Some of the technologies behind China’s Assassin’s Mace weapons were indigenously developed

Tuesday, March 29th, 2022

After the Gulf War, Christian Brose explains (in The Kill Chain), the Russians weren’t the only ones to notice the US military’s success:

Upon visiting Baghdad, Chinese military officials learned that Saddam Hussein had the same aging Soviet air defenses and other weapons that China did, and in some cases, Iraq’s were better.


What unnerved the Chinese Communist Party was not just the stealth and precision of US forces but also their ability to achieve victory without completely annihilating the Iraqi military.


In 1996, as tensions between China and Taiwan flared, the United States sailed an aircraft carrier battle group into the Taiwan Strait, one hundred miles from China’s mainland, and the Chinese military struggled to locate its exact position. Three years later, China watched again as the same US way of war that had triumphed in Iraq destroyed Serbia’s ability to fight and forced Milosevic to capitulate. This time, however, it was personal, because a US airstrike had destroyed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade.


Under what it called its 995 Plan (named for the Belgrade embassy attack in May 1999), China accelerated work to build a different kind of military. It continued to spend money on traditional military systems, such as ships and tanks, but its priority was to develop what it called “Assassin’s Mace” weapons. The name refers to special weapons that were used in Chinese history to defeat more powerful adversaries.


In the event of a war in Asia, the US military would build up its iron mountains in these forward bases, much as it had used similar bases to wage the wars in Iraq and the Balkans, and this would enable US forces to fight how, when, and where they wished. China knew that Washington assumed all of this, and it built larger and larger quantities of increasingly capable missiles, primarily medium-range and long-range ballistic missiles, to wipe out America’s critical warfighting infrastructure in Asia.


As a result, China developed early-warning and long-range radars to spot approaching US aircraft from as far away as possible. It also built dense and formidable networks of integrated air and missile defense systems that would aim to shoot down US planes from greater distances and high-powered jammers that would seek to destroy their ability to communicate.


The fact that aircraft carriers could move — so first had to be located — made them much tougher targets than land bases. But China knew that most US carriers were not based in Asia and would need to sail into the region from elsewhere in the event of conflict.


So, China set about building over-the-horizon radars, long-range reconnaissance satellites and aircraft, and other means of hunting America’s floating airfields as they made their long journey across the Pacific Ocean.


The DF-21, the world’s first ever anti-ship ballistic missile, was designed to do just that — fly out more than one thousand miles, slam into a carrier, and cripple its ability to fight, if not sink it altogether.


As Washington lurched from one costly military acquisition debacle to another, Beijing fielded an even more capable carrier killer missile, the DF-26, which may be able to fly twice as far as the DF-21, possibly farther, carry a larger warhead, and strike more precisely. It also fielded quiet diesel submarines and anti-ship cruise missiles that were harder to detect and defeat because they could fly low and maneuver unpredictably.


An additional set of Assassin’s Mace weapons focused on doing to the US military what it had done to Iraq in 1991: destroying the underlying systems that sustained the ability to wage war. In America’s case, this was its communications and intelligence satellites, especially its Global Positioning System (GPS), which enabled US weapons to find their targets. It was the information networks that moved targeting data from sensors to shooters. And it was the logistics enterprise that allowed US forces to flow into theaters of operations and sustained forces in combat with food, fuel, and supplies.


This was all part of a broader warfighting doctrine that Chinese military officials ultimately called “systems destruction warfare.”


Some of the technologies behind China’s Assassin’s Mace weapons were indigenously developed, but many fell into Chinese hands as the result of a long-term and large-scale campaign of state-sponsored theft.


It was often noted, for example, that China’s CH-4B unmanned aircraft was a spitting image of the US Predator drone, and that its J-20 fifth-generation fighter jet looked strikingly similar to the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Indeed, some joked in Washington that all of the multi-billion-dollar acquisition disasters that plagued the US military were actually part of an ingenious plot to sabotage China when it tried to copy them.


By 2012, General Keith Alexander, director of the National Security Agency and commander of US Cyber Command, estimated that the United States was losing a quarter of $1 trillion every year to cyber-enabled industrial espionage, much of it by China. He called it “the greatest transfer of wealth in history.”

Why assassin’s mace?

A club-type weapon sounds like a rather unsuitable weapon for an assassin. The actual Chinese term is Sha Shou Jian (literally “killing hand club”), which refers to a pair of short wooden or metal rods used as a martial arts weapon. “Jian” normally denotes a long Chinese swordbut Sha Shou Jian are blunt and heavy. They could be concealed in the long sleeves of court robes and used to make surprise attacks — hence the association with assassins.

And although some Western commentators like the *New Atlantis *claim that the meaning of the assassin’s mace “remains elusive, ” it’s no mystery to Mandarin speakers. Sha Shou Jian a popular expression used by sports commentators, businessmen and even in romantic advice columns. Alastair Johnston of Harvard University criticizes the way Washington pundits want to make the Assassin’s Mace “mysterious and exotic”: it’s simply the decisive, winning quality. In sports, the Assassin’s Mace may be the key goal-scorer; in business, it’s any quality that puts you ahead of the competition; in love, it might be the subtle smile that wins over the object of your affections. Johnston suggests that a fairly idiomatic translation would be “silver bullet” and that the concept behind it is less fiendishly oriental than is often supposed.


The Pentagon defines the Maces as technologies that might afford an inferior military an advantage in a conflict with a superior power. In this view, an Assassin’s Mace is anything which provides a cheap means of countering an expensive weapon. Other examples might include Chinese anti-satellite weapons, which might instantly knock out U.S. space assets, or a conventional ballistic missile, designed to take out a supercarrier and all its aircraft in one hit. It’s an interesting contrast to the perspective of the American arms industry, which can end up spending vast amounts countering low-tech, low-cost threats like mines and IEDs.


  1. Bob Sykes says:

    Regarding the Chinese theft of US technology:

    China has 10 times as many engineers and scientists as we do, that is they have 10 times as many people as we do that can do creative technology.

    As Thomas A. Callaghan Jr. (influential US defense consultant of the 1970s and 1980s) said, “Quantity has a quality all its own.” So China now leads the US in refereed journal publications and patents; it has more supercomputers, and two of the fastest; it has more high-speed train trackage than Europe, including mag-lev; it has an independent manned space program; its industrial sector is 50% larger than ours; and its economy is one-third larger than ours, and growing three times as fast.

    The collapse of our education system, especially STEM, is another Chinese advantage.

    By the way, Russia, with half our population, has as many engineers and scientists, and they are better educated than our. The numbers of engineers and scientists is more or less proportional to the size of the physical economy. Just how small do you think Russia’s economy is? Its physical economy (metals, chemicals, machines) might be as big as ours. Their commercial ship building vies for third or fourth in size with Japan.

  2. Gavin Longmuir says:

    Back in the 1960s in the days of the NASA “Brain Drain”, many of the smartest people in Europe emigrated to the US because things could get done in the US. That was in contrast to stodgy old Europe where there was a profound reluctance to try anything new.

    Something analogous has happened in China — minus the immigrants.

    Take Magnetic Levitation trains as an example. The US and Europe have been playing around with that technology for decades, but it took China to take the step of actually building a working MagLev line.

    Or compare China’s build-out of something like 14,000 miles of High Speed Rail versus California’s converting HSR into a full-employment plan for lawyers, spending vast amounts on litigation instead of getting a working HSR.

    The concern is not really with technology — because there is very little which is truly secret. The issue is with the willingness to take a chance by investing and doing. On that score, China is now as far ahead of the US as the US once was ahead of Europe.

  3. Jim says:

    So true.

  4. Pseudo-Chrysostom says:

    The difference between the CCP and USG is that in China, the official religion says ‘make china great again’, while in the occupied states of america, the official religion says ‘provide self-esteem to women, deviants, and subsaharan bantus’.

    Both entities are accomplishing their missions.

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