Chinese Operations in the Korean War, 1950–1953 Part II

Chinese Tactical Leadership.

Chinese junior officers performed equally well, perhaps even better, than their generals. The Chinese employed a highly decentralized command system that placed a heavy burden on tactical leaders. Because Chinese operations were often conducted at night, involved large-scale infiltrations, had few radios, and placed a premium on stealth, it was often impossible for senior commanders to direct their forces in the midst of battle. The Chinese also placed a premium on decisions made on the spot in response to immediate circumstances. In particular, they emphasized the immediate exploitation of gaps and weak points such as unit boundaries, which meant that junior officers were expected to recognize such opportunities and act on them without direct orders. As one historian observed, “The nature of the Chinese Red Army, with its paucity of modern military equipment, placed a great deal of responsibility on unit commanders, they were to follow the general plan if they could, but not be afraid to deviate if it seemed appropriate.” To facilitate this, the Chinese army conducted extensive pre-attack briefings, with senior officers providing remarkable amounts of information to their subordinates to ensure that more junior commanders would be able to make smart decisions during the battle based on a full understanding of the plan and the intelligence regarding enemy forces and intentions. Indeed, virtually all Chinese operations were planned only at general levels, and the specifics were typically left to the commanders in the field to decide as the circumstances dictated.

Chinese junior officers performed extremely well in this system. They kept up a constant stream of patrols to find the enemy, and then to probe for routes of attack, flanks, gaps in the line, unit boundaries, etc. Once they had a reasonable picture of enemy dispositions they formulated a plan of attack and put it into action. They showed tremendous individual initiative and aggressiveness. They rarely seemed to let an opportunity pass, and reacted quickly and flexibly to the ebb and flow of combat. At times, they did miss opportunities to exploit, but typically because their logistics failed them or they had suffered such heavy casualties taking the position that they had too little left to follow through. When one approach failed, Chinese junior officers devised a new plan of action and then put it into effect. They also showed a real flare for improvisation in their approach to combat situations. As just one example of this, in 1950 one Chinese company commander had his men light the dried grass near an American position on fire when they could not find a way to flank the American lines. The grass burned straight up the hill the Americans were holding, forcing them to abandon the position.

Chinese tactical units operated at a quick operational tempo, especially given their lack of motor transport. Chinese junior officers fully recognized the need to hit hard and fast and to keep hitting the enemy with rapid blows so that he could not recover. Consequently, they bypassed resistance when possible and drove as far and as fast into the rear as they could to overrun command posts and keep the enemy reeling. In one incident, Chinese troops smashed the ROK 15th Infantry Regiment and then pursued so quickly that they passed the retreating South Korean troops, overran the regiment’s command post, and then turned to ambush the combat units (again) as they fled south.46 Even when one Chinese unit might stop to regroup on an objective, other elements of the force—or other units of the same formation—would take it upon themselves to keep moving forward to maintain the pace of advance and not give the enemy any breathing space.

One of the greatest strengths of the Chinese military at every level was their predilection for maneuver. Shu Guang Zhang notes that the PLA itself believed that its forces could overcome American advantages in firepower because they were “good at maneuvering, flexibility and mobility and, in particular, good at surrounding and attacking [the] enemy’s flanks by taking tortuous courses, as well as dispersing and concealing forces.” The PLA’s favored form of attack—and counterattack—was what Lin Biao referred to as the “one point, two sides” maneuver, which consisted of a frontal assault to pin the enemy coupled with a double envelopment. Chinese forces at every level from army group to squad employed this approach, and when it proved impossible, they found other ways to maneuver against their foe, performing a single envelopment or simply attacking from an oblique angle to the defender’s lines. American, South Korean, Turkish, British (and in 1962, Indian troops) reported being constantly outflanked and hit from the rear by Chinese units.

These traits were equally apparent in defensive operations. Chinese tactical commanders were just as diligent about reconnaissance when on the defensive. They were careful to disguise their positions and built ingenious defensive networks. Chinese forces were also extremely active on defense and rarely sat passively in their trenches while being attacked. In battle, Chinese units would abandon their positions if they thought that they could move into a better one, preferably one from which they could fire or counterattack into the attacker’s flank or rear. Chinese units counterattacked vigorously and quickly at every level. Indeed, many Chinese defensive positions were designed to lure the enemy in and crush him with a devastating counterattack (often from several sides simultaneously). Whenever possible, the Chinese attempted to conduct flanking counterattacks to cut off the attacking force and crush it. Moreover, if they repulsed an attacker, Chinese units frequently seized the opportunity to pursue or even launch an immediate attack of their own.

The Chinese appear to have done adequately in combined arms operations when their very limited experiences are taken into account. In Korea, the Chinese initially employed pure infantry formations, but by the end of the war they also fielded considerable numbers of artillery batteries. By and large, the Chinese did well in employing their artillery to support their infantry formations both when attacking and in defense.

Chinese Rank and File Performance. China’s soldiery did all that could be expected of them. Personal bravery among Chinese units was very high. The Chinese Army attacked with great confidence and enthusiasm. In Korea, this remained the case until the cold, the lack of food and other supplies, as well as the terrifying losses in combat began to set in during 1951. Chinese unit cohesion was likewise excellent. Although numerous Chinese units did begin to crack in 1951 at the end of the Fifth Phase Offensive, what was impressive was just how much hardship and adversity these formations endured before that happened. By that time, many of the Chinese soldiers were literally starving to death, clinically exhausted, and numbed by five months of attacks into the teeth of UN firepower. Most armies would have fallen apart long before.

Chinese weapons handling was mostly poor, albeit with several bright spots. Chinese marksmanship was lousy across the board. Chinese infantrymen could do little with their small arms. One exception to this rule was that Chinese units were often inexplicably good with light machine guns. Chinese forces also suffered heavily from the limited technical skills of their personnel. Consequently, few could handle electronics equipment, heavy weaponry, or other technology-intensive machines. To at least some extent, the Chinese had to forgo certain weapons that were simply beyond the technical skills of their men. Moreover, Chinese troops rarely got the maximum performance out of even the relatively simple weaponry they employed.

By contrast, Chinese artillery and mortar operations were very competent. Although Chinese forces entered the war with only light mortars and almost no artillery, by 1952 they had learned to employ their new Soviet-supplied indirect-fire weapons in a fairly sophisticated manner. As the war progressed, the ability of Chinese mortar and artillery units to mass their fire became an important element in their defensive operations. Chinese artillery batteries could rapidly combine their fire even when geographically dispersed, their fire missions were often very accurate, and they could quickly and flexibly shift their fire from one target to the next as required by front-line commanders. Chinese mortar units even got so good that they could silence US mortars in counter-battery duels.

Chinese Combat Support and Combat Service Support Performance. Above all else, logistics was the bane of Chinese military operations. In Korea, China might have scored one of the most impressive victories in modern history had its supply services been able to keep pace with its combat units and had its combat units been able to move faster than they did. As one historian has said of Marshal Peng, “It was not the Americans who were defeating him; it was winter, and the Chinese inability to fight this sort of war on a straight offensive basis. The logistics of an attacking army are perhaps six times more difficult than those of a defending army, and Marshal Peng’s logistics, by his own statements, were so ridiculous as to be laughable.”

The causes of these logistics problems may not be as clear as they may seem. The most obvious problem the Chinese faced was that they had too few trucks and trains to supply their army, and too few air defenses to protect the logistical network from air attack. In addition, they had other material complications. For example, in Korea, Chinese forces used a multitude of small arms, none of which were manufactured in China and most of which were no longer manufactured at all. Consequently, providing ammunition and spare parts to the combat units was a nightmare. However, it is unclear whether Chinese logistics problems also were related to China’s low levels of education or other socioeconomic factors. Logistics for an army that is even crudely modern requires quartermasters able to read and do arithmetic and often more complicated mathematics. In addition, supplying such a vast army, over such great distances with such a multitude of different weapons, is a complex project to say the least.

Very little information exists regarding China’s maintenance capabilities. During October and November 1951, the Chinese generally were able to keep 300–400 of their 800 trucks running on any given day. A 50 percent operational readiness rate is usually considered very poor, and this would fit well with the pattern of difficulties the Chinese experienced in other aspects of military operations related to technical skills. Still, it would be rash to conclude based on this single scrap of evidence that Chinese armies experienced considerable problems with maintenance and repairs. The Chinese were using mostly very old trucks captured from the Guomindang and the Japanese. It is unclear what kind of shape they were in when the Chinese Communists got them, or what kind of an inventory of spare parts and lubricants they had by 1950. Moreover, 800 trucks is an absurdly low number to try to support an army of over 300,000 men, so those trucks may have been driven to death. For all of these reasons, this meager evidence on its own cannot support the conclusion that Chinese maintenance practices were poor, even though this would fit the pattern suggested by Chinese problems with logistics and weapons handling.

Limited evidence suggests that Chinese combat engineers were reasonably good. Although the Chinese were known to use infantry battalions to clear paths through minefields by having them walk across in line-abreast, they generally could rely on a competent corps of engineers. In Korea, Chinese engineers built impressive fortifications very quickly. Chinese engineers showed a tremendous ability to cross water obstacles. The US Air Force was constantly frustrated by the speed and ingenuity of Chinese engineers building, repairing, and circumventing bridges knocked down by US air strikes.

Chinese Air Force Performance. China’s air force made a reasonable effort given its newness. The Chinese did not necessarily do “well” in any category of air operations, but deserve high marks for learning quickly.

The planning and direction of Chinese air operations was reasonably good. Chinese Air Force leaders initially recognized that their squadrons were only capable of defensive counter-air missions, and so they concentrated on trying to disrupt the US campaign against Chinese logistics. Later, as the forces available to them improved, they took on more ambitious missions. The Chinese quickly deduced the weaknesses of the F-86 Sabre, specifically its limited range, and designed tactics to try to take advantage of that problem. Although the United States quickly countered, the Chinese in turn devised a counter to the Americans’ counter-tactic. The United States ultimately prevailed in this contest, but this rapid interplay indicates that Chinese Air Force leaders were intelligent, creative, and resourceful and actively tried to shape aerial encounters, rather than passively accepting situations as they occurred.

Chinese air forces concentrated almost exclusively on counter-air missions; consequently, this is the only category of air operations in which the Chinese performance can reasonably be assessed. The Chinese began very poorly but had made major improvements by war’s end. The chief factor was the experience of Chinese pilots. At the start of the war, the Chinese Air Force was brand new and had only a handful of qualified pilots, none of whom had participated in air-to-air combat before. When these men went up against the World War II veterans of the US Air Force they were slaughtered. The Chinese began sending large numbers of pilots to the USSR for training, and over time, they began to give the American pilots a harder time. There was never a month during the Korean War when Chinese MiG squadrons did more damage to the Americans than they sustained themselves, but by 1952 they had reduced the number of losses they were taking and had increased the number of US planes they were shooting down.

Chinese Air Force Performance.

China’s air force made a reasonable effort given its newness. The Chinese did not necessarily do “well” in any category of air operations, but deserve high marks for learning quickly.

The planning and direction of Chinese air operations was reasonably good. Chinese Air Force leaders initially recognized that their squadrons were only capable of defensive counter-air missions, and so they concentrated on trying to disrupt the US campaign against Chinese logistics. Later, as the forces available to them improved, they took on more ambitious missions. The Chinese quickly deduced the weaknesses of the F-86 Sabre, specifically its limited range, and designed tactics to try to take advantage of that problem. Although the United States quickly countered, the Chinese in turn devised a counter to the Americans’ counter-tactic. The United States ultimately prevailed in this contest, but this rapid interplay indicates that Chinese Air Force leaders were intelligent, creative, and resourceful and actively tried to shape aerial encounters, rather than passively accepting situations as they occurred.

Chinese air forces concentrated almost exclusively on counter-air missions; consequently, this is the only category of air operations in which the Chinese performance can reasonably be assessed. The Chinese began very poorly but had made major improvements by war’s end. The chief factor was the experience of Chinese pilots. At the start of the war, the Chinese Air Force was brand new and had only a handful of qualified pilots, none of whom had participated in air-to-air combat before. When these men went up against the World War II veterans of the US Air Force they were slaughtered. The Chinese began sending large numbers of pilots to the USSR for training, and over time, they began to give the American pilots a harder time. There was never a month during the Korean War when Chinese MiG squadrons did more damage to the Americans than they sustained themselves, but by 1952 they had reduced the number of losses they were taking and had increased the number of US planes they were shooting down.

Nevertheless it is still the bottom line that, throughout the war, the Chinese never performed as well as the Americans in air combat maneuvering. They fought aggressively, and they maneuvered, and some of their pilots were able to really exploit the capabilities of their aircraft, but they were never able to do it at the same level as the Americans. As a result, US Sabre pilots racked up at least a 5:1 kill ratio against the Chinese for the war.

Decisive Factors in the Korean War.

Chinese forces did as well as they did in combat for several reasons. Chinese leadership at both strategic and tactical levels was unquestionably the most important factor in Chinese successes. China’s generals did a superb job employing the resources at their disposal to achieve Beijing’s political objectives. In many of their campaigns, the Chinese achieved spectacular results that almost certainly would have been beyond the reach of less competent generals commanding the same forces. Similarly, it is difficult to fault Beijing’s generals for Chinese failures. Ultimately, the tasks set for them by their political masters may well have been unachievable.

Chinese tactical competence was just as important as the skill of their strategic leadership. In battle, the Chinese were an extremely dangerous foe, and what is so incredible is that they achieved this level of tactical prowess despite pitiful weaponry and illiterate soldiers mostly incapable of taking full advantage of the meager equipment they possessed. It is remarkable that Chinese infantry companies of roughly 100 men equipped with no more than a few dozen rifles, perhaps three or four light machine guns, and maybe a light mortar or two, could attack and defeat entrenched American units of roughly equal size but lavishly armed with the most modern weapons and backed by fearsome air and artillery support. Chinese tactical formations maintained a torrid pace of operations, although this inevitably outstripped what their logistical train could support. Their units displayed this tactical excellence from squad to division levels, and the credit for this has to go to China’s tactical commanders. With only a few exceptions, the Americans were never able to match Chinese tactical skills in Korea, and only were able to achieve a stalemate through the application of overwhelming firepower to bleed the Chinese army white—and they could do so only because Chinese logistical failings prevented them from overrunning the peninsula altogether.

Another important aspect of China’s victories was its superb intelligence capabilities. In Korea, China won the intelligence war, and in doing so, went a great distance toward winning the entire war. China’s constant attention to reconnaissance and its persistent efforts to gather information on its adversary in any way possible usually gave Chinese military leaders at all levels an excellent understanding of the adversary they faced. On the other hand, China’s meticulous attention to operational security and CC&D prevented their enemies from knowing much if anything about their own operations. At the grandest strategic level, the Chinese moved over 300,000 men into Korea without the United States realizing it. At tactical levels, Chinese platoons and battalions often passed right under the noses of US, ROK, and other Western units before and during a battle.

Chinese military setbacks were largely the product of two weaknesses: logistics and weaponry. Chinese deficiencies in supplying and moving their forces were literally crippling because they led to widespread starvation and frostbite. In 1950–1951, this failing was unquestionably the most important factor that prevented China from turning a remarkable victory into a decisive one.

China’s arsenal was its other great problem. The Chinese simply lacked the equipment that their adversaries possessed, both in terms of quantity and quality. The gap between the arms of a US, or even a ROK, unit and those of comparable Chinese units was immeasurable. Nevertheless, China’s deficiencies in terms of arms should not be exaggerated: the Chinese armed forces achieved stunning successes despite this problem, and their defeats do not seem to have been the result of deficiencies in weaponry. Had the Chinese been better armed, their operations almost certainly would have been even more successful, but there is no reason to believe that this would have compensated for the logistical problems that brought their Korean offensives to a halt.

An important aspect of this issue is whether Chinese deficiencies in weaponry and logistics were purely the product of their poverty, or the result of an inability among Chinese personnel to read and write, to understand machinery, and to handle the complex requirements of a modern army. Was the problem simply that the Chinese could not afford to build or buy adequate numbers of modern arms, trucks, and combat consumables? Or, was the problem that even had Beijing been able to acquire adequate supplies of this materiel it would have made little difference because Chinese soldiers and officers would have been unable to employ them properly?

This is a crucial question to understand the impact of underdevelopment on military effectiveness. If the problem is simply one of availability, then this says little about the impact of underdevelopment on the performance of the personnel themselves. Of greatest importance, it would argue that underdevelopment probably was not a very good explanation for Arab military ineffectiveness, because in most of their wars the Arab armies had a surfeit of weapons, mobility assets, and supplies. Unfortunately, very little evidence is available, and what is available is contradictory. For example, the poor dogfighting skills of Chinese pilots suggests that the problem was an inability to fully exploit modern technology. On the other hand, the excellent machine gunning and artillery skills of Chinese ground forces indicate just the opposite, that the problem was simply the inadequacy of the available hardware.

As a final note, although China’s enemies have often blamed their losses on Chinese numerical superiority in manpower, this excuse unconvincing. In Korea, Chinese quantitative advantages were not great. The Chinese often had fewer men in the field than the UN forces. Of course, the UN armies had a much lower “tooth-to-tail” ratio so the Chinese frequently had more combat soldiers available than did the United States. But these imbalances should not have been decisive. For instance, in November 1950, China fielded 388,000 men against 342,000 UN soldiers. Even if one assumes that as much as 80 percent of Chinese manpower were combat troops while only 50 percent of UN manpower were, the net figure is 310,000 Chinese soldiers against 205,000 UN soldiers. Given the immense material disparity between the two sides, such a difference in manpower should not have been decisive. In 2003, an Anglo-American army of about 75,000 troops with similar material advantages crushed an Iraqi army of 300,000 and conquered their country in under a month. If the issue were merely mass versus materiel in Korea, the Chinese advantage in mass should not have outweighed the UN advantage in materiel.

Regardless of the raw balance of manpower, the crucial point is that the Chinese did not win by overwhelming numbers. The Chinese were forced to employ mass as a substitute for firepower in their tactical maneuver schemes. This should not take away from the fact that their victories over the US-led armies in Korea were achieved by superior tactical competence. The Chinese won battles by deceiving, confusing, and outmaneuvering their opponents, not by drowning them in a sea of manpower. Especially prior to Ridgway’s reforms, American military units in Korea were very mediocre, and weren’t even as competent as their World War II antecedents. For the Americans, having more such units would not have made nearly as much difference as having more capable ones.

Chinese and Arab Military Effectiveness.

Comparing Arab military performance since 1948 with the Chinese military experience in the Korean War shows pretty much the same thing as the Libya-Chad case: vast differences in military effectiveness existed between many Arab and non-Arab forces despite comparable levels of socioeconomic development. China’s extreme backwardness does not appear to have produced the same patterns of ineffectiveness in Chinese forces that characterized Arab operations during the postwar era.

Aside from those categories related to limited technical skills, the only areas in which Chinese and Arab armed forces appeared comparable was in the high degrees of unit cohesion and personal bravery displayed by both. Other than this, it is difficult to find areas in which the Arabs fought as well as, or even just similar to, the Chinese. In particular, the Chinese manifested none of the problems the Arabs had with information management and tactical leadership in terms of initiative, creativity, flexibility, responsiveness, etc. Instead, these were areas in which the Chinese excelled. For the Chinese, maneuver warfare and information management were arguably their greatest strengths, whereas for the Arabs these were their greatest weakness.

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