In shaping patterns of future warfare, there is little doubt that militaries across the world will be seeking to absorb the key lessons of the Russia-Ukraine War, ranging from the employment of tanks to the use of anti-ship cruise missiles and the ubiquitous drones. For the Chinese military, these lessons might even assume a greater importance, since the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) lacks recent major combat experience, and has also leaned heavily on Russian weapons and doctrine for its rapid modernization over the last few decades.
Chinese media coverage of the war in Ukraine has been extensive. The close nature of the China-Russia “quasi-alliance” means that Chinese military analysts have not engaged in the ruthless critiques of Russian military performance that have been commonplace in the West. Yet, Chinese military analyses are still probing deeply for lessons to understand the shape of modern warfare. They have taken particular interest in the U.S. employment of novel weapons and strategies.
To fully grasp the scope and depth of these Chinese analyses it is important to take assessments from a full range of Chinese military media, which is more extensive than is often appreciated in the West. These articles are generally associated with research institutes that are directly involved in the Chinese military-industrial complex.
This exclusive series for The Diplomat will represent the first systematic attempt by Western analysts to evaluate these Chinese assessments of the war in Ukraine across the full spectrum of warfare, including the land, sea, air and space, and information domains. Read the rest of the series here.
The Ukrainian military’s employment of the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS), a U.S. built medium-range mobile rocket launcher, has proven to be a highly significant weapon in its fight against Russia. HIMARS rocket strikes have delivered devastating blows against key nodes behind the front lines in the Russian defense system and thus enabled some impressive Ukrainian successes.
Asia-Pacific defense analysts were familiar with the HIMARS system for many years prior to the Ukraine conflict. U.S. strategists have long hypothesized that the weapon could play a major role in any possible war with China. Indeed, the U.S. Army and also the Marine Corps have been exploring ways in which they might leverage similar long-range systems dispersed across islands in the Western Pacific in such a conflict.
Chinese strategists have also been studying such land-based, medium-range rocket systems and have developed their own comparable variants. Yet watching the war unfold in Ukraine, they have also intensified their research into how to defeat the innovative U.S. weapon system.
An article recently appeared in a military affiliated periodical published by a research arm of the China State Shipbuilding Corporation, under the crisp title, “Countering HIMARS.” In this piece, we will assess that article as part of the broader effort to evaluate China’s lessons from the Ukraine War.
In the article, Chinese analysts express admiration for the HIMARS system. “The HIMARS imported from the U.S. frequently attacked ammunition depots, logistics centers, and command posts in the Russian rear, and have had a definite impact on the battlefield situation,” it stated. As observed in a previous edition of this series, Chinese thinking on the future of combat places a great emphasis on non-contact warfare, which employs the use of long-range fires from the periphery of the combat zone. Likewise, this discussion of HIMARS said, “The future of warfare is expanding in the domains of information and intelligence. Conventional standard munitions can no longer meet the needs of warfare.”
The analysis emphasized the advantages of this advanced U.S. rocket system in terms of mobility and survivability on the battlefield. “The HIMARS rely on high-speed mobility to carry out strikes and then stay protected through concealment on the battlefield.” Perhaps with echoes of the military thinking of Mao Zedong, the authors noted that, “HIMARS has the characteristics of being highly efficient for [conventional] combat as well as guerrilla warfare.”
While U.S. strategists regularly talk of dispersing HIMARS across locations throughout the Pacific, this analysis focused on where China considers such systems to be the greatest threat: on Taiwan itself. These analysts expect that “according to the tactical situation of… Taiwan’s geography, the HIMARS will be mainly deployed in the western plains and in pre-designated positions.”
Furthermore, the analysis notes the potential of HIMARS firing from Taiwan to strike into the coastal regions of China. “HIMARS will mainly be used to attack the landing forces and strike rear command and control sites and damage logistics. The furthest range of HIMARS can cover up to 300 kilometers inland of China.” This likely refers to the forthcoming Precision Strike Missile (PrSM) variant.
The focus on rear areas, strikes on landing forces, and command and control sites indicate a concern that HIMARS could be used before an invasion even commences. This would be during a period when Chinese forces might be more vulnerable to attack as they are being mobilized to embarkation points along the coast. This assumption anticipates that Taiwan would receive the longer range HIMARS munitions, which are capable of hitting targets in China. To date, the United States has held off from providing these extended range munitions to Ukraine out of a concern for escalation.
Western strategists hope that HIMARS might help Taiwan deter the threat of a PLA invasion. Chinese strategists, however, do not see HIMARS as an “invincible” trump card and are contemplating various methods to counter the U.S. system. The Chinese assessment noted that “although HIMARS has great advantages, it is not invulnerable.”
Chinese analysts believe that the U.S. mobile rocket system can be countered through both offensive and defensive measures. These authors argued: “To destroy HIMARS, active attacks are one method. Air supremacy is to be promptly established and based on the strategy of active attack; we will strike them with multiple rounds of firepower.” The emphasis on establishing air supremacy is a key insight taken from observations of Russian combat deficiencies in Ukraine. Chinese strategists seem reasonably confident in China’s ability to establish air supremacy over and around Taiwan in the event of a conflict.
In a closely related point, “Observation and perception of the battlefield situation are crucial. It is necessary to first achieve air supremacy, prioritize obtaining intelligence, and rely on information superiority to support an active mode of combat so that the opponent will fall into a passive position.” To this end, “On the modern battlefield, victory in the information domain is a vitally important weapon.” With control of the information domain, moreover, the PLA can “accurately detect and locate HIMARS, achieve precision strikes, and win pre-emptive victory.”
This assessment identified speed, mobility, and the capacity to fire quickly and conceal itself as the primary strengths of the HIMARS platform. To counteract these strengths, the Chinese assessment recommends copying the Russian tactic of relying heavily on drones. “The Russians have deployed a large number of drones and other forces to carry out three-dimensional reconnaissance, locate the Ukrainian army’s HIMARS, understand their movements, and launch fighter-bombers to execute targeted strikes.”
As Taiwan is approximately 17 times smaller than Ukraine, and China has likely spent decades mapping out the entirety of the island, there may be fewer areas to hide and less room for HIMARS to maneuver. Thus, China may feel confident that it “can employ drones to conduct close-range reconnaissance and strikes, making it impossible [for HIMARS] to escape.”
In addition to these offensive measures, defensive steps were also identified as being important. China “can utilize means of active defense, including jamming guided munitions and enhancing our air defense capabilities to achieve the effective intercept of guided munitions.” Recent news coming out of Ukraine seems to indicate increased Russian success in the jamming of HIMARS guidance systems, causing the missiles to miss targets.
The analysis placed an additional emphasis not only on jamming and intercepting the guided munitions, but also on interfering with the targeting intelligence and detection systems that backstop HIMARS: “Methods can be adopted to interfere with local information detection, acquisition, decision-making, and other processes, or [China could] directly destroy enemy observation equipment, causing HIMARS to lose accurate targeting information.”
There is additionally an awareness that Ukraine has benefited from receiving targeting data from the United States. Rather logically, this Chinese analysis assumed that Taiwan would also receive this intelligence. “The precise targeting information provided by the U.S. may also become an important crutch for the Taiwan military.” Thus, Taiwan’s reliance on U.S. intelligence could be a point of weakness for the PLA to exploit in countering HIMARS, according to this Chinese assessment.
Although HIMARS has had an outsized impact on the war in Ukraine, this Chinese analysis hints at the PLA’s determined effort to counter this system, especially as it might apply to a prospective Taiwan scenario. Chinese analysts believe deployments to Taiwan itself would be the most threatening. Yet it’s important to realize that Taiwan has not received any shipment of these weapons, and they may not arrive to the island until 2026. At the same time, a high profile 2023 test in the Philippines of the HIMARS system against a ship target did not go well – and this was immediately noted in Chinese media.
Western analysts may view HIMARS as a potential asset to increase deterrence, but Chinese military analysts are already expressing confidence in their ability to counter this weapon system through establishing air superiority, information dominance, drone attacks, and active defensive measures, such as jamming of the guidance systems, as well as intelligence support systems. The Chinese analysis emphasized, “In the face of this threat, our military must be able to detect and locate [HIMARS] in advance and counterattack quickly.”
Some leading U.S. defense analysts are also evidently skeptical of the use of HIMARS in a Taiwan scenario. Therefore, American strategists may wish to temper their expectations for applying the HIMARS “assassin’s mace” to strategic dilemmas in the Asia-Pacific.