23 March 2012

The People’s Liberation Army’s Selective Learning: Lessons of the Iran-Iraq ‘War of the Cities’ Missile Duels and Uses of Missiles in Other Conflicts

Christopher Twomey, The People’s Liberation Army’s Selective Learning: Lessons of the Iran-Iraq ‘War of the Cities’ Missile Duels and Uses of Missiles in Other Conflicts,” in Andrew Scobell, David Lai, and Roy Kamphausen, eds., Chinese Lessons From Other Peoples’ Wars (Carlisle, PA: Army War College Strategic Studies Institute and National Bureau of Asian Research, 2011), 115-51.


This chapter finds that China has “learned” few lessons from ballistic missile usage per se in other historic cases. Instead, it has engaged in a degree of doctrinal innovation that moves well beyond the traditional “terror” attack usages of ballistic missiles.


China has not imported lessons directly from Iranian and Iraqi use of ballistic missiles in the 1980s, or Iraqi use in either 1991 or 2003. It has certainly examined those cases, and portrays a relatively accurate assessment of the military role they played. That said, it does dress up those attacks in typical inflated language about their political utility for sowing terror and thereby attacking the adversary’s morale. Nevertheless, these lessons are not then analytically extrapolated to China’s strategic situation. Instead, the substantial innovation that China has undertaken with regard to its ballistic missile force, and apparently its missile doctrine, moves orthogonally away from such brute terror attacks. Thus, precision attacks on key nodes of military utility are the core of Chinese missile strike strategy. This suggests a degree of innovative doctrinal development. The Chinese appear to be extrapolating from American standoff precision strike campaigns in the 1990s and 2000s, to be sure, but nevertheless adapting these lessons to areas of their own relative technology competency.


This analysis raises some operational implications and calls for further research as well.

•  The flexibility with which the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) developed distinct technical answers to doctrinal demands is likely to be disconcerting for the U.S. military that uses a different approach, rendering problematic the anticipation of likely future such innovative developments by the PLA.

•  China is likely to continue to emphasize and diversify the roles for its missile forces beyond traditional strategic roles.

•  Further examination of the interaction of demand-pull of operational needs and the supply-push of existing bureaucratic and technical expertise is warranted. This would help anticipate future likely directions for emphasis in deployment of capabilities and development of doctrine for the PLA. …

For full text of the article cited, Andrew S. Erickson and David Yang, “On the Verge of a Game-Changer,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, Vol. 135, No. 3 (May 2009): 26-32.