Foreign Policy Digital

China’s Untested Military Could Be a Force—or a Flop

It’s been decades since the PLA fought a war. Does that matter?

In February 1943, U.S. troops suffered a humiliating defeat in their first major battle with German forces during World War II. At Kasserine Pass, Tunisia, their inexperience was evident in the indiscipline and fragile morale of the troops; a dispersed, vulnerable deployment; and a rigid, inflexible approach to command and control. The United States paid for its inexperience with the lives of about 6,500 men.

Two decades later, a clash between inexperienced U.S. troops and another seasoned adversary produced a different outcome. In 1965, during one of the first engagements of the Vietnam War, outnumbered U.S. soldiers at Ia Drang fended off numerous assaults by North Vietnamese conventional forces over several days. Using accurate artillery fire, close air support, and novel doctrines of air mobility, the disciplined, well-led American forces fought skillfully against a resolute and capable adversary that had been at war for decades. Although U.S. forces eventually withdrew from the battlefield, they did so in good order and inflicted at least twice as many casualties as they incurred.

Intuitively, the idea that experience should give a military some advantage seems self-evident. Yet as these two examples illustrate, how much experience matters remains far from clear. In the first case, inexperience correlated with poor decision-making, weak battlefield performance, and high casualties. In the latter case, however, an inexperienced force nevertheless demonstrated competent decision-making and effective battlefield performance, and it sustained fewer casualties than the enemy.

Even the idea of “combat

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