The U.S. military may be close to falling victim to a “deliberate, patient and robustly resourced” Chinese strategy to blunt the technological advantages of the American armed forces, a new report co-written by the Pentagon’s former No. 2 official warned. 

The study — written by former deputy defense secretary Robert O. Work and his former special assistant, Greg Grant — details what the authors describe as a five-pronged Chinese strategy to end and ultimately outstrip the American military’s technological superiority. The goal in the short term is to make it too costly for Washington to intervene in the Western Pacific, and in the long term to become the world’s premier military force, according to the study. 

“The Chinese People’s Liberation Army has been patiently stalking the U.S. military for two decades,” the report says. “It has studied the preferred American way of war and devised a strategy to exploit its weaknesses and offset its strengths — particularly its military-technological strengths.”

China, the report adds, “appears increasingly close to achieving technological parity with U.S. operational systems and has a plan to achieve technological superiority.”

Published by the Center for a New American Security, or CNAS, the study comes as an increasing number of current and former Pentagon officials sound alarm bells about what they say China’s rising military might portend for a United States that has grown accustomed to unrivaled military superiority. 

Gen. Paul J. Selva, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has warned that the Chinese military could reach technological parity with the United States in the early 2020s and outpace the Pentagon in the 2030s, if the U.S. military doesn’t respond to the challenge.  

A study late last year conducted by former top Republican and Democratic officials at the behest of Congress concluded that the United States had lost its military edge to a dangerous degree and could lose a war against China in certain scenarios. 

In early 2018, the Trump administration rolled out a new National Defense Strategy. It called on the American military to shift its emphasis away from counterterrorism, which has been the primary focus since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, and instead concentrate on “great power competition” with China and Russia. 

The new national defense strategy built on and added clarity to an initiative that Work spearheaded at the Pentagon beginning in late 2014 known as the “Third Offset.” That strategy called upon the United States to maintain its military edge by renewing a focus on technological innovation, but it didn’t single out China or Russia as pacing threats or competitors. 

In the CNAS report, Work and Grant say that, in retrospect, the Pentagon should have specified that the key aim of the Third Offset was to upset China’s effort to undermine the American military’s technological dominance. 

“I would have said, ‘The Chinese are coming, the Chinese are coming, the Chinese are coming,’ if I was able to do that,” Work said. “And I would have tried to inject a more heightened sense of urgency that we can’t afford to wait anymore. Every day we wait, we fall farther and farther behind.”

Work, speaking in an interview with The Washington Post, said the Obama administration wasn’t comfortable making such a bold case against China in the strategy, because top officials didn’t want to overhype the competition and bring about a new Cold War or a destabilizing arms race.

In their report, Work and Grant detail five lines of effort they say the Chinese government has pursued in recent decades with the goal of blunting the American military’s technological edge.

According to the study, the Chinese have employed industrial and technical espionage; developed concepts and capabilities to exploit vulnerabilities in the U.S. battle network; amassed an arsenal of long-range precision missiles; developed “black capabilities” to surprise the United States in the event of a conflict; and undertaken efforts to become a world leader in artificial intelligence and integrate the technology into their military to secure an edge. 

Of the lines of effort, Work says he is particularly concerned at the moment about China’s development of technologies and concepts to exploit vulnerabilities in the way the United States wages war. He said China’s idea is to achieve victory against the United States in any potential conflict by disabling the networks, communications and technologies that allow the modern American military to operate. 

“In other words, we don’t care how many ships we sink. We don’t care how many planes we shoot down,” Work said. “All we care about is if we can pry apart the digital network the U.S. uses to apply force, and we will prevent the United States from achieving its campaign objectives.”

Work, a retired U.S. Marine Corps colonel who served at the Pentagon in the Obama administration and at the beginning of the Trump administration, said every connection the U.S. military relies on is probably covered by a Chinese electronic warfare system designed to disable it in the event of a conflict. 

The former top Pentagon official said the other line of effort that worries him is China’s emphasis on guided ballistic missiles and hypersonic weapons, which are designed to outrange American versions. Work said this challenges American service members, who have become accustomed to having better technologies than adversaries.

The report notes that, as a result of China’s advances, any objective assessment must consider the possibility that the U.S. military “is close to becoming the victim of a deliberate, patient and robustly resourced military-
technical offset strategy.” It says the United States will probably not be able to spend its way out of the challenge and must “out-innovate” the Chinese as a result.

“Military advantage is just 1.1 times better than the adversary,” Grant said. “So, start there. And then start increasing the advantage over time.”