Monday, April 05, 2021

Raids, Probes, & Scouting Parties

The latest iteration of the People’s Republic of China’s highly successful island hopping campaign in the Southwest Pacific has brought us to another round of the US national security nomenklatura and chatterati pounding away at their keyboards trying to figure out not just what is going on, but what China’s goals are.

Everyone continues to talk each other in circles, your humble blogg’r included. Towards the end of last week it started to dawn on me that perhaps part of the problem is that “we” continue to think ourselves in to the same intellectual box canyons. As a result, at the end of each iteration we don’t make progress and the Chinese get more islands.

The last decade saw the Chinese get the low hanging fruit with little substantive pushback or consequences, effectively creating a new normal in the South China Sea concerning who controls what. There really is nothing new here. As a matter of fact, it is old school, “This is mine, do something about it." mentality. As the saying goes, the mighty do what they will, the weak suffer what they must.

OK, there I go again – the usual intellectual box canyon. It sounds right, makes sense, explains a lot, but at the end of the chain, it just does not “feel right.”  Why?

Let’s go back to the “old school” comment above and pick at it.

Is that really “old school?” Am I suffering, as many other US natsec people may be, from an unfortunate byproduct of playing “Risk” too much? The Risk-Trap seems to get us in a lot of trouble trying to figure out what is going on in the real world. The game is all based on grabbing bit of territory in a manner to gain world conquest. It also sounds right, makes sense, explains a lot, but at the end of the chain, it just does not “feel right.”  I mean, is Irkutsk really that important? Really?

I don’t think Risk is all that popular in China, and perhaps that is the problem; cultural context. 

Old school, especially in the Chinese context, is OLD. I always try to keep in mind that they have a continuous culture going back 3,000 years just with the written word. Only the Jewish people have a longer record. The USA is less than a 10th of that age.

Our military history is also dramatically different, and it is there that I am trying to look at what the Chinese are doing in a different context. It is much more than China being a continental power while – contrary to Army fever dreams – the USA is a maritime and aerospace power. No, much deeper than that.

Though flavored with the "people’s army" insurgency foundation that is the modern Chinese military (even their navy is the People’s Liberation Army Navy), the Chinese military tradition, habits, and reference points go back thousands of years steeped in the fundamental nature of steppe warfare.

Where the only American experience in steppe (Great Plains) warfare was a few decades at the end of the 19th Century against … well … a people who immigrated from the Asian steppes over 10,000 years earlier, the Chinese for thousands of years faced Mongols, Manchurians, and other people who inhabited the grasslands and deserts on the periphery of the Han heartland.

What are the characteristics of steppe warfare? Raids, Probes, and Scouting Parties. Light, fast moving parties crossing empty spaces to isolated pockets of important terrain, cities, and resources. First in small groups to check the reaction, strength, and resiliency of the locals, and if the odds look right, sending for larger forces to take what is worth taking, plundering what is worth plundering, and laying waste to anything that might encourage the previous inhabitants to come back.

Perhaps we need to be thinking and studying more about that cultural reference as we try to get our minds around what is happening in the Western Pacific.

As the great philosopher Lloyd Cole encouraged, lean over on the bookcase if you really wanna get straight.

Because I’ve already read his entire canon twice, at first I thought of Hopkirk's works, specifically "Setting the East Ablaze" & "Foreign Devils on Silk Road." 

Where to go from there? This weekend led me down the rabbit hole of bits and pieces elsewhere of the Mongol conquests – and to the Russian experience with the same, especially their 17th and 18th century expansion of the Russian Empire in to Central and Eastern Asia. 

From there, I found a gold mine of “I wish I didn’t have a paying gig so I could read all of these this week” list from the University of Michigan’s Erik Hildinger’s article Nomadic Steppe Warfare.

In the article he has a simply fascinating reading list. I need more bookcases.

The subject of nomadic steppe warfare is narrow enough that no general work of any depth seems to have been written exclusively on this topic apart from Hildinger 1997. However, there are useful chapters or passages on the campaigns and tactics of various nomadic warrior societies in other general works on the history of warfare, notably Keegan 1994, Jones 1987, and Lot 1946. Grousset 1970, monumental and easily available, although primarily a general political history, touches on the details of steppe-style warfare in its first chapter. Although these last four works do not treat nomadic steppe-style warfare in exhaustive detail, they are informative as to its general characteristics and, by contrasting it with the more familiar aspects of warfare as practiced by sedentary peoples, they are helpful.

Davies, Brian L. Warfare, State and Society on the Black Sea Steppe, 1500–1700. London: Routledge, 2007.

As the title suggests, this book covers more than steppe warfare, though it has sections of some specificity regarding the equipment, tactics, and strategy involved in this area. Lithuanian, Russian, Polish, and Crimean Tatar interests are covered. It appears to be the only book-length treatment in English to focus on Russia’s expansion to the south.


Di Cosmo, Nicola. Warfare in Inner Asian History, 500–1800. Handbuch der Orientalistik 8. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2002.

Detailed academic study of warfare with, and between, nomadic peoples and their empires. There is a good deal of emphasis on Chinese responses to nomadic opponents, and a section dealing with the Manchu integration of the Mongols into their state in as they prepared to conquer China.


Drews, Robert. Early Riders: The Beginnings of Mounted Warfare in Asia and Europe. New York: Routledge, 2004.

DOI: 10.4324/9780203389928

A brief general history by a well-known academic. It treats the domestication of the horse, its use in warfare, steppe-style tactics, and the author’s view of the aims of those who practiced nomadic warfare.


Grousset, René. The Empire of the Steppes: A History of Central Asia. Translated by Naomi Walford. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1970.

Treats briefly the essential military characteristics of the steppe warrior, though with some exaggeration about the practical range of the composite bow. Though dated, the book is still useful and was long a standard text on the history of the many steppe tribes of central Asia. Now superseded by Sinor 1990 (cited under Modern Works Treating Specific Peoples).


Hildinger, Erik. Warriors of the Steppe: A Military History of Central Asia, 500 B.C. to 1700 A.D. New York: Sarpedon, 1997.

Apparently the only general history of nomadic steppe-style warfare. It contains chapters dealing with nomadism, the essential combination of horse and bow, strategy and tactics, and the activities of the most significant of the nomadic warrior societies, or those settled societies that retained or adopted their military techniques.


Jones, Archer. The Art of War in the Western World. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987.

Chapter 2, “The Diversity of the Medieval Ways of War,” treats briefly, but perceptively, the Mongol approach to war from a primarily strategic and logistical viewpoint.


Keegan, John. A History of Warfare. New York: Vintage, 1994.

Chapter 3, “Flesh,” discusses in some detail the various aspects of nomadic life that work to mold nomads into successful warriors.


Lot, Ferdinand. L’art militaire et les armées au Moyen Âge. Paris: Payot, 1946.

Several chapters treat the more significant nomadic warrior societies with whom the West had contact. The work is long (two volumes) and detailed. There is unfortunately no English translation.

Warfare is downstream from culture. Perhaps we all need to do a better job of getting to know the Chinese military culture, and then we can get a better grasp of what they are doing as Chinese, and not what we think they are doing as if they were Americans.

In steppe warfare, what do the raids, probes, and scouting parties look like? 

What follows? 

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