Sino-Soviet Border Clash 1929


Soviet 68th Separate Naval Aircraft Squad in 1929 – MR-1 type aircraft.



Universal (river and sea) gunboat of “Storm” type, designed and built in 1911, re-armed in 1920 with captured English 120-mm. cannons.


Press photo released from 1929 mentioning the clash and showing Soviet troops.

The Far Eastern crisis of 1929 had its origins in the arrangements which the Soviet Government, following in the footsteps of the Imperial Russian Government, had made with the Chinese over the ownership and rights of operation of the Chinese Eastern Railroad, which linked the Trans-Siberian line with Vladivostok across Manchuria. The Chinese had frequently objected to Soviet rights over this railway, but the rising power of the Nationalist Government in China under General Chiang Kai-shek and Chiang’s thorough defeat of his Communist allies in 1927 led him to believe that he could bring military pressure to bear on the Soviet Union itself. In 1928-1929 Chiang’s authority did not extent to Manchuria, which was ruled by the provincial warlord Chang Hsueh-liang, but the success of the Nationalists in south and central China brought about a meeting between the two leaders in which they plotted joint action against the Soviet concessions in Chang Hsueg-liang’s province. For once, the interests of the Soviet Government and the Japanese temporarily coincided, for the Japanese, who intended to occupy Manchuria themselves, had no objection to Soviet military action to weaken the provincial Manchurian Army, which was concentrated on the Soviet border by the summer of 1929, and threatened the security of the Soviet-operated railway.

Reasonably assured, therefore, that the Japanese would not intervene against the Red Army, the Soviet leaders prepared their forces for operations in Manchuria in July-August 1929. On August 7 the Revolutionary Military Council established the Special Far Eastern Army in the eastern part of the Siberian Military District, with its headquarters in Khabarovsk. Blukher, who had returned from China in 1927, was placed in command, and two new rifle corps were formed, the 18th in the Transbaikal sector and the 19th in the Maritime Territory. The new army had a strength of six rifle divisions and two cavalry brigades, which were still forming up when the Manchurian forces began to raid Soviet territory and installations. The Red Army, however, waited until the autumn before launching its counterattacks.

There were 3 separate operations – Sungari operation (subdivided by 2 stages – Laha-Susu operation and Fujing operation), Zhalainoer operation and Mishan operation.

There were Amur river flotilla and 2 rifle regiments of the 2-nd Priamurskaya rifle division of Special Far East Army – 6th Khabarovsky and 4th Volochaevsky regiments with a lot of avircrafts (com[aring to Chinese forces). They were prepared to land near the Laha-Susu in the mouth of Sungari River but at first aircrafts bombed Chinese men-of-war located in vicinity of Laha-Susuunder the flag of Admiral Shen Lie. Some of them were sunk, some of them fled, several gunboats (originally Russian paddy-wheel steamers captured by Chinese after 1917) tried to resist but were sunk by Soviet gunboats after a duelling. Then the Soviet soldiers were landed under ramparts of Laha-Susu and after the bombardment of the forts from Soviet gunboats assaulted it. In the evening all Soviet troops were evacuated and did not stay in China even for a night.

Remnants of Sungari flotilla of Shen Lie gathered in Fujing (or Fugdin in Nanai languages as this fort was built by Qing authorities in 1880th to engage Nanai tribesmen into the Eight Banner system) and by the 29th of October it became obvious that the second blow to destroy Sungari flotilla is necessary. So Red Army troops were regrouped and 6th Khabarovsky rifle regiment was substituted by 5th Amursky rifle regiment. After strong bombing Chinese men-of-war were sunk and soldiers destroyed most part of Chinese fortifications in Fugdin. In that time Soviet troops stayed in China for couple of days and then were evacuated. A larger operation was mounted by the 18th Corps at the junction of the Soviet, Chinese and outer Mongolian frontlines, where a concentration of Chang Hsueh-liang’s troops threatened the railway at Manchouli. Here three Soviet divisions and a cavalry brigade crossed the frontier on November 17, cut the railway between Dalainor and Hailar, and surrounded the Manchurian forces in the area. Heavy fighting to destroy the encircled enemy followed, in which cooperation among the Soviet infantry, tanks, and artillery broke down, resulting in heavy casualties. Some of the Manchurian units succeeded in breaking out of the encirclement, but the majority capitulated, and by November 27 the operations were over. Simultaneously, troops of the 19th Corps broke up a Manchurian concentration at Mishan, near Lake Khanka, 100 miles north of Vladivostok, although the Red Army, largely out of willingness to antagonize the Japanese, did not pursue their opponents beyond the confines of the immediate zone of operations.

According to “Soviet Casualties and Combat Losses in the Twentieth Century”, the USSR sustained losses of 143 KIA, 4 MIA, and 665 WIA during the course of these operations. The book states that around 18,000 troops were engaged.

Qing and Opium Wars I


China specialists Peter Perdue and Frederic Wakeman have both suggested, in separate publications, that the Qing were, in a way, victims of their own success. The period of Qing conquest, consolidation, and expansion had been exceedingly violent, with devastating wars that wracked East and Central Asia and corresponded with a significant decrease in China’s population. But once the Qing had established its dominance, expanding China’s borders to their largest extent in history, it remained virtually unchallenged until the mid-nineteenth century. In those generations of relative peace, 1760 to 1839, military leaders in China had little need to focus on innovation or incorporate new methods and technologies from beyond East Asia. Korea and Japan were also generally at peace during this period. East Asians had access to the new technologies and techniques of war that were being forged on the other side of Eurasia, but they had few incentives to adopt or incorporate them on a significant scale.

The resulting military gap became clear to observers before the Opium War. In 1836, an anonymous British correspondent prepared a report about China’s military strength and concluded that if the art of war was the most “infallible criterion of the civilization and advancement of societies,” then China was in the lowest state of civilization. Its gunpowder was coarse, uneven, and liable to spoil. Its cannons were old-fashioned, with uneven bores and primitive carriages, “mere blocks of wood, or solid beds on which the gun is lashed down with rattans, so that it must be impossible to fire any but point blank shots, and very difficult to direct the gun to an object, except that immediately in front of the embrasure whence fired.” For firearms it had only “ill-made” matchlock muskets and no flintlocks, pistols, or any of the other “tribes of fire-arm.” In fact, he observed, China’s soldiers still relied heavily on the bow and arrow, which, given how poor the rest of their weapons were, was “the most efficient of their arms.”

Chinese defenses were, the reporter noted, mere “samples of fortification in its infant state; without fosses, bastions, glacis, or counter defences of any kind; being, in fact, but such lines as the engineers of a disciplined army would throw up, as temporary defences and to cover their guns, in the course of a single night.” Chinese naval vessels were so laughable that they were “beyond the power of description or ridicule to portray.” Indeed, the correspondent wrote, he wouldn’t be surprised if a couple of New Zealand war canoes wouldn’t outmatch the entire Chinese navy. (Charles Dickens would later describe a Chinese junk, which he saw at the Crystal Palace in 1848, as a “ridiculous abortion.”)

But it wasn’t just technology and engineering that the Chinese lacked. The reporter discerned a marked deficiency in military readiness. When garrison troops in Guangzhou mustered for duty, he wrote, they

come in, one by one, undressed, unarmed, unprepared, and half asleep; while piles of brown felt caps, and heaps of shabby looking red and yellow long jackets, bearing the character “courage” … are brought through the gates, for the adornment of the heroes of the hour; by and bye, straggles in an officer, generally the largest sized man that can be found; some bows, sheaves of arrows, and rusty swords, make up the warlike show; evidently got up for the nonce to astonish and awe “the barbarians,” who might, did they please, be in the governor’s harem before the guard could awake from their slumbers.

On occasion European travelers had observed that Chinese swords were so rusty that the soldiers could scarcely draw them.

At the end of his report, the correspondent expressed surprise himself at the extent of China’s military backwardness. “We have now gone through the subject which we sat down to discuss, and although we were well aware that the military force of the Chinese empire was much overrated, we rise astonished at the weakness, the utter imbecility.… It seems indeed strange that the whole fabric does not fall asunder of itself. Of this we are convinced; that, at the first vigorous and well directed blow from a foreign power, it will totter to its base.”

He was wrong about how much the Qing would totter, but modern research corroborates his views about Qing military capacity. Historians Liu Hongliang and Zhang Jianxiong have conducted an exhaustive and detailed comparison of Chinese and European guns circa 1840 and conclude, “At the time of the Opium War, the difference between British and Chinese cannon technology and capacity is an objective fact.… The British military had made innovations and improvements in all aspects—design, ammunition, powder technology, firing mechanisms, and especially in the quality of the iron, the production, the finishing and other such key technologies—such that their cannons’ range, speed of firing, accuracy, and lethality were superior to Qing cannons.” The Qing had not made such improvements. As Liu Hongliang notes in a different work, “At the time of the Opium War, the Qing military’s front-loading cannon form was the same type as that of seventeenth century Europe, and … the design hadn’t seen any kind of change.” Qing cannons were heavier, clumsier, slower to load and fire, and far less efficient in terms of powder use. Indeed, many of the cannons deployed in coastal forts were actually forged or cast in the seventeenth or early eighteenth century. To be sure there were local exceptions. Artisans in coastal regions—particularly in Guangdong Province—could produce more up-to-date ordnance based on Western models, but they were still not as effective as the advanced guns of Britain, and in any case they were outliers.

Modern research also shows that Qing infantry forces were also backward. Liu and Zhang note that troops “were equipped with sixty or seventy percent traditional weapons, of which the most important were the long lance, the side sword, the bow and arrow, and the rattan shield, and only thirty or forty percent [of their armament consisted of] gunpowder weapons, of which the most important were the matchlock musket, the heavy musket, the cannon, the fire arrow, and the earth-shaking bomb and such things.” The Qing matchlock musket was constructed according to a design that hadn’t changed much since the seventeenth century. (It’s interesting to note that Qing armies weren’t the only non-European forces clinging to matchlocks. They were still in use in the Levant and Iran, for example.)

European armies had long since switched to flintlocks, and the British were undergoing a transition to percussion cap muskets, which required no externally applied sparks at all. In contrast, the Qing matchlock guns were slow, unwieldy, and dangerous, as British observers noted with empathy and derision. “Every soldier,” wrote naval officer William Hutcheon Hall, “has to carry a match or port fire to ignite the powder in the matchlock when loaded. Hence, when a poor fellow is wounded and falls, the powder, which is very apt to run out of his pouch over his clothes, is very likely to be ignited by his own match, and in this way he may either be blown up at once, or else his clothes may be ignited; … it is therefore not surprising that they should regard the matchlock with some little apprehension.”

Many Qing soldiers preferred to fight the British with bow and arrow, a matchup that did not usually end well, as this same William Hutcheon Hall found to his good fortune. One of Hall’s subordinates records how a Chinese officer, “with cool determination and a steady aim, deliberately discharged four arrows from his bow at Captain Hall, fortunately without effect. Had they been musket-balls, however, he could scarcely have escaped. A marine instantly raised his musket at the less fortunate Chinese officer: the aim was unerring, and he fell.” Someone tried to rescue the fallen Qing officer, “for his coolness and courage,” but the attempt failed because “in the heat of an engagement it is impossible to control every man.”

Historians have suggested that Manchu leaders privileged the bow because of its traditional role in Manchu culture. Indeed, Manchu banner forces devoted more time to archery practice than to firearms practice. Moreover, the Manchu court at times actively suppressed firearms, reserving them for hunting and prohibiting their use by fishing boats and coastal vessels. Firearms were even restricted within the military itself, as when Qing leaders at times tried to prevent Han Chinese divisions from using the most powerful types of handguns, reserving them for Manchu units. Similarly, provincial officials were sometimes even discouraged from arming local militias with firearms, fearing that those militias might rebel. In 1778, for example, the Qianlong Emperor severely rebuked the governor of Shandong Province for training militia forces in firearms. Another provincial official was instructed to take his militia units’ muskets, “and exchange them for bows and arrows.” This sort of suppression was only possible because the Qing Pax was so complete, just as in Japan the Great Tokugawa Peace supposedly made it possible to “give up the gun.” The Qing didn’t give up the gun, of course, and we mustn’t exaggerate the suppression of firearms. Indeed, sometimes Qing officials actively stimulated firearms use, as for example in the early eighteenth century, when the Kangxi Emperor encouraged the casting of Western-style cannons to combat pirates.

Yet the problem for the Qing wasn’t just antiquated weapons; its forces also suffered from ineffective drill. Historians have found that by the early nineteenth century, China’s once vibrant tradition of drill had withered, becoming “highly formalized and ritualistic, with little attention given to practical problems of warfare.” In Beijing’s banner armies, for instance, it seems that musketeers drilled only five times a month, and although they did perform volley fire maneuvers, their exercises were, according to an American observer named Emory Upton, “mere burlesque of infantry drill.”

Upton describes how twelve hundred musketeers formed themselves into a dense column and awaited a signal from their officers, who were not even on the training field but sat under tents to the side. When the signal was given, the troops arranged themselves into lines, but “there was no order, nor step; the men marched in twos, threes, and fours, toward the line, laughing, talking, and firing their pieces in the air.” They shot and then, to the clamor of gongs, drums, and cymbals, faced to the rear and shot again. This was repeated by another unit, with heavy matchlocks, and then the drill was over and the men, “individually and in squads, wandered back to the city.” Emory Upton’s description is from 1877, by which time some forces in China had improved drilling techniques, adopting Western practices and revivifying those of the past (Qi Jiguang’s drilling manuals were an inspiration), but Upton’s account is just one of many that indicates the feebleness of Chinese drill in the nineteenth century. By the eve of the Opium War, drilling standards had fallen well below those of the early Qing, even as European drilling patterns had altered to suit the more effective weapons being produced in the West.

Qing military readiness on the eve of the Opium War can be summed up in an image from our anonymous British writer of 1836: a sword so rusty it couldn’t be removed from the scabbard. The Europeans, of course, hadn’t had the luxury of such tranquility and order. During the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the period of the Great Qing Peace, Europeans had continued fighting each other. Their eighteenth century wasn’t as warlike as their seventeenth, but conflagrations regularly rocked the subcontinent—the War of Austrian Succession (1740–1748), the Seven Years’ War (1754–1763), and, most devastating of all, the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars (1792–1815), which convulsed Europe from Madrid to Moscow and provided a massive stimulus for European warcraft.

This warfare spurred rapid and continuing improvement in gunpowder and associated technologies, but geopolitical friction wasn’t the only underpinning of Europe’s Great Military Divergence. Equally important was a strong tradition of experimental science, whose roots lay firmly in the seventeenth century.

Qing and Opium Wars II


HMS Volage and HMS Hyacinth confront Chinese war junks at Chuenpee, 3 November 1839.


The British repulse the Chinese advance in the city.

Today many prominent historians downplay the role of science in the rise of the West, and the topic has aroused considerable discussion. As usual most of this debate has focused on economic history, and it’s been hard for either side to sway the other, largely because the links between science and economic growth are difficult to pin down for the period when the Great Divergence was opening up, to wit the 1700s.

But if the links between science and eighteenth-century economies remain unclear, there’s no doubt about the links between science and the eighteenth century military divergence. European advances in gunpowder manufacture and gun design were based on discoveries from experimental science, and those advances played a key role in the British victory in the Opium War.

Before the mid-eighteenth century, people did not understand some very basic things about guns and gunpowder. What was the precise relationship between the amount of gunpowder used, the shape of the barrel, and the velocity of a projectile of a given mass and size? How much air resistance did the projectile face once it exited the barrel, and how did that resistance affect the trajectory?

In the seventeenth century, Galileo and others had developed a theory of ballistics and put together tables to help artillerists—Galileo had even developed instruments for aiming cannons, which brought him significant income. Over the ensuing generations, others had refined these tables and instruments, but by the mid-eighteenth century these tools were still inaccurate, useful for a limited range and only in certain conditions.

In order to develop more effective models one needed to know how fast projectiles came out of guns. It wasn’t an easy problem. Enter Benjamin Robins (1707–1751). A disciple of Isaac Newton, Robins developed an instrument that transformed the science of guns: the ballistic pendulum. It was a tripod the height of a tall man with a heavy pendulum hanging down from it. On the pendulum was affixed a target. The experiment started with the pendulum at rest. When struck by a projectile, the pendulum swung upward. By measuring how high it went one could determine the projectile’s momentum, and using Newtonian models one could calculate its velocity.

The ballistics pendulum revolutionized gunnery. The most exciting findings had to do with the effect of air pressure on projectiles. Galileo had dismissed the effects of air pressure in his work on ballistics, and Newton, too, underestimated it, or, rather, expected that its effects were linear at increasing speeds. But Robins showed that air resistance was incredibly significant. Whereas then-current models predicted that a twenty-four-pound cannonball should, at the muzzle velocity Robins had measured, fly sixteen miles, in actuality it flew only three. Air resistance was thus much higher than expected. Even more surprising was the nonlinearity of the results. The higher the muzzle velocity, the greater the effect, with extreme drag as you approached the speed of sound. His research thus revealed a hitherto invisible threshold: the speed of sound, at which air resistance increased greatly. No one could have predicted this phenomenon. Only careful experiment could have revealed it.

Robins’s slim book, New Principles of Gunnery, was translated and emulated. The great Swiss mathematician Leonhard Euler (1707–1783) produced a German edition with the support of the Prussian king Frederick the Great, converting Robins’s hundred fifty pages into more than seven hundred and providing even more complex equations, which took into account such factors as the rate of the gunpowder reaction itself (Robins had postulated an instantaneous expansion of gas) and the effects on barrel pressure of the gas that inevitably blew through the touchhole or past the projectile.49 The result was a set of equations of unprecedented efficacy, which were quickly adopted by artillerists to compute new ballistics tables. Robins in turn responded to Euler’s work, further refining his own, and all over Europe dozens of other scientists, mathematicians, and artillerists built on Robins and Euler’s models: the Irishman Patrick d’Arcy (working for France), the Piedmontese Papacino d’Antoni, the Frenchman Charles de Borda, the Englishman Charles Hutton, the Prussian Georg Friedrich Tempelhoff, the Austrian Georg Vega, and the Frenchman Jean-Louis Lombard, to name a few of the most important.

Their research programs were often sponsored by governments, and the governments were motivated by war. The War of Austrian Succession (1740–1748) stimulated ballistics research in Austria, France, Britain, and, perhaps most notably, the Piedmontese state, whose leader Charles Emanuel III sought advice from Robins himself (Robins advised him to employ low muzzle velocities). During and after the war, the Piedmontese used the ballistic pendulum and other instruments to produce data that led them to develop new guns that optimized muzzle velocity. They also developed a method to estimate muzzle velocity in the field, without instruments: fire projectiles into compacted earth and compare the depths of penetration to the depths produced by a calibrated musket that fired pellets at a known muzzle velocity.

The new ballistics science revolutionized gun design. Artillerists had generally believed that faster projectiles led to greater power. But the new science indicated that air resistance was such an important variable that it made sense in many cases to lower the power of guns, to attain the lowest possible muzzle velocity necessary for one’s objectives. This meant that cannons could be made smaller relative to projectile weight.

Robins himself put the principle into practice. Working with the Royal Navy, he developed a proposal for a new gun with short barrel and thin walls, which would use smaller charges of powder to fire heavy rounds at low velocities. The Royal Navy’s adoption of the carronade in the late eighteenth century was based on these ideas. And the carronade proved enormously useful. A short, light cannon used for close range antiship combat, it was far more destructive than traditional guns of the same size. Moreover, its rate of fire was also higher because its walls were thinner and cooled quickly. In addition, it was light enough to sit on a sliding carriage that absorbed recoil, which meant that it kept its aim after each shot, whereas cannons on traditional carriages had to be wheeled back into place and re-aimed. A carronade also required fewer hands to operate.

The carronade played a major role in the Opium War from the very first battle. In early November 1839, two British sailing vessels were confronted by a Qing fleet of sixteen warjunks and thirteen fireboats guarding the river passage to Canton. HMS Volage carried twenty-six guns, of which at least eighteen were carronades, and HMS Hyacinth carried eighteen guns, of which sixteen were carronades. Taking advantage of the carronades’ quick-fire capacities, they sailed in close and shot devastating broadsides, destroying six junks and throwing the rest into flight, except for the Qing flagship, which the British decided to stop shooting after a good barrage. The Qing ships had guns, but they were older-style cannons. The two British ships sustained little damage.

The carronade played a key role in nearly all subsequent naval battles. For instance, in January 1841 it helped the British capture three fortified islands that guarded the approaches to Guangzhou. The British vessels in the battles carried far more carronades than traditional artillery: the Algerine carried ten guns, of which eight were carronades; the Conway carried twenty-eight guns, of which twenty-six were carronades; the Herald carried twenty-eight guns, of which twenty-six were carronades; and so on. The Qing defenders were overwhelmed by the fast and powerful barrages. It’s not that they lacked cannons; it’s just that theirs were old-fashioned, difficult to aim and fire (although they had managed to obtain one or two carronades). Surveying the guns captured in one fortress, for example, British naval lieutenant John Bingham wrote, “The guns were very long Chinese twelve and twenty-four pounders, with the exception of two carronades, evidently old English ship guns.” He also noted that the gun carriages were primitive: “Their carriages were of the most ordinary description, only a few of them having trucks, the others being merely beds of wood on which the guns rested.” Carronades, able to hurl massive amounts of iron at close range, in rapid succession, and with relatively little powder, were a key armament of the war.

The new ballistics science also underlay the development of new field guns, which, like the carronade, were shorter, thinner-walled, faster, and far more portable than previous models. Small field guns and related guns called howitzers transformed land battles in Europe, and, like the carronade, played key roles in the Opium War. The most striking example—and the saddest—was the Battle of Ningbo in March 1842. The British had captured Ningbo several months before, in October 1841, and the Qing were determined to take it back. After long preparations, the Manchu nobleman Yijing (1793–1853) led thousands upon thousands of Qing troops to attack from two directions at once. They scaled walls and began pouring through gates.

A British force of a hundred men, armed with muskets, four field pieces, and a howitzer, opened fire. “The slaughter,” wrote one British participant, “was quite horrible; the mangled bodies lay in huge piles, heaped one upon another; and old Peninsular officers present declared that, the breach of Badajos alone excepted, they never in a similar small space saw such a mass of slain.” (The Siege of Badajoz of 1812 was one of the bloodiest battles of the Napoleonic Wars.) Another account notes that “the howitzer only discontinued its fire from the impossibility of directing its shot upon a living foe, clear of the writhing and shrieking hecatomb which it had already piled up.” In the Ningbo battles, the British decisively repulsed the most important Chinese offensive in the war, losing only twenty-five men. As Scottish surgeon Duncan MacPherson noted, “the salutary effect produced by the above engagements was very evident, no further molestation being offered to us during our occupation of this city.”

Not only were the new field guns and howitzers powerful. They were also able to be transported by human beings, whereas traditional cannons of equivalent power required teams of horses or oxen. Sometimes the new guns were even pushed on wheelbarrows, “it being easier with these to transport guns over the narrow paths which intersect the paddy grounds, and which present such continual difficulties to the movement of troops through the entire cultivated districts of this country.” In many cases, the British simply made use of China’s excellent roadways. On approaching Nanjing, for example, British lieutenant John Ouchterlony noted, “the road was so broad and straight, that a field-piece could be run along it with ease until within a short distance of the gates.” For cases in which there were no good roads or paths, some pieces, like mountain howitzers, could be disassembled and the parts carried separately.

The evolution of carronades and light field pieces wasn’t of course due to science alone. A multitude of formal and informal experiments played a role, as did new methods of casting and boring. But the new science of ballistics provided the theoretical and mathematical basis, and the Chinese had no equivalent knowledge. They were unprepared for the overwhelming advantage the British had in terms of firepower.

The British also excelled in accuracy, because the new ballistics revolutionized the calculation of trajectories and times to impact. Such calculations were highly technical, requiring trigonometry and calculus, and so in the course of the eighteenth century, European states had increasingly funded military education systems focusing on the mathematics of artillery, such as the Piedmontese Royal Artillery and Military Engineering Academy (established in 1739) and, even more famously, the artillery schools of France.

Qing and Opium Wars III


Second Battle of Chuenpi. The Nemesis (right background) destroying Chinese war junks in Anson’s Bay


The Nemesis and boats of the Sulphur, Calliope, Larne, and Starling destroying the Chinese war junks in Anson’s Bay, 7 January 1841.


British forces advancing in Chuenpi. The storming of the forts and entrenchments of Chuenpee on 7 January 1841.

The French artillery schools, particularly the Ecole Royale d’Artillerie, were famous not just for their exacting curricula, but also because of their alumni, most notably Napoleon Bonaparte. As a student, he took detailed notes on Robins and Euler, paying special attention to air resistance and the fact that Robins’s work showed one could make effective field guns by shortening barrels and decreasing weight. As a student he even conducted his own research into ballistics, writing a treatise on the use of standard cannons to fire mortar rounds. In fact, Napoleon so enjoyed his studies that he later said that if his military career hadn’t worked out he would have been content as a math professor. Some have suggested that his mathematical background may have been key to his wider success, giving him a scientific understanding of warfare. That may be overreaching, but there’s no doubt that his mastery of scientific ballistics helped him in battle. His field cannons decimated enemies in precisely the way that British field cannons would later annihilate Chinese forces.

The British refused to be outdone by the French and invested in their own military academies. An academy at Woolrich was established in 1741, to instruct “the raw and inexperienced People belonging to the Military Branch of this (Ordnance) Office, in the several parts of Mathematicks necessary to qualify them for the Service of the Artillery, and the business of Engineers.” Robins’s New Principles of Gunnery became the basis of the curriculum and was even used as a textbook.

As a result of such education, the British artillerists who fought in the Opium War were able to use ballistics models that took into account the expansion of gas in the gunpowder reaction, the loss of pressure due to the leaking of gas through touchholes and past projectiles, and the effects of wind resistance. The Qing gunners had no such resources. Renaissance ballistics models had been imported into China in the late sixteenth and the seventeenth centuries, and data from the Sino-Dutch War of 1661 to 1668 suggest that Chinese artillerists were as effective as the Europeans, perhaps more so. (As the Dutch governor of Taiwan once lamented, during an artillery battle, “The enemy … is able to handle his cannon so effectively.… They put our own men to shame.”) But in the mid-eighteenth century, while Europeans were experimenting with the ballistic pendulum, the Chinese were making no significant investigations into ballistics, and this gave the British an overwhelming advantage. In fact, Qing gun carriages usually didn’t even allow for easy rotation or changing elevation, whereas British guns had all manner of aiming devices.

But calculations weren’t just for aiming. They were also about timing. The new ballistics science revolutionized the use of explosive shells. Chinese and Europeans had fired explosive rounds for centuries, but thanks to the new science of ballistics—and to considerable experimental data concerning the speed at which fuses burned—European artillery officers were able to time the explosion of shells with unprecedented precision. Success was measured in hundredths of seconds. When firing mortars, for instance, the object was to make the shell explode just after it had landed. When firing against human targets, the shell needed to explode in the air above the enemies’ heads. The new artillery manuals contained detailed tables classified by gun type, size of gunpowder charge, and so on, and these tables could be used effectively only if one possessed the requisite mathematical training.

Like carronades and howitzers, explosive shells played a key role in the Opium War. In the Second Battle of Chuanbi, for example, shells were lobbed into a Chinese fort, exploding “with great precision … much to the astonishment of the Chinese, who were unacquainted with this engine of destruction.… The Chinese could not long withstand the fire of the 68-pounder of the Queen, and the two 32-pounder pivot-guns of the Nemesis, the shells from which could be seen bursting within the walls of the fort.” Field pieces also used exploding shells, especially the dreade howitzers, which, as we’ve seen, caused so much carnage in Ningbo that its handlers had to stop shooting because the corpses piled too high. Howitzers, placed in batteries and fired in concert, to deadly effect, are referred to repeatedly in British sources on the Opium War. In general, explosive shells were one of the technologies most marveled at by Chinese.

The ballistics revolution may have been the most important scientific advance of the eighteenth century as regards war, but it was far from the only one. Europeans also conducted research into gunpowder. Perhaps the greatest innovations came after 1783, when William Congreve the Elder (1742–1814) was placed in charge of gunpowder manufacture at England’s Royal Powder Mills. He conducted systematic experiments and built dedicated testing ranges, new saltpeter refineries, and special proving houses. Among his findings was the discovery that charcoal made in sealed iron cylinders produced superior powder. During the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, this “cylinder powder” gave British gunpowder a reputation as the best in the world, nearly twice as powerful as traditional powders and far less vulnerable to spoilage.

In contrast, in the 1830s the Chinese were still using the same methods for producing gunpowder that had been used in the early Qing period. The British recognized its inferiority. Lieutenant John Elliot Bingham captured some Chinese powder in 1841 and wrote that “though the proportions in Chinese powder are very nearly ours, it is a most inferior article.” He and his comrades threw several thousand pounds of it into the ocean. Sometimes the British condescended to use Chinese powder to blow up captured ships or forts, but even then it was found wanting.

Even as European powder got better, it got cheaper and more plentiful. The Napoleonic Wars created demand for gunpowder and attracted funding for new equipment and personnel, which William Congreve the Elder used to increase experimentation and production.

He died in 1814, but his son, William Congreve the Younger (1772–1828), continued the experiments. He developed a machine that mixed the ingredients of powder in the correct proportions and another machine that could granulate powder, with toothed rollers and filters that sorted granules by size.

He was also good at the main task that scientists face: gaining financial support. A tireless lobbyist, he made his case on the basis of warfare. Napoleon, he wrote, controlled realms that were so vast that Britain had to invest in technology to even the odds: “England has now, with ten millions of population, to wage war against ten times that number—what man can do, Englishmen will accomplish! But there is a limit to all physical force; and when the difference in number is so enormous, it is no disgrace to have recourse to every aid that human ingenuity can support. He, therefore, that strives to supply the deficiency of real power by mechanical combinations, cannot but deserve well of his country.”

Congreve the Younger was particularly excited by rocketry. His famous “Congreve rocket”—whose “red glare” features so prominently in the USA’s National Anthem—was actually inspired by Indian rockets. In the late eighteenth century, the Sultanate of Mysore, located in what is today southern India, fought against Britain in a series of conflicts known today as the Anglo-Mysore Wars (1767–1792). Although the British eventually prevailed, the sultanate’s forces proved effective, and among their weapons were large iron rockets, which the British began trying to copy. Congreve didn’t like to admit this. He merely noted, in an aside, that rockets were invented by some “heroes of Chinese antiquity.”

His rockets, however, were unusually effective. By means of experiments he improved their range, accuracy, and power, and he lobbied the Royal Navy to use them as a lighter alternative to shipborne mortars. He had to overcome skepticism. As one naval commander wrote, “Mr. Congreve, who is ingenious, is wholly wrapt up in rockets, from which I expect little success.” Yet Congreve had powerful patrons. The Prince of Wales himself read Congreve’s plans at the Royal Pavilion in Brighton, a mock Mughal temple whose interiors were decorated with Chinese dragons, miniature pagodas, and paintings of mandarins in official robes. The prince ordered expensive sea trials. They didn’t go terribly well, but Congreve was persistent, and eventually his rockets were adopted by the Royal Navy.

They played a devastating role in the Opium War. In the Second Battle of Chuanbi (1841), for example, a Congreve rocket helped defeat a Chinese fleet of fifteen warjunks (or perhaps eleven, depending on which source you believe). A British participant later recalled the flying body parts:

One of the most formidable engines of destruction which any vessel … can make use of is the Congreve rocket, a most terrible weapon when judiciously applied, especially where there are combustible materials to act upon. The very first rocket fired from the Nemesis was seen to enter the large junk against which it was directed, near that of the admiral, and almost instantly it blew up with a terrific explosion, launching into eternity every soul on board, and pouring forth its blaze like the mighty rush of fire from a volcano. The instantaneous destruction of the huge body seemed appalling to both sides engaged. The smoke, and flame, and thunder of the explosion, with the fragments falling round, and even portions of dissevered bodies scattering as they fell, were enough to strike with awe, if not with fear, the stoutest heart that looked upon it.

The effect was so terrifying that everyone paused for a moment, frozen with shock. The Qing abandoned the rest of their ships. Thirteen warjunks were destroyed.

Congreve rockets were also useful on land. On 27 February 1841, they helped the British capture an island guarding the approaches to Guangzhou. One British account notes that “operations commenced by throwing a few rockets into … the … custom-house, situated at the entrance of the North Wang-Tong fort; and such was the precision with which these were directed, that the place was soon in a blaze of fire, which rapidly communicated with the encampment, and presented an animating and inciting appearance.” Again, the precision and destructive power of the rockets created shock and awe: “The panic created by the bursting of the shells and rockets, which were quite new to them, evidently threw them into great disorder. It was reported, and there is reason to believe with truth, that the Chinese officers abandoned the place at the first commencement of the firing, and ran down to their boats.” At nearly every major engagement in the war, rockets proved enormously effective, and, as a British account noted, “amused the enemy.”

Examples of Britain’s deadly use of rockets, carronades, field cannons, explosive shells, and howitzers abound in Opium War sources, and all of these weapons were based on experimental science. Robins’s ballistics revolution, which developed from the work of Newton, Boyle, and Bernoulli, and which was carried forward by Leonhard Euler and dozens of other scientists, mathematicians, and artillerists, represented a deep transformation in the understanding of how guns worked. The experiments were painstaking, the results far from intuitive. Without the experimental culture and heritage that made them possible, the knowledge would never have been won, and it turned out to be a very practical knowledge, which directly influenced the work of war makers. When British observers noted how bad Chinese guns were, or how poor at aiming the Chinese artillerists were, they were drawing a clear and objective contrast. British gunnery was based on experimental science. Chinese gunnery wasn’t.

To be sure, the Opium War was also decided by more typical tools of industrialization. The steamer Nemesis was the war’s workhorse, paddling against the wind and towing sailing vessels upriver. Nor was steam power the Nemesis’s only edge. It also had a very shallow draft. In the 1500s and 1600s, the Chinese had used shallow-draft vessels against the Dutch and Portuguese, outmaneuvering them by sailing on flats and shallows. Such tactics didn’t work against the Nemesis, which drew only five feet (one-and-a-half meters) with keel retracted. In the Second Battle of Chuanbi, for example (1841), a fleet of warjunks took refuge in shallows. She maneuvered right up to them, and when they tried fleeing into an even shallower channel, she simply towed them away from their moorings and destroyed them. One British officer records the words of some Chinese who watched the Nemesis maneuver where, at low water, they were accustomed to wade: “He-yaw! how can! My never see devil-ship so fashion before; can go all same man walkee.”

The Opium War was an industrial war: steamers like the Nemesis played key roles, and industrial manufacturing techniques helped make steel, bore cannon, and mix powder, even as they made those products cheaper. Nonetheless, it was the science developed by Robins and others that played the greatest part in Britain’s Great Military Divergence vis-à-vis China, combined, of course, with the fact that China had undergone a long period of relative peace.

But now that the Great Qing Peace had been overturned, how would the leaders, statesmen, and scholars of China react? In the Ming and early Qing periods, China had adapted quickly and effectively, maintaining parity with European powers. The nineteenth century proved more challenging.

China -Growing Superpower



Since the 1991 Gulf War, the PLA’s strategy has been premised on preparing to fight local wars under conditions of informatization. Efforts have been focused on creating a PLA capable of winning a war against a higher technology adversary, unnamed but assumed to be the United States. Military analysts have carefully studied the performance of the U.S. military in the Gulf War, Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq in an effort to understand American strengths and weaknesses.

The PLA’s active defense military doctrine is based on the three principles of nonlinear, noncontact, and asymmetric operations. Nonlinear operations entail launching attacks from multiple platforms in an unpredictable fashion, ranging across the enemy’s operational and strategic depth. Noncontact operations involve targeting enemy platforms and weapons systems with precise attacks from sufficiently far away to minimize the opponent’s ability to strike back. Asymmetric operations bring the PLA’s strengths to bear against the enemy’s weaknesses. For example, America’s heavy reliance on computer technology is considered to be its Achilles’ heel: successful interdiction of its computer network could destroy command and control functions. PLA literature also makes frequent mention of three types of warfare: media, psychological, and legal. In simplest form, these involve efforts to win over public opinion in the target country by convincing its civilians, and perhaps Chinese soldiers and civilians as well, of the justice of the PRC’s cause.

The PLAN has been tasked with a three-stage strategy. The first stage is to develop a force that can operate within the first island chain, stretching from Japan down through Taiwan and the Philippines. In the second stage, a regional naval force will operate beyond the first island chain to reach the second island chain, which includes Guam, Indonesia, and Australia. In the third stage, to be attained by midcentury, PLAN will constitute a global naval force.

Airpower expert Mark Stokes describes the PRC’s aerospace strategy as an integral component of firepower warfare involving the coordinated use of PLA Air Force (PLAAF) strike aviation assets, Second Artillery (Missile) Corps, conventional theater missiles, and information warfare. Although the military leadership seems to be developing a range of options for all levels of warfare, Stokes believes that the PLA is disposed toward a denial strategy that emphasizes operational paralysis in order to compel an adversary to comply with Beijing’s orders.

The PLA’s successful antisatellite (ASAT) test in January 2007 revealed its developing capabilities in space warfare. The test followed several years of discussion by PLA officers in defense journals and books of the need to have the ability to deny the use of space to others. While the authors differ somewhat in their suggestions, the need for secrecy is a common theme. The program should be “internally tense while [appearing] outwardly relaxed.” Having an orbiting network of concealed space weapons that can launch surprise attacks against U.S. assets fits in well with both the psychological component of the three-warfares doctrine and the need to practice asymmetric warfare.

China’s inventory of space-based intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, navigation, and communications satellites is being expanded. These share functions with the country’s commercial space program, allowing military uses to be downplayed. A navigation satellite was launched in 2009, and a full network of satellites is scheduled to provide global positioning for military and civilian users in the 2015–2020 time frame. Also launched in 2009 was the Yaogan, the sixth in China’s series of reconnaissance satellites sent into orbit since 2006. The development of the Long March V rocket, now delayed until 2014 owing to technical problems, will more than double the size of China’s current low earth orbit and geosynchronous orbit payloads. A newly constructed launch facility on Hainan will support these rockets. In addition to its ASAT program, the PLA is known to have at least one ground-based laser program.

With regard to nuclear weapons, China is believed to have at least 200 warheads, including 20 liquid-fueled intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) capable of reaching the United States, numerous other missiles with shorter ranges, and nuclear-armed submarines. The PRC has pledged a no-first-use policy, but from time to time, high-ranking figures have phrased this policy in ways that suggest the existence of unspecified caveats. It is not known, for example, whether demonstration strikes, high-altitude bursts, or strikes on what Beijing considers its own territory are included in the no-first-use policy. Recently, attention has focused on China’s proliferation activities, principally with regard to Iran and North Korea.

Training programs are designed to emphasize three strikes (sometimes translated as three attacks) and three defenses. The three strike targets are stealth aircraft, cruise missiles, and gunship helicopters. The three actions to defend against are precision strikes, electronic jamming, and reconnaissance and surveillance.

The PRC seems to be moving away from Deng Xiaoping’s advice of the early 1990s to “observe calmly, secure our position, cope with affairs calmly, hide our capabilities, and bide our time, be good at maintaining a low profile, and never claim leadership.” A growing point of view is that, while Deng’s advice may have been excellent when China was still weak, recent developments, including its rapidly expanding economy and military power, call for a more assertive strategy to secure China’s core interests. In 2010, the South China Sea was added to the list of China’s core interests, which have traditionally been focused on territories such as Tibet and Taiwan. A more assertive strategy also seems appropriate in light of the financial woes of the Western world and the perception that the United States, mired not only in financial difficulties but also in expensive, protracted conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, has entered a stage of rapid decline.


Aware that more technologically sophisticated military weapons will require better-educated and better-trained personnel to operate them, the PLA has made efforts to recruit university graduates, particularly those with science and engineering backgrounds, into the officer corps. Military academies also concentrate on producing technologically knowledgeable personnel, adapting their curricula to put more stress on science and technology.

In a national defense student program begun in 2001, the military offers training to those willing to join after graduation; in return, the students’ tuition is paid, and they receive a modest monthly living allowance. University graduation is followed by a year of formal training in a military academy. In the first year the program was offered, there were few takers, but when one-third of university graduates from the PRC’s newly expanded university system were unable to find jobs, incoming freshmen found the military option increasingly attractive.

Another priority is the noncommissioned officer corps. New recruits are now required to have at least high school diplomas, and the size of the corps is being expanded to constitute 40 percent of the army. The military as a whole now enjoys improved pay and benefits, as well as better creature comforts in the form of new barracks and karaoke clubs.

Consonant with PLA’s more outward-oriented stance, the navy and air force have in recent years received priority over the traditionally favored ground force. Though the ground force, at 64 percent of the total, is still by far the largest of the services, this is a drop from 73 percent in 1998. The navy now constitutes 14 percent of the total, up from 10 percent in 1998, and the air force has increased to 23 percent from 17 percent. These changes have been accompanied by proportional increases in budgetary allocations and weapons acquisitions. The ground force maintains an important role in protecting the country’s long land borders and in ensuring domestic stability as the Chinese population becomes more outspoken and increasingly prone to demonstrations and protests. In theory, keeping the domestic peace is the role of the People’s Armed Police (PAP), but the PAP has sometimes been judged unable to carry out its mandate effectively. According to credible reports, many of the personnel used to quell disturbances in Xinjiang in 2009 were PLA members who had been ordered to put on PAP uniforms because it would look less repressive to the foreign media.

The Outline of Military Training and Evaluation that became standard in the PLA in 2008 emphasizes realistic training conditions, training in complex electromagnetic and joint environments, integrating new and high technologies into the force structure, and amphibious warfare. Training exercises have become more sophisticated and are concentrated on achieving true jointness. In the past, different service arms typically converged in the same area but carried out their activities essentially separately. Service in a joint assignment is increasingly seen as a desideratum for those who aspire to be promoted to senior-level positions. The PLA recently established the Jinan Theater Joint Leadership Organization—the first of its kind—to integrate at the campaign level all services, including the Second Artillery Corps, the provincial leadership, and leading personnel from other organizations.

A National Defense Mobilization Law passed in 2010 gives the state the legal right to requisition civilian facilities and property. The new law, formalizing what would occur anyway, was presented in terms of its continuity with the Maoist People’s War and its emphasis on close military-civilian cooperation. In the post-Mao era, however, local governments have tended to resent the burden of supporting military units by supplying food, fuel, and financial contributions, thus necessitating a law that more clearly defines their obligations and responsibilities.

Also in 2010, PLAN ships carried out exercises in the Mediterranean that were described as unprecedented. The flotilla then visited the capital of Burma and cruised up the Irrawaddy River. A second group crossed the Coral Sea on a Pacific tour, visiting Tonga and Vanuatu.

Several exercises have been held in the South China Sea, presumably to signal to other countries Beijing’s determination to enforce its claim that this area constitutes one of the PRC’s core interests. In another 2010 exercise, all three of the navy’s fleets took part in a joint exercise that simulated the invasion of an island in the South China Sea controlled by another nation. Amphibious assault ships and tanks were used to land troops while countering electromagnetic interference and missiles fired by other troops posing as the enemy. To make the semiotics perfectly clear, the exercise was attended by almost 275 invited military attachés from seventy-five countries.

This kind of military theater generally has the desired effect and can be considered an operationalization of the three types of warfare—media, psychological, and legal. Domestic sources generally announce when such exercises will be held and explain why they constitute breakthroughs for the military. The stories are then picked up by foreign media, which, according to Western military experts, tend to amplify the exercises’ actual military significance. Another important motivation appears to be the desire to impress the Chinese public with the PLA’s increasing prowess and to take pride in its rapidly advancing capabilities.

The military has also diversified its training to include military operations other than war, including antiterrorism, emergency response, disaster relief, and international humanitarian operations. As of 2010, the PRC had seconded more than 2,100 personnel to U.N. peacekeeping operations. Although this was only one-fifth the number contributed by Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan, it represents a significant change of attitude. In the past, China rejected peacekeeping missions as unwarranted interference in the domestic affairs of other countries. In 2010, China and the United Nations conducted a peacekeeping training class at the Ministry of National Defense in Beijing. Nineteen mid- to high-ranking PLA officers took part, and an accompanying press release declared that the information imparted would enable the PLA to further contribute to world peace.

As for antipiracy operations, a three-ship naval task force has been deployed on rotation in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Somalia since the end of 2008, marking the first time in its sixty-year history that the Chinese navy has conducted such operations. Military units also play an important part in domestic disaster relief operations following earthquakes and floods, and they have helped to quell ethnic unrest when the PAP was deemed inadequate to the task. Antiterrorism exercises have been conducted, sometimes in coordination with other members of the Shanghai Cooperative Organization, including Russia and several Central Asian states. These allow the PRC to cultivate an image of a responsible global actor while simultaneously accustoming its military to long-distance and long-endurance deployments. This experience enhances the PLA’s ability to protect China’s interests beyond national borders and to protect its access to the sea-lanes over which China’s commercial and energy imports and exports must move. There may be other potentially useful benefits: sources at the Indian defense ministry have complained that when its antipiracy vessels passed near those of China, the Chinese ships appeared to be probing the sonar capacities of the Indian naval vessels.


Announced Chinese military spending has increased nearly twenty-five-fold, from 21.53 billion yuan in 1988 to 519.1 billion yuan in 2010. Even as other countries drastically cut back their military spending due to the end of the Cold War, the PRC’s defense budget increased by double digits each year until 2010—the one exception, a 9.6 percent increase announced for 2003, actually reached 11.72 percent by the end of the year. It is possible that the planned 7.5 percent increase for 2010 ended in double-digit figures as well. In any case, defense was one of the more generously treated sectors in the 2010 budget, which was intended to wean the country off a generous stimulus package enacted the year before to ease the impact of the global financial crisis. The PLA was promised that its budgetary allocations would increase as the economy recovered, which it has done.

While some of this largesse can be accounted for by inflation, increases also occurred in years when the inflation rate was small and even when the economy had slipped into deflation. Military budgets have slightly exceeded the increases in the PRC’s annual economic growth and are not believed to be so large as to place an undue burden on the economy as a whole.

Published defense budgets may not accurately reflect true military spending, which is estimated at two to three times the announced figure. Research and development for nuclear programs are not part of it, and payments for foreign weapons purchases come from the budget of the State Council; local areas are responsible for at least part of the costs of billeting troops. Finally, even accurate figures would not tell us how wisely the monies are spent. Procurement wastes are believed to be substantial. And, as in other sectors of the PRC’s economy, corruption is a serious problem.


Funding for research and development in science and technology has greatly increased. In 2006, the State Council announced a National Medium- and Long-Term Program for Science and Technology 2006-2020, with the goal of transforming China into an innovation-oriented society by its end date. All the program’s key elements have military applications, including nanotechnology research; information technology; technology for the creation of new materials and for deep-sea operations; laser and aerospace technologies; radar; counterspace capabilities; secure command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR); high-resolution satellites; and manned spaceflight. Important advances in weaponry have been made through a combination of innovative research, purchases from foreign countries, reverse engineering, and espionage.

The U.S. Defense Department’s annual report on the military strength of the PRC notes that China has the most active land-based ballistic and cruise missile program in the world. It is developing and testing several new classes and variants of offensive missiles, creating additional missile units, qualitatively upgrading selected missile systems, and devising methods to counter opponents’ ballistic missile defenses. Missiles are becoming more accurate, more deadly, and more difficult to detect and evade. Of particular recent concern to foreign countries are the following:

• Aircraft carrier research and development program. China purchased the former Soviet carrier Varyag from Ukraine in 1998, towing it to a shipyard at Dalian and experimenting with improvements. The Soviet-era carrier is expected to be used for training purposes, and several indigenously produced carriers are scheduled to enter service in the 2015–2020 time frame. Negotiations with Moscow over purchasing Su-33 carrier-borne fighter planes were delayed by Russian concerns that the PRC would reverse-engineer the two planes it wanted to buy. The deployment of aircraft carrier battle groups would greatly expand the PRC’s strategic reach.

• Submarines. China has introduced four new classes of domestically designed and built submarines and now operates the largest submarine force among Asian countries. The second-generation Type 093/ Shang-class nuclear-powered attack submarine and Type 094/Jinclass nuclear-powered missile submarine have already entered service. Older Type 033/Romeo-class and Type 035/Ming-class diesel-electric submarines, which were based on 1950s-era Soviet technology, are gradually being replaced by the newer indigenous Type 039/Song class and Russian-built Kilo class. The even newer Yuan class has also entered batch production.

• Antiship ballistic missiles (ASBMs). China has now attained initial operating capability for an ASBM, a military milestone that most analysts regard as a game-changer for the military balance in Asia. Designated the DF-21 D, it is the world’s first weapons system capable of targeting a moving carrier strike group from long-range, land-based mobile launchers. This has important implications for the anti-access area denial strategy; it will enable the PRC to consolidate its claims to the South China Sea by preventing the United States from defending its Pacific allies.

• Stealth aircraft. The PLAAF’s fifth-generation fighter program achieved another breakthrough with the January 2011 test flight of the Chengdu J-20. Similar in design to America’s F-22 Raptor and Russia’s Sukhoi T-50 fighters, the plane has the potential to compete with the F-35, the most advanced fighter in the inventory of the U.S. Air Force. The J-20’s relatively large size indicates that it will have a long range and the ability to accommodate heavy weapon loads. Its ground clearance is higher than that of the F-22, which will facilitate loading larger weapons, including air-to-surface munitions. Newly developed air-to-ground weapons are required to be compatible with the J-20.

• Cyberattacks. The PRC has the world’s largest number of Internet users. Researchers based in Canada traced to China an electronic spying operation that penetrated computer networks in 103 countries. Among the sites entered were those of defense and foreign ministries, news media, private companies, political campaigns, and nongovernmental organizations. In some cases, information was exfiltrated; in others, the websites were defaced and data were destroyed or altered. Although a distinction is sometimes made between cyberespionage and cyberwarfare, the skills involved in intelligence gathering are the same as those involved in taking offensive action in wartime: the difference is what the keyboard operator does with, or to, the information after he or she has penetrated the network. American analysts were further disconcerted when a paper appeared in a Chinese scholarly journal detailing how a cascade-based attack could take down the U.S. power grid. Net attacks cannot be definitively linked to the Chinese government, and even assuming these attacks are perpetrated by “patriotic hackers,” we do not know whether the hackers are being cued by the Chinese government. Nonetheless, cyberattacks fit in with the asymmetric warfare that is part of the PRC’s military strategy. A worst-case scenario envisions a kind of technological Pearl Harbor in which U.S. command systems would be paralyzed and its major combat platforms destroyed by a sudden strike. Those who advance such a possibility point out that it is consonant with the traditional Chinese emphasis on strategic deception and surprise, as well as with current discussions of the topic in the PRC’s military journals.

North to Seoul – Imjin War


Drawing of a Panokseon, the backbone of Joseon (Korea) Navy during its conflict with Japan in late 16th century.


The Japanese landing on Busan


It began on May 23, 1592. A dense mist hung over the sea off Pusan early that morning, obscuring any sign of activity offshore. Chong Pal, the sixty-year-old commander of the Pusan garrison, left the port early for a day of hunting on Cholyong-do, a forested island at the mouth of the harbor so named for its population of deer. Emerging from the trees some time in the afternoon, he was one of the first to spy the armada, “covering all of the sea,” approaching from the direction of Daema-do, as Tsushima was known to the Koreans. Suspecting that this could be the Japanese invasion that everyone was expecting and yet did not expect, Chong rushed back to Pusan to raise the alarm and prepare for the worst. Any doubts as to what he had seen were soon dispelled by corroborative reports from a lighthouse keeper farther along the coast and from a beacon-fire tender on a hill behind Pusan: a long battle line of ships, ninety in number, approaching from the south.

The lead ships of the Japanese armada soon reached the waters off Pusan harbor and dropped anchor. Kyongsang Left Navy Commander Pak Hong observed their arrival from his nearby base at Kijang and began to tally the numbers for himself. There were easily ninety, as reported. Then one hundred. Then one hundred and fifty. The afternoon waned, and the ships kept coming. Two hundred. Two hundred and fifty. Three hundred. The sun eased below the horizon, and still the number continued to climb. And Pak’s nerves began to fray.

Word of the Japanese arrival reached Kyongsang Right Navy Commander Won Kyun at his base on Koje Island to the west of Pusan that same afternoon. He could not at first bring himself to believe what was happening. In a dispatch to his colleague Yi Sun-sin, commander of the Cholla Left Navy based at Yosu farther to the west, Won reported that the approaching mass of ships was perhaps some sort of exceptionally large trade mission from Tsushima. As the afternoon progressed, however, and the number of ships crowding the bay off Pusan climbed to one hundred and fifty and beyond, Won was forced to the conclusion that an invasion was indeed under way and a disaster about to befall them.

Neither he nor Pak Hong, however, made any attempt that day or the next to attack the Japanese armada with the approximately one hundred and fifty heavy panokson battleships under their command, representing the bulk of the entire Korean navy. The two men simply watched and waited and sent off frantic dispatches, while the ships under their command, the most formidable weapons in the Korean arsenal and the first and most effective line in the nation’s defenses, sat idle in their ports.

For the Koreans, this frozen inaction on the part of Won and Pak was the first of many strategic errors that would be made in the early days of the Imjin War. For although the two naval commanders did not know it, the gathering armada, while numerically daunting, was in fact vulnerable to seaborne attack and could have been dealt a heavy blow before it ever had a chance to send a single man ashore.

In the order of battle he had signed two months before, Hideyoshi urged his daimyo to be particularly careful to get their troops safely across the sea to Pusan, warning them that “the loss of one man or one horse through bad judgment will be regarded as a grave offense.” To ensure their safety, the invasion plan had called for a force of battleships to travel in convoy with the transports to protect them from the very ships that now sat idle in the Korean naval bases of Kyongsang Province. But such convoying had not occurred. When the first contingents of the invasion force were leaving Nagoya for their forward staging areas on Tsushima, the navy was still assembling on the Inland Sea. When the transports were at sea between Tsushima and Pusan, the navy was only just arriving at Nagoya. In fact, it would be more than a week before Hideyoshi’s battleships would arrive at Pusan. Konishi had gambled that he could land his forces without their protection and was now in Korean waters with a fleet of light and largely unprotected transports—fishing boats really—that would have been no match for Korea’s panokson if the challenge had been made. Had a different admiral been in command of either Kyongsang fleet, one willing to put his ships to sea and strike at the enemy, the outcome of these first few days might have been very different indeed.

By nightfall on May 23 some four hundred ships bearing Konishi Yukinaga’s first contingent had successfully traversed the seventy kilometers from Tsushima’s northern tip and were crowding the waters off Pusan. At seven thirty in the evening a single vessel separated from this force and advanced into the harbor. Aboard was So Yoshitoshi, the Christian daimyo of Tsushima, also known as Dario, who had served as Hideyoshi’s emissary to the Koreans since 1589. Accompanying him was the scholar monk Genso, a member of the Tsushima mission to Seoul in 1589. The two men sent a letter to the commander of Pusan, Chong Pal, asking one last time that the way be cleared to China for the armies of Japan. They received no answer, and eventually returned in their ship and rejoined the armada.

The die was now cast for a war with Korea. So Yoshitoshi and his father-in-law Konishi Yukinaga may have come to Pusan hoping that a show of force would cow the Koreans into acceding to Hideyoshi’s demands, thereby avoiding the necessity of a fight. Chong Pal’s rebuff ensured that this was not to be. With a huge invasion army waiting behind them on Tsushima, there was tremendous pressure on these two daimyo commanders not to spend time trying to arrange a settlement with the Koreans. It was, thought Konishi, “the will of Christ” that they now go ahead and use armed force.

For the next several hours the Japanese armada sat motionless offshore as the Koreans watched anxiously from behind the walls of Pusan Castle. Then, at four o’clock the next morning, May 24, the landings began. First ashore were the five thousand men under So Yoshitoshi. He was the logical choice to lead the way, for having visited Pusan several times in the past he knew the lay of the land and the nature of the defenses better than any of Hideyoshi’s commanders. The arrival of this familiar and formerly friendly face may also have been intended to cause the Koreans at least momentary confusion. If so, it could not have lasted long. So and his men clearly had not come this time to conduct diplomacy or trade; they had come for war. They came ashore clad in armor of iron plates and leather shingles tied together to form a flexible yet nearly impenetrable shell. It covered their torsos and arms and formed an apron in the front. They wore flaring iron helmets, some with stylized buffalo horns and antlers screwed to the front, all with a jointed cowling affixed to the sides and back to protect the neck. High-ranking samurai rode horses. They wore grotesque war masks with fierce, grimacing faces, and were armed with two swords: a long katana and a shorter wakizashi, finely crafted, very expensive, and highly valued by their owner. Some may have carried bows as well, and a lesser number spears. They did not carry muskets. These effective but fundamentally dishonorable weapons went to the ashigaru foot soldiers, along with one “loan sword.”

Next ashore was So Yoshitoshi’s father-in-law, Konishi Yukinaga, at the head of seven thousand men. They followed an unusual banner featuring a huge, stuffed rendering of the white paper bags used by Japanese druggists to dispense medicine, a reference to the Konishi family’s traditional involvement in that trade. There were very likely crucifixes in evidence as well, for Konishi and his men, like So’s company, were all Christians. Konishi himself rode a fine horse that Hideyoshi had presented to him at Nagoya before his departure, with the exhortation that he use it to “gallop over the heads of the bearded savages.”

After Konishi came Matsuura, lord of Hirado, the sole nonbeliever in the group. Then Arima. Omura. Goto. A total of 18,700 men in all, dressed for combat, ready to kill. The predominant colors were black and red: black armor and helmets, red banners and brocade. The multitude formed up in ranks, then split in two. Konishi led a portion of the men a few kilometers southwest along the harbor front to the fort at Tadaepo at the mouth of the Naktong River. The fort’s defenders, under garrison commander Yun Hung-sin, managed to repel the first assault but were overwhelmed by the second and all put to the sword. So Yoshitoshi meanwhile led the advance on Pusan Castle itself. He formally called upon garrison commander Chong Pal one last time to surrender, asserting yet again that they were on their way to China and would not harm the Koreans if they would only step aside. Chong refused. Until he received orders to the contrary, he replied, he was duty bound to resist the Japanese advance.

The aging officer then turned to his men and made his orders clear. “I expect you all,” he cried out, “to fight and die like brave men! If any man attempts to turn and flee, I will personally cut off his head!”

The day was just dawning when the Japanese sounded their conch-shell trumpets to signal the attack. The ensuing battle was fierce but short, providing the beleaguered Koreans with their first taste of the stunning power of the arquebus. Their arrows and spears were no match for them. The defenders of Pusan Castle were felled by the hundreds by the flying slugs of lead that these strange “dog legs” spit out, a deluge of death that “fell like rain.” The garrison fought until all their arrows were gone. Then Chong Pal himself was killed, and with that, at around nine o’clock in the morning, all resistance ceased.

Once over the walls, “We found people running all over the place and trying to hide in the gaps between the houses,” samurai chronicler Yoshino Jingozaemon would later record. “Those who could not conceal themselves went off toward the East Gate, where they clasped their hands together, and there came to our ears the Chinese expression, ‘Manō! Manō!’ which was probably them asking for mercy. Taking no notice of what they heard our troops rushed forward and cut them down, slaughtering them as a blood sacrifice to the god of war. Both men, women, and even dogs and cats were beheaded.” That it was assumed the Koreans spoke Chinese is an indication of how little the Japanese knew of their foe.

According to Japanese records, 8,500 Koreans were killed in the fall of Pusan and 200 prisoners were taken. Among the dead was Chong Pal’s eighteen-year-old concubine, Ae-hyang. Her body was found lying beside the fallen commander. She had taken her own life.

Kyongsang Left Navy Commander Pak Hong, based at Kijang a short distance to the east, witnessed this battle from the top of a nearby hill. His nerve had been badly shaken the previous day, watching the arrival of the hundreds of ships comprising the Japanese armada. Now, as he witnessed the seemingly indomitable enemy take Pusan Castle and slaughter the defenders within, it broke entirely. He did not rush to his ships to fight the Japanese, whose intentions now were clear. Nor did he attempt to move his vessels to safer waters. Instead he ordered his entire fleet scuttled, a total of one hundred vessels, including fifty or more panokson battleships. He also had all his weapons destroyed and provisions burned so they would not fall into enemy hands. He then deserted his post and fled north all the way to Seoul, leaving behind thousands of bewildered soldiers and sailors who naturally followed his example and drifted away.

So it was that the Kyongsang Left Navy, the strong left arm of the Korean navy and the first line of defense on the nation’s south coast, self-destructed on the second day of the war. Pak Hong’s ships did not sail a mile or fire a shot. They simply disappeared quietly beneath the waves. It was a tremendous gift to the Japanese, particularly to first contingent leader Konishi Yukinaga, who had taken a considerable gamble in coming to Pusan without the protection of warships. The sight of all those Korean ships wrecked in the harbor must have been heartwarming indeed for the ambitious Christian daimyo, visual confirmation that bold, swift action was what was needed to quell the Koreans, who were clearly unprepared for war.

The day after taking Pusan Castle and the garrison fort at Tadaepo, Konishi recombined his forces and marched on the fortress at Tongnae ten kilometers to the northeast on the main road to Seoul. This was the strongest fortification in the area, a stoutly walled citadel on a hilltop in front of Mt. Kumjong. It was by this time bursting with twenty thousand Koreans, a crush of ill-equipped soldiers, untrained conscripts, and a mass of panicked civilians. In overall command was Tongnae prefect Song Sang-hyon, a forty-one-year-old government official who in the coming hours would provide the Japanese with another lesson in just how badly Hideyoshi had miscalculated in thinking that the Koreans would ever willingly give passage to his armies and “lead the way to Ming.”

As they had at Pusan, the Japanese gave Song Sang-hyon and the defenders of Tongnae one last chance to surrender before launching their attack, erecting a large sign outside the castle’s south gate that read, “Fight if you want to fight. Or lay down your arms and let us pass.” Song Sang-hyon wrote an unequivocal reply on a piece of wood and threw it over the wall: “Fighting and dying are easy,” it read. “But letting you pass I cannot do.”

Song knew the situation was hopeless, that the Japanese would inevitably breech the wall and take the fort just as they had at Pusan. His servant told him of a gap he had spied in the Japanese lines and urged him to flee before it was too late. Song refused. He would do his duty and die at Tongnae. His only regret was the pain this would cause his parents, so in the lull before the attack he sat down to write a final note to his father; one account adds the dramatic flourish that he bit the end of his finger and wrote the message in blood. “Our fortress is now under siege,” it said, “surrounded by a multitude of enemy soldiers. There is no chance of rescue. The other garrisons are sleeping peacefully, oblivious to the danger we face. It grieves me to leave you, but a subject’s duty to his king must come before a son’s devotion to his father.”

Song then turned to his servant. “When the fighting is over the bodies will be piled high. I have a mole the size of a small bean on my lower back. Remember that when you’re looking for my corpse.”

The Battle of Tongnae began at eight o’clock in the morning. According to Korean accounts it lasted twelve hours; the Japanese say it was over in four. The besieged Koreans, women included, fought with desperate ferocity, flinging arrows and spears and then stones at the attacking Japanese as Song Sang-hyon beat the great drum from an upper pavilion of the castle to urge his soldiers on. But once again the backward weapons the Koreans possessed proved no match for Japanese muskets. One by one the defenders were picked off by the deadly fire of the ashigaru. When resistance began to falter, the Japanese threw bamboo ladders against the fort’s high walls and swarmed over the top, Konishi at the fore, sword in hand. A final crescendo of hand-to-hand fighting followed. And then it was over. Song himself was captured alive by a group of soldiers who tried to force him to bow before them. When he resisted they hacked him to death.

The Japanese suffered one hundred killed and four hundred wounded in the Battle of Tongnae. Korean deaths totaled five thousand. Upon hearing that Song Sang-hyon was among the fallen, So Yoshitoshi, who had been hospitably treated by the prefect during his prewar missions to Korea and was thus anxious to see him spared, ordered a funeral held and wrote a epitaph for his grave mound: “A Loyal Subject.” Song was buried on the mountain behind Tongnae, in a grove of chestnut trees. His final letter eventually found its way north to his parents. Two years later, in 1594, a family member went to Tongnae to claim his body and carry it home.


Kyongsang Right Navy Commander Won Kyun was approaching a state of panic at his base on Koje Island. The initial reports he had received of the appearance of the Japanese armada at Pusan to the east were followed in quick succession by news of the fall of Pusan Castle, then word of the events at Tongnae. Finally, in what was undoubtedly a confusing welter of facts and rumors, Won learned of the desertion of his colleague Pak Hong and the self-destruction of the Kyongsang Left Navy. With that any thoughts he may have had of resisting the invaders disappeared entirely. His only concern now was to flee. His retreat appears to have begun in an orderly fashion, with Won attempting to lead his fleet west to safety. But he soon panicked at the sight of a group of fishing boats in the distance that he mistook for the Japanese navy and, just like Pak Hong, ordered his ships scuttled and his weapons destroyed. He was himself preparing to abandon his flagship and run into the hills when two of his more stalwart subordinates reminded him of the consequences of flight. How would he be able to justify his actions, they asked, if he were to be accused of deserting his post? It would be better to stand his ground and send for reinforcements from Cholla Left Navy Commander Yi Sun-Sin. In the end a chastened Won decided to stay and fight. But there was little good he could do now. Of his original fleet of more than one hundred vessels, he had only four ships left.

The fleets of both the Kyongsang Left and Right Navies were now gone, a total of some two hundred ships, two-thirds of the entire Korean navy, destroyed by their own commanders. All that remained in the south to resist the Japanese at sea were the fewer than one hundred ships of the Left and Right Navies of Cholla Province to the west. Fortunately for Korea, the commanders of these two navies, Yi Sun-sin and Yi Ok-ki, were made of sterner stuff than their Kyongsang counterparts.

Naval – The Far East: 1856-65


Vice Admiral Augustus Kuper, British Commander-in-Chief on the China Station, 1862-4. His firmness and diplomacy were fully tested by the Taiping rebellion in China and difficulties with Japan.


The Battle of Fatshan Creek, 1 June 1857. In this inlet above Canton a large body of Chinese war junks was defeated by British forces under Admiral Seymour and Commodore Henry Keppel.


The Opium War of 1840-41 had not only consolidated the British position in Hong Kong but secured important concessions in Canton from which European and United States’ trade with China could continue to expand. However, instability within China gave opportunities in the late 1850s for local initiatives, from piracy to governmental measures, that interfered with Western interests and were thought to threaten the whole basis of trade.

In consequence the British Commander-in-Chief, Rear Admiral Sir Michael Seymour, directed an attack on the defences of Canton. The outlying forts were taken in October 1856, and the fleet commanded the approaches to Canton. Further progress was bogged down by unexpectedly strong Chinese resistance on the ground and the skilful diplomacy of Commissioner Yeh, and a stalemate persisted throughout 1857, the British effort being weakened by the need to divert forces to India in consequence of the mutiny. The only significant British success that summer was in Fatshan Creek, above Canton, where a large force of Chinese war junks was routed and burnt; steam, firepower and discipline were the keys to success.

In December a French squadron arrived to reinforce the British off Canton, and troops from both countries became available. The main assault (including a British naval brigade of 1,500 men) went in, after an ultimatum, on 28 December 1857 and the city was effectively occupied by 30 December. It was one thing, however, to make a military conquest of a city of a million people, and quite another to administer it. The Chinese authorities knew this very well, and the situation entered a new sort of stalemate.

Negotiation with the Imperial Chinese Government was considered necessary. But a proposed meeting in Shanghai failed to materialize, and the Western plenipotentiaries thought it necessary to negotiate from a position of strength. Naval forces were therefore sent north, and an ultimatum delivered to the commander of the Taku forts, at the mouth of the Peiho and commanding the approaches to Tientsin and Peking. On expiry of the ultimatum, combined British and French forces were landed under cover of fire from some eleven warships. Resistance was overcome without much difficulty and the fleet moved through to Tientsin, where the Chinese authorities signed a treaty on 27 June 1858. The USA and Russia were also parties. The treaty gave many concessions, commercial and diplomatic, to Western powers.

Difficulties soon arose over interpretation of the treaty, and almost exactly a year later a new team of British and French envoys was charged with ensuring Chinese compliance. Once more it was deemed necessary to pass the Taku forts and take a naval force through to Tientsin. In the interval, however, the Chinese had much improved the fortifications. The British under their new Commander- in-Chief Sir James Hope were over-confident, the French forces were mostly elsewhere, and the American presence was nominally neutral. An assault by naval landing parties alone was frustrated by boom defences and fixed obstructions, heavy fire from the forts, and most of all by mud, which made the approach to the forts almost impassable. The British were repulsed with heavy loss. Some de facto non-firing help was given by the US force under the direction of Commodore Tattnall USN, who remarked famously that ‘blood is thicker than water’.

It was in the spirit of the times that this reverse should be regarded as an ‘insult’ to be avenged. But not until the next year was sufficient force assembled to make sure of a successful attack on the Taku forts. The British and French troops which landed at Pehtang in August 1860 amounted to over 20,000, and in the face of this overland attack, supported by fire from the gunboats, the Taku forts surrendered on 21 August. The army units went on to Tientsin and subsequently to Peking, where a further treaty, more favourable to Western interests than that of Tientsin, was signed on 24 October.

The situation in China was confused by the Taiping rebellion against central government, which had been going on since 1858. The years from 1860 to 1862 saw British policy endeavouring to protect the Western interest on the Yangtse and particularly at Shanghai, already a most important trading port on the China coast. Commanding officers of gunboats, often only of lieutenant’s rank, found themselves in acutely difficult diplomatic situations trying to support a policy that was overtly non-interventionist but often, effectively, favoured the central government.

Rear Admiral Kuper, who succeeded Hope in February 1862, successfully tapered off British operations against the Taipings. He had other preoccupations, further afield in Japan. That country too was in confusion, brought on partly by the decay of the Shogunate and partly by efforts from the Western powers, in the wake of Commodore Perry’s visit in 1853, to open up Japan to trade – a deeply divisive issue. Isolated attacks were made on Western nationals and consulates in the autumn of 1862 and these were taken extremely seriously by the British, who demanded reparation.

Influential forces in Japan remained split and by mid 1863 the faction demanding the removal of all foreigners appeared to be getting the upper hand. French, Dutch and American ships were fired on in the Strait of Shimonoseki and retaliated with a bombardment and landing. In August Kuper was instructed to take coercive action against the Satsuma clan, which led the anti-foreigner party. Between 15 and 17 August seven of his ships carried out a bombardment of Kagoshima in the southern island of Kyushu. All were wooden-hulled but steam-powered, and their breech-loading guns did not perform well. In spite of this the damage to Kagoshima was considerable and the effect on Japanese opinion immense; for reasons of expediency, the majority of the ruling elements now favoured opening Vice Admiral Augustus Kuper, British Commander-in-Chief on the China Station, 1862-4. His firmness and diplomacy were fully tested by the Taiping rebellion in China and difficulties with Japan. the country to foreign trade and influence.

One Japanese faction however remained opposed, and gained control over the Strait of Shimonoseki which lay at the western entrance to the Inland Sea. In the summer of 1864 Kuper sailed from Yokohama and joined up with French, Dutch and American forces to force the Strait. Altogether eighteen vessels were assembled, mounting nearly 300 guns in all; a British screw line-of-battle ship, the Conqueror, was the largest present, and it was probably the last time such a British ship was in action.

The operation was a sequential one from east to west, softening up each set of forts in turn by bombardment and following up with landings by detachments from all the nations involved, to spike guns that could not be moved and bring off those that could. It lasted three days, from 5 to 8 September, and was completely successful in military terms, with light casualties on the attackers’ side. It was also successful in its immediate political effects; the Strait was opened and treaties satisfactory to the West were concluded with Japan.