Unrestricted Warfare (超限战) caused quite a commotion on publication in 1999. Written by two Chinese Colonels Qiao Liang (乔良) and Wang Xiangsui (王湘穗); published by the People’s Liberation Army Arts and Publishing House; and supposedly praised by then President Jiang Zemin – it’s not unreasonable to conclude the contents were being given serious thought by Chinese strategists.
The book was translated into English by what is now the CIA’s OSC and eventually the translation made it into hard copy – complete with sensationalised front cover and the tagline “China’s Master Plan to Destroy America”.
Unrestricted Warfare’s principle argument is that the pressures of globalisation, advanced and ultra-destructive weapons, the rise of non-state powers and the emergence of new technologies are fundamentally changing the nature of conflict and the ways war is fought. War is no longer as Clausewitz describes: an act of violence intended to compel our opponent to fulfil our will, but rather it is:
to use all means whatsoever - means that involve the force of arms and means that do not involve the force of arms, means that involve military power and means that do not involve military power, means that entail casualties, means that do not entail casualties – to force the enemy to serve one’s own interests.1
So potentially anything – think 4th Generation War with Chinese characteristics.
On why wars will be fought – the theme continues – for potentially any reason. It is argued that wars will be increasingly fought to protect interests rather than to gain territory but the effects of globalisation mean that so many interests are at stake and so subject to change that “it is more and more difficult for people to say clearly just why they are fighting.”2 Thus a “common interest” must be identified amongst both sub-state groups and states themselves should a war be pursued jointly. Speaking about the Gulf War:
Even if we consider a given country’s domestic situation, each of the various domestic interest groups will also be pursuing its own agenda in a war. The complex interrelationships among self-interests make it impossible to pigeonhole the Gulf War as having been fought for oil, or as having been fought for the new world order, or as having been fought to drive out the invaders. Only a handful of soldiers are likely to grasp a principle that every statesman already knows: that the biggest difference between contemporary wars and the wars of the past is that, in contemporary wars, the overt goal and the covert goal are often two different matters.3
Similarly the battlefield is no longer restricted to the lands, the oceans and skies, but is omnipresent, encompassing unconventional “spaces” such as network space, electromagnetic spectrum space and cultural space. With the breakdown of the civil/military distinction and the dual purpose uses for the physical and virtual spaces.
Just think, if its even possible to start a war in a computer room or a stock exchange that will send an enemy country to its doom, then is there non-battlespace anywhere? … “Where is the battlefield?” The answer would be: “Everywhere.”4
Likewise when addressing the question of ‘who fights?’ – the vast scope of this new war means that the traditional conception of the soldier is no longer the only fighter this broadened battlefield. In addition to terrorists operating in the physical battlefield, we can expect the rise of computer hackers in the digital realm and financial warriors in the style of George Soros in the economic.5
A considerable part of the book is concerned with a discussion about the various means that might be used in future warfare. Various scenarios are discussed, some hypothetical and others grounded in actual events. Alongside ‘new’ terrorism, the authors discuss the notions of trade warfare, financial warfare, smuggling warfare, cultural warfare, drug warfare, media and fabrication warfare, technological warfare, resources warfare, psychological warfare, networks warfare, international law warfare, environmental warfare, economic aid warfare.6
The remainder of the first half of the book discusses some of these concepts in particular relation to the Gulf War and also their place within the American military institutional reforms the followed. There is some praise, but the key point is that although the US military implemented “joint campaigns” and “joint plans” between their component forces, this thinking did not go far enough:
its starting point and ending point have both fallen onto the level of armed force and have been unable to expand the field of vision of “joint” to all the realms in which humans can produce confrontational behaviour.7
This is a serious deficiency in modern war theorising since “military options will never again be the entire war”, The novelty of this point appears overstated by the authors who claim that such a notion has never emerged from the U.S military since the Gulf war. One article is conceded in Unrestricted War’s footnotes, but there certainly seems to be considerable overlap with the early 4th Generation War writings of William S. Lind that pre-date the Gulf War and the authors later mention the similarity between aspects of their theory and the US notion of “full-dimensional operations”.
The second half of Unrestricted Warfare is discusses new methods of operation, predominantly from the perspective of nation states.
The complexity of what is being proposed comes to a front with the notion of needing and “extended domain view”. This can only be realised when “the security interests of the entire nation, [including] political (national will, values, and cohesion) and military factors on the economy, culture, foreign relations, technology, environment, natural resources, nationalities and other parameters” are contrasted with the security situation of the same factors to produce a “large strategic situation map”.8 This is seemingly the logical consequence of the theory being expounded, but practical difficulties in carrying out such an analysis and produce strategy from it are enormous.
Once complete, this situation map describing the security landscape allows for actions to be planned – be they a “pure war action, a nonwar military action, or a nonmilitary war action” or a combination thereof. The authors make attempts to further differentiate these different types of actions – including combining them with other states, international organisations, non-state actors and the importance of applying the “unrestricted” concepts to actions at the strategic, operational and tactical levels. There is a good amount of interesting application of the authors’ theories to both hypothetical and historical situations – but I found the chapter suffered due to unclear, and overlapping theoretical terms.9
Less inspiring was the chapter “Seeking Rules for Victory” – most of which I remain fairly puzzled by. The importance of the Golden Ratio (0.618) in seemingly all aspects of life including strategic affairs is proclaimed and applied to air, land and sea battles, non-military realms, and even time itself. At best the concept seems over extended – but the text in this section is impenetrable so perhaps it is my own understanding at fault…
The books ends with a distillation of eight essential principles: omnidirectionality, synchrony, limited objectives, unlimited measures, Asymmetry, minimal consumption, multidimendional coordination, adjustment and control of the entire process. These are pithy restatements of earlier principles discussed in the book. In many cases they remain pretty abstract; and although some seem obvious; there are undoubtedly wisdom in each.
Unrestricted Warfare was an important book. I wasn’t following security matters when it was published, but its a title that I’ve seen referenced by a number of thoughtful analysts. It would certainly be interested to see translations of subsequent Chinese output that has inevitably come since.