that's why we need an armored force."

This convergence looks to incorporate allies like Japan by 2022.

Beijing's military modernization is downplayed by Xinhua, which hails "never seeking hegemony, expansion or spheres of influence" as "the distinctive feature of China's national defense in the new era."

Coffman, in contrast, insists that "China has a long history of fighting on their periphery."

"They used armored vehicles every time," he said.

Coffman cited the recent standoff in the Himalayas between the PLA and the Indian Army, in which a skirmish in the Galwan region resulted in the death of 20 Indian soldiers and prompted one of the biggest military buildups the region has seen in recent years.

The general noted China's escalation and choice of hardware. "If you look at what happened with India recently: armored vehicles," he said.

"The South China Sea and the [Taiwan Strait] are only about five degrees of their periphery," Coffman said. "We don't want to go to war. But if we do, what does it look like? Where will it happen. Well, it's bigger than a piece of ocean, I can tell you that."

Coffman was asked about where a conflict with China might occur.

"We don't know where, we don't know when," he said. "The only thing we can guarantee is that if you pick the spot, it will be wrong."

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