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Asia Pacific

The War America Lost


U.S. Agrees to Meet Chinese Representatives in Geneva to End Hostilities.
By TR and JMC, Washington D.C., Sunday 16 September 2018

(Reuters) – State Department officials have confirmed that U.S. and Chinese envoys will meet in the Swiss capital to discuss a formal cessation of hostilities, and that a 48 hour cease fire had been agreed upon by both nations to facilitate negotiations.

The announcement comes at the conclusion of a terrible week for American forces in the Pacific, the fifth week since China started what some are already calling the Third World War with a surprise attack on U.S., Japanese and Taiwanese forces. This week also saw the bloodiest fighting since the commencement of hostilities.

On Monday the 10th, the Pentagon confirmed that Task Force 36, carrying a Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) to Guam to reinforce that strategic island’s defenses, had been attacked by long-range ballistic missiles from the Chinese mainland. The aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76) was set on fire and burned for three hours before sinking. Rescue operations managed to recover all but 576 of her crew. The USS Makin Island (LHD-8) carrying the 11th MEU from Camp Pendleton, was struck by three missiles and completely destroyed. Officials report that only 17 survivors were picked up from the crew and complement of 3,200 sailors and marines. The USS Stockdale, an Arleigh Burke class destroyer, was also reported lost with all hands. The Pentagon reported additional superficial damage to other unnamed ships in the Task Force, which has since returned to Pearl Harbor. Approximate U.S. casualties of 4,250 were reported. This brings total U.S. casualties in the conflict to over 5,000.


The USS Gerald R. Ford remains in the Bay of Bengal with Carrier Task Force 74, charged with interdicting Chinese supply lines from the Persian Gulf. CTF-74 has had no enemy contact since successfully prosecuting a Chinese submarine which had attacked the U.S. fleet with cruise missiles. Although oil shipments to China have been severely curtailed, experts estimate that supplies from the recently completed Siberian oil and gas pipeline to Russia and larger than suspected strategic petroleum reserves will allow the Chinese to continue the war for more than 6 months with minimal impact on their military capabilities or the civilian economy, where fuel rationing was declared at the as soon as the war began.

The loss of the USS Ronald Reagan, and the severe damage to the USS George Washington on the opening day of the war, leaves the U.S. Pacific Fleet with only 3 operational Nimitz-class carriers in theater. The USS Abraham Lincoln remains in dry dock as scheduled maintenance and upgrades begun before the war continue. The Navy will not disclosed when the ship will return to active service, but crews are working 24-hour shifts. These losses, and the inability of the Navy carriers to penetrate China’s “Second Island Barrier,” are undoubtedly major factors in the President’s decision to enter into negotiations.

Another blow was Tuesday’s announcement by Tokyo that Japan would accept a Russian offer of mediation of the conflict on the basis of recognition of Chinese sovereignty over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands. Japan has been the target of heavy bombardment from China’s missile and air forces, with widespread damage reported in Sasebo, Kure, Maizuru, Kanoya, Iwakuni, Omura, and Naha (Okinawa). While Tokyo has escaped unscathed, the mining of Japanese harbors by Chinese submarines at the outbreak of hostilities and the subsequent loss of over a dozen merchant vessels has significantly reduced critical imports to the island nation, while sending shipping and maritime insurance costs soaring. The Japanese government estimates that approximately 45,000 military and civilian casualties have been sustained to date.


Japan has been the vital staging area for the most successful U.S. air raids into China. On at least two confirmed occasions, U.S. stealth aircraft have penetrated Chinese air defenses to attack key radar installations and missile launching sites. The targeting of these mobile launchers has been a high priority for Washington, but the heavy loss in U.S. satellites in early August has hampered efforts to detect them before they move. Pentagon officials have also reported a favorable combat ratio against Chinese interceptors over the East China Sea, but anonymous Air Force sources state that “air superiority has only been sporadically achieved.”  With the Japanese government’s announcement, U.S. forces have been obliged to re-base to more distant points, some as far away as Hawaii. Defense experts claim that this has made the task of overcoming Chinese defenses all but impossible.

Americans have received the cease fire announcement with mixed feelings. A CNN telephone survey after the President’s speech showed 48% of Americans in favor of negotiations with 45% against. When asked to given a reason for their support of a cease fire, 60% cited Japan’s decision to negotiate with China, 15% said the human and economic cost of continuing the struggle was too high, 10% cited U.S. unpreparedness in the face of China’s cyber warfare campaign, while 5% said Taiwan and the Senkaku Islands were not worth fighting for.

Americans continue to struggle with the effects of Chinese cyber-attacks. U.S. airports remained at 20% capacity this week as civilian radars were still offline, with military radars and personnel struggling to cover the main air hubs. 12 states, including California, Washington, Louisiana, New York, Massachusetts, and Virginia, reported 3 or more hours of brown-outs and black-outs per day this week. Most government websites remain offline for the general public, but Administration officials say that Federal networks have been back in operation for key industrial and financial activities for over 10 days.

That is not the case for a number of the nation’s largest banks, which have been offline since the start of the conflict. Economists expect the financial damage to the nation to be “several hundred billions,” including damage to systems, financial losses and wealth simply erased during the attacks. The Bureau of Economic Analysis and the Federal Reserve predict the economy will enter into recession in the fourth quarter as supply chain disruption, shortage of key manufacturing components and financial chaos have brought large sectors of the economy to a standstill.

Despite the censorship of news coverage from China, reporters in that country as well as sources from Vietnam and South Korea have reported black-outs in major Chinese coastal cities as well as explosions at power and transmission stations. South Korean security experts attribute this damage to power spikes caused by successful American cyber-attacks. An Indian satellite photo released last week also appeared to show substantial flooding of the Yangtze River valley originating from the Three Gorges Dam, another potential U.S. target.


Fighting in Taiwan has intensified as PLA forces begin their push into Taipei’s suburbs. While Chinese forces have secured most of the island, Taiwanese forces remain entrenched in the capital and second largest city, Kaohsiung. The Taiwanese government has not yet issued an official response to the cease fire announcement, but sources in the government have confirmed that the defenders are short of munitions, especially anti-aircraft and anti-tank missiles, due to the successful interdiction efforts of the Chinese Navy and Air Force. Without U.S. support, this official confessed, the Taiwanese government would face a hopeless struggle and would seek to avoid the enormous loss of life that an urban battle in Taipei would inevitably result in.


Related Story – Philippine Government accuses China of sinking Navy frigate

Manila, Sunday, 16 September 2018

The Government of the Philippines has officially charged the Chinese Navy with the sinking of the BRP Gregorio del Pinar, lost with all hands on Saturday.


The Philippine Navy ship was patrolling the Scarborough Shoal on a mission to protect Philippine fisherman in national waters, said a spokesman for the government. Eyewitnesses in the fishing vessels heard a klaxon sound on the frigate as it accelerated and began a hard turn, seconds before two missiles struck the ship. The frigate broke in half and sank in 3 minutes. The Philippine Navy says the Gregorio del Pinar was struck by Klub anti-ship cruise missiles from a Chinese Kilo-class submarine which had been reported in the area.

The Chinese Embassy in Manila issued a pointed statement in which it abhorred the loss of life, but reminded the Philippine Government that the Scarborough Shoal was within Chinese territorial waters and that the Gregorio del Pinar was a U.S. frigate design, making the confusion of the Chinese submarine captain understandable. There was no word of an official apology forthcoming from Beijing.


A Tale of Two Decades

These two fictional articles may read like the back cover of a Tom Clancy novel, but they are based on detailed capabilities analysis and war-gaming[1] by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA)[2]. The CSBA describes itself as “an independent, non-partisan policy research institute established to promote innovative thinking and debate about national security strategy and investment options.” In 2010, the Center published a document assessing the growth of Chinese power in relative and absolute terms; in the divergent assumptions and operational concepts that were shaping the U.S. and Chinese militaries; and forecasting future risks if these trends continue.

The Center’s assessment is cause for concern. They found that U.S. operational doctrine was obsessed with counter-insurgency due to the experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq. President Bush’s wars, paid for through debt financing rather than taxation, consumed all of the increase in the DoD budget. The center also highlights that although total military spending has been high, military investment on force modernization has been historically low, with an emphasis on equipment and technologies focused on the War on Terror. This has been to the detriment of critical conventional forces. With the advent of the 2008 financial crisis and the severe strain on U.S. fiscal resources under President Obama, the trend has continued. U.S. force structure has not kept up with the global demands placed on it, nor responded to the challenge posed by the new Power in the East.

In contrast to the United States, China’s experience is the humiliation of having to back down during the 1995-1996 Taiwan Straits crisis, when President Clinton responded to Chinese threats by sending two carrier battle groups to the Straits. That experience has driven the Chinese operational doctrine since then. China also noted the ease with which the United States dealt with the large, but less technologically advanced Iraqi military in 1991 and again in 2003, and the role played in those victories by U.S. air power and information technology, particularly satellite intelligence. While the U.S. military has been planning on the next counter-insurgency, the Chinese have been planning the best way to prevent the U.S. Navy and Air Force from ever threatening the Chinese mainland or interfering in a future dispute between China and her island neighbors[3].

“Fuguo Qiangbing” (Enrich the country, strengthen the military)

During the Meiji period of Japan’s history, the slogan “enrich the country, strengthen the military” characterized the parallel industrialization and modernization drives which turned Japan from a traditional, feudal native state into a European-style Great Power in less than 70 years. This phrase is today associated with Japanese imperialism and a statist economy geared entirely towards war production, but like so much else in Japan, the origin is actually Chinese[4].

The major economic reforms begun by Deng Xiaoping after Mao’s death and the chaos of the Cultural Revolution were wildly successful. Average nominal GDP growth went from 5% in the 5 years prior to 1978 to 10.6% in the 5 years following 1978 and to 18.5% in every subsequent 5-year period thereafter[5]. The reforms gradually improved material conditions in both urban and rural China, permitted a substantial investment in infrastructure, strengthened the rule of law and encouraged very large annual amounts of foreign direct investment. A notable slowdown in growth in the wake of the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis was merely a speed bump as the economy achieved “take off” with the 2002 entry of China into the World Trade Organization.

China’s transformation has been remarkable. From an international pariah in danger of collapsing into anarchy in 1969, the PRC has become the world’s second largest economy, an indispensable element of the world economy, and a Great Power that many predict will soon replace the United States as the premier power in the world.



China’s terrific economic performance has made possible a similar and parallel investment in the People’s Liberation Armed Forces[6]. Chinese official annual defense expenditures increased on average by 16% during every year of the 1990’s and 2000’s. Since 2010, the official annual increase in military spending has average 11%. However, there is a wide disparity between the official Chinese figures released in the annual March budget and foreign estimates, which are usually substantially larger[7]. Today, China has the second largest military budget in the world, behind the United States. Depending on what conversion method is used[8], Chinese military spending is anywhere from one sixth to three quarters of the U.S. defense budget. This wide disparity in estimates and conversion rates is a major source of insecurity in Washington, as well as in regional capitals from Tokyo, Taipei and Seoul to Manila, Canberra and Hanoi.

Zhōngguó hépíng juéqǐ (China’s Peaceful Rise)                

Another source of uncertainty is the widening divergence between the official policy of the Chinese party leadership and the increasingly capable and provocative People’s Liberation Army. The “peaceful rise” of China has been a cornerstone of China’s foreign policy since Deng Xiaoping famously advised his compatriots to “hide brightness, cherish obscurity”. After China’s first decade of extraordinary growth, Senior Party official Zheng Bijian reiterated the policy of responsible, non-confrontational growth to Great Power status within the existing international framework in 2003 and again in 2005. There are many reasons to believe that the era of the “peaceful rise” – if it ever existed – is coming to an end.

China has traditionally relied upon its enormous size, difficult terrain and huge population[9] to protect the heartland between the Yellow and Yangtze Rivers and to expand China’s frontiers. This combination of factors has been enough to ensure that throughout the country’s 3,000 year history, it has only been conquered once from the outside: and even the hordes of Genghis Khan quickly adopted the more advanced cultural and dynastic system of their nominal subjects, and the Yuan Dynasty established by his grandson Kublai lasted only 98 years.

The most critical challenge to China has always come from the sea. China’s economic backbone runs along the coastal provinces and the great port cities. The majority of the population lives in the coastal provinces or near the three great rivers of the Chinese history: the Yellow, the Yangtze and the Pearl.[10] Each of these rivers was navigable by ocean-going vessels for most of history, bringing most of the population centers of the China’s within reach of Western and Japanese gunboats and naval forces during China’s “century of humiliations”[11].


The Chinese have always been well aware of their great vulnerability to the sea. Successive dynasties have built and maintained strong fleets during their periods of growth; these fleets were then allowed to decay when the dynasty was eclipsed. Contrary to popular (Western) belief, China has throughout its history been a strong, regional naval power. The Middle Kingdom has traditionally focused on a “brown water” navy[12] to defend the coast, protect against pirates and project power over the Emperor’s “vassals” from Korea to Malacca.

The Chinese Navy has proven throughout its history to be more than capable of executing the role of primary regional naval power assigned to it:

  • In 663 AD, a Tang Dynasty fleet defeated a joint Japanese-Korean fleet to preserve the vassal Silla Kingdom in Korea, in the Battle of Baekgang;
  • The Song Dynasty (960 AD to 1279 AD) was the first to establish a permanent navy in 1132 AD to protect the Chinese merchant fleets, which ranged as far as the Red Sea in commercial voyages;
  • The Yuan Dynasty (1271 AD to 1368 AD), established by  Kublai Khan, executed two naval invasions of Japan and a punitive expedition of the island of Java. In all three cases, the expeditions suffered defeats, but it was not due to failures of the Yuan Navy[13];
  • The Ming Dynasty (1368 AD to 1644 AD) built a substantial navy which was used to overthrow the Yuans (1363), help conquer northern Vietnam (1407), combine with the Korean fleet of Admiral Yi to defeat a Japanese invasion fleet in the last fleet action of the war (1598).

Nor is it true that Chinese naval success has only been at the expense of Asian rivals. The Ming fleets scored notable successes against major European maritime powers as well:

  • In the First (1521) and Second (1522) Battles of Tamao, the Chinese defeated Portuguese fleets of caravels, which had recently established a fort in Tamao (Tuen Mun) on the mouth of the Tuen Mun River, near modern Hong Kong;
  • In the battles of Penghu, Liaoluo Bay and the siege of Fort Zeelandia[14], Ming naval forces decisively defeated the fleets of the Dutch East India Company and local Taiwanese allies. This resulted in the establishment of Ming control over Taiwan, which was being colonized by the Dutch at that time.


These victories over the most aggressive of the European states colonizing Asia established the strength of China and prevented any further encroachment on Chinese territories and dependencies for almost 200 years. Only the arrival of the British Navy, transformed by the industrial revolution, and the inability of the Qing Dynasty to modernize their society and economy, eroded the substantial advantage that the Chinese had until then enjoyed. Despite efforts to build a modern naval force, the Qing were repeatedly defeated by the British, French and, most humiliatingly, by the Japanese.

The Chinese were adept enough sailors to have explored their surrounding seas as well as sending expeditions as far as Eastern Africa across the Indian Ocean. Chinese traders were regular sights in ports around the Subcontinent and the Middle East throughout the Tang and Song Dynasties. Most famously, Admiral Zheng He undertook seven voyages between 1405 and 1433 at the command of the Ming Emperor Yongle. The expeditions of this “Treasure Fleet” are a classic in power projection: they carried the Ming Emperor’s flag, ambassadors and displays of wealth to “subject” kingdoms from the Sultanate of Malacca to the Straits of Hormuz and beyond. In the process, Admiral Zheng He destroyed pirate navies and overthrew local rulers in Sumatra and Ceylon. This was the height of Chinese naval power, never to be exceeded, and comparable to the voyages of discovery made by Portuguese and Spanish explorers later in the century[15].

It should come as no surprise, then, that the re-emergence of China as a global economic power has led to the consequent resurgence in Chinese military power. Along with the increased industrial and technological capacity that goes with the growth in the economy, China became increasingly aware that its military forces were no longer adequate to ensure the security of her borders, to safeguard the vital economic sea lanes to and from key markets, and to assert her territorial claims in the East and South China Seas[16]: some of which, not coincidentally, date as far back as the voyages of Admiral Zheng He.

Whether or not China’s rise has ever truly been peaceful is a subject best treated in another article. What is clear is that the increasingly assertive – even belligerent – posture of China towards her neighbors and co-claimants in the China Seas disputes has left these states very worried. There is a reason that East Asia is the region with the highest annual increases in military expenditures in the world, according to SIPRI[17]. Part of this friction is due to the simple fact that the growth of the Chinese Navy now enables the country to press its claims, whereas before it could not. An additional factor, however, is best expressed by Robert Kagan: “A nation’s perceptions of its interests are not fixed. They change as perceptions of power change. With new power come new ambitions, or the return of old ones.”[18]

China’s new found power has reawakened her ambitions and forced a fundamental re-evaluation of the strategic balance in the region in every capital from Tokyo to Melbourne, from Washington to New Delhi. President Obama’s “Pacific shift” makes sense in no other light. Those who live close enough can see that the panda has claws.

Turn Your Opponent’s Strengths into Weakness

China has not developed in a vacuum. CCP and PLA leaders are well aware of the nation’s geographic challenges and military history. Modern China has also inherited a number of territorial disputes from the Era of Humiliations: some have been resolved, such as the reincorporation of Hong Kong and Macao under Chinese sovereignty. Others remain as potential flash points: Taiwan, the Daioyu/Senkaku Islands, Scarborough Shoal and the Spratly/Paracel Islands, support for North Korea[19].

In each of these disputes, China must consider the probability of a conflict with the United States. The US has military defense treaties with Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and the Philippines which bind America to come to the defense of these nations in the event of an external attack. The Sino-Russian treaty of 2005[20], resolving the territorial disputes along the Amur River, has essentially removed the only serious land threat facing China. That leaves the PLA with a clear path to developing a strategic focus bent on countering the US.

It is a principal of jujutsu that you do not fight a stronger enemy by trying to match their strength, but by turning their strength against them. Thus you throw them off balance and allow yourself to play to your own strengths. The Chinese have had ample opportunity to study U.S. military strengths:

  • U.S. Navy: Based on the nuclear-powered super-carrier task force, the USN has the capability to project power globally.  Combined with a Marine Amphibious Unit, a Navy Task Force can seize and hold a beachhead, as well as deploy conventional and nuclear strikes from aircraft and cruise missiles up to 1.000 kilometers off the coast. China received an abject lesson in this during the 1995-1996 Taiwan Strait Crisis when President Clinton sent not one but two carrier battle groups to wave the flag and ensure the Chinese understood that no attack on Taiwan would be tolerated or could succeed[21];
  • U.S. Air Force: The USAF has not faced a seriously contested threat environment since the Vietnam War. In every subsequent conflict, the Air Force has been able to establish first air superiority, then air dominance, with unprecedented rapidity. The Chinese watched with great interest and dismay as the USAF rapidly dismantled the Soviet-built air defense networks of Iraq (1991 and 2003) and of Serbia (1995 and 1999), especially when the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade was destroyed during the latter campaign. The campaign against Libya did nothing to discredit US dominance in the air and the capabilities of the USAF to deliver precision-guided weapons against high-value military targets. Part of this superiority has come from improvements in aircraft and equipment, part of it from advances in stealth technology and avionics; but a big part comes from the advances in command and control capabilities: the Air Force likes to kill you before it can see you, and especially before you can shoot back;
  • US Network-centric (C3ISTAR) capabilities[22]:  The enormous development of US command and control capabilities comes on the advances, pioneered in the US, of advanced computer applications for military purposes. The development in processing power coupled with advances in signals and satellite technologies has meant a heretofore unparalleled capability to scan, process, identify, target and destroy enemy targets across the entire battlefield – globally in some respects. It is the interaction of these systems that allows a soldier in the middle of the desert to call in a loitering MQ-9 Reaper to drop a laser-guided munition on a hut in another part of nowhere sheltering enemy combatants; it is the same system that allows a 19-year old in the California desert to pilot that MQ-9 from 19,000 miles away in real-time;
  • US Strategic Forces: In the background is US Strategic Command, operating the three legs of America’s triad of nuclear forces: bombers, land-based missiles and submarine-launched missiles. The approximately 5,000 warheads[23] the United States maintains act as the ultimate guarantor of the national integrity, though their actual usability in a conventional war is highly dubious[24].

The Chinese have gradually countered these advantages by developing their own capabilities in asymmetric dimensions:

  • China has developed a sufficiently strong nuclear force to act as a deterrent to any US attack. China is a state explicitly recognized as a nuclear weapons state in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. That treaty obliges China to neither attack nor threaten to attack a non-nuclear state with nuclear weapons; and while Chinese doctrine adheres to a “non-first use” policy, it is committed to a powerful deterrent and second strike posture. Although it is impossible to determine the exact extent and composition of Chinese nuclear forces, sources[25] estimate that China has produced anywhere from 200 to 2,000 warheads, and has at least 90 land-based ICBM’s (DF-4) that are both hardened and mobile. This does not include other delivery systems like submarine-launched ballistic missiles, nuclear capable bombers, and nuclear capable cruise and tactical missiles. Despite the opacity that characterizes the entire Chinese military establishment, it is sufficient to say that China has a serious nuclear deterrent that is likely targeted at U.S. and allied cities, rather than military forces;
  • China has also invested heavily in developing an in-depth and sophisticated air-defense network. In the past 30 years, the PLA has gone from importing Soviet-made missiles and radars, to copying them and building them at home, to now developing its own systems that are as advanced technically as those found in the West (we think). The Chinese have deployed both active (“looking”) and passive (“listening”) sensor arrays; highly capable S-300 mobile anti-aircraft missiles that have an anti-cruise missile capability; most recently, the indigenous KJ-2000 AWACS system.[26] The United States has not faced so challenging a defensive network since NATO planners had to contemplate the multi-layered SAM belts of the Warsaw Pact in the mid-1980’s;


  • The PLA has developed significant capabilities asymmetric capabilities to deny the US military access to the detailed and continuous feed of information that it has come to depend on for C3ISTAR. Most of this capability is provided to the US from space-based, high-altitude satellites which have never been exposed to enemy action. Degradation or denial of this information would very seriously hamper the task facing US forces against a mobile and well-defended enemy. China conducted an initial anti-satellite test in 2007; a ground-based kinetic interceptor successfully intercepted an FY-1C weather satellite on a polar orbit at 865 kilometers[27]. Although significant and dangerous to some LEO military assets, this does not threaten the US Global Positioning System or high altitude satellites that orbit at 20,000 kilometers. However, China conducted a second anti-satellite missile test this year; a DN-2 multi-stage rocket was launched to 10,000 kilometers though no confirmation of a target intercept was given: in fact, the entire test was disguised as a vehicle used to conduct high-altitude experiments[28].

    The PLA also has important, but unknown, cyber warfare capabilities. Centered on Unit 61398, a shadowy group within the People’s Liberation Army command headquartered in downtown Shanghai, China routinely hacks into U.S. corporate and government networks to test capabilities, conduct industrial and military espionage, and possibly other activities.[29] The activities of Unit 61398 – and China’s intelligence operations in general – are militarily important: the PLA has benefited enormously from stealing technical specifications of advanced U.S. military systems, allowing them to leapfrog their technology in many areas and to negate other U.S. advantages. The most dangerous aspect of this is the terrible degree of uncertainty regarding capabilities and vulnerabilities on both sides. We are likely to only truly understand these when an attack comes.


  • The PLAN (People’s Liberation Navy) has refitted and launched the rechristened the PLAN Liaoning, an Admiral Kuznetsov class aircraft carrier. While the PLAN undoubtedly hopes to eventually field a carrier fleet capable of projecting power beyond China’s surrounding waters, perhaps globally; but that is far off in the future. The PLAN doesn’t intend to go toe-to-toe with the U.S. Navy, but it doesn’t need to.  China has been developing a range of anti-ship missiles for decades as area denial weapons. These missiles have increased in range and capability. The newest version is the DF-21D, a hypersonic ballistic missile carrying multiple re-entry vehicles capable of targeting and destroying an aircraft carrier – if they work as theorized.


The improvement in China’s anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities follows from the “Second Island Chain” doctrine. The “First Island Chain”is the area that runs from the Kamchatka to Malaysia, through the Kuril Islands, the Japanese archipelago, the Ryukyus, Taiwan, the northern Philippines and Borneo. Within this area, the PLA must be able to exclude or disable all US forces and bases. The “Second Island Chain” extends from Northern Japan out to the Marianas and Guam, over 3,000 kilometers away, terminating in New Guinea.  Chinese doctrine doesn’t require U.S. forces to be completely excluded from so vast an expanse of sea, but preventing the build of major U.S. forces in critical basing areas, like Guam, and preventing U.S. resupply of Taiwan, Japan and South Korea is critical to the successful persecution of any conflict.

This is a very tall order. However, China’s capabilities continue to grow. Although there are only a limited number of DF-21D missiles and launchers currently in operation – how many, no one knows, because the Chinese military is completely opaque – but that number will continue to grow and no one doubts China’s industrial capacity. Even without the DF-21D’s long range, China has enough batteries of missiles of a sufficiently long range to make the approach of a US carrier battle group a very dangerous affair. The aircraft flying off Navy carriers don’t have the legs to attack Chinese ASBM launchers on the mainland outside of their own attack range, even using stand-off munitions like the AGM-158 JASSM-ER with a range of 1,000 kilometers. And aircraft carriers are not assets one rolls the dice on.


The United States and her allies are not ignorant of these facts, though the public in many countries is. Naval planners have been developing and deploying counters to counter the Chinese moves in what is becoming a classical arms race in the Pacific. The USN has invested heavily in ballistic missile defense, surrounding the vulnerable carriers with Ticonderoga-class ABM cruisers and Arleigh Burke-class ABM destroyers. Both classes of ships carry the Aegis Combat System, an integrated target acquisition and engagement platform. The Aegis system and the RIM-161 anti-ballistic missile interceptor are used by both the USN and the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force.

The USN has also begun testing a long-range unmanned vehicle, the X-47B. The X-47, which looks like a miniaturized B-2 stealth bomber, would have an estimated combat radius of approximately 1,400 kilometers: significantly better than the F-35’s combat radius of 1,000 kilometers. The fact that there is no pilot at risk means that these stealthy UACV’s could be hazarded in penetrating heavy air defenses in an effort to find and destroy mobile radars and launchers. On the 10th of July 2013, an X-47B successfully landed on the deck of the carrier George H.W. Bush, the first time an unmanned vehicle has accomplished this feat. However, it will still be many years before such a weapon could enter into service, assuming there is sufficient budget for it.

These sound like positive, proactive developments, but challenges abound. Ballistic missile defense is still in its infancy and suffering from teething problems. Although systems like the Aegis RIM-161 SM-3, Patriot PAC-3, and the Israeli Iron Dome are highly effective achieving kill ratios of up to 90% on incoming targets[30], but that might not be enough. These systems are also designed to destroy tactical ballistic missiles, aircraft, artillery and mortar shells; all far slower than long-range and intercontinental missiles. Shooting down hypersonic ICBM’s has proven to be more difficult. The National Missile Defense initiative has a Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense interceptor (THAAD) that has been successful in over a dozen tests, with no failures since 29 March 1999. Tests against two or three inbound targets are not the same as actual performance in combat conditions, with barrages of enemy missiles, degraded command and control, and the general fog of war.

The defense systems are also, up to this point, more expensive than the weapons they are designed to neutralize. This leads to the tactic of an enemy simply outbuilding the defense. For example, the Indian Agni-III intermediate-range ballistic missile, with an operational range of 3,500 to 5,000 kilometers costs approximately US$6 million per unit. The cost for a ballistic missile interceptor is running at US$800 million per unit, though this is still the pre-production cost: cost per unit should fall significantly when the system is mature. Even on an equivalent basis, the offense still has the advantage, with the possibility of deploying multiple re-entry vehicles from a single missile or using even less expensive decoys to saturate defenses. BMD is a very complex proposition.


Fighting the Last War

The US military is also suffering from two further debilitating ailments. One is strategic overstretch. No country on earth, not even a hyper power, can shoulder the entire burden of policing the world forever. The US has been at war for over a decade and Americans are tired of war and military spending. Most of our European allies are no longer net contributors to international defense needs, as they slash their own defense budgets in favor of austerity measures and social welfare for their aging populations. Only in Asia, prompted by fear of a robust China, have our strategic partners made serious investments in defense. And even in this most critical theater, the commitment of our strongest ally, Japan, must be considered in the light of its long-term economic difficulties and demographic challenges.

The other challenge is the one that faces all successful armies: we are preparing to fight the last war over and over again. Much of the investment in equipment and force modernization has been aimed at, what the military dubs, “Future Wars”: low-intensity conflicts (LICs) against regional actors and insurgent forces. In other words, the military is planning to fight Iraq and Afghanistan all over again. There is a great deal of sense in this: the vast majority of conflicts throughout the XXth and XXIst centuries have been LICs. Of course, in between all of these “brush wars” came the First and Second World Wars.


The problem should be self-evident: you don’t plan only for the “majority” of events; you plan for the worst case scenario. From the 1950’s to the 1980’s, the worst case scenario was a Warsaw Pact invasion of Central Europe, with other conflicts on the margin. The official US doctrine was “2+1”: being able to fight major conventional wars in two theaters, and a low-intensity conflict in one more. So even while the US was involved in the “low intensity conflict” of Vietnam, it maintained its heavy armored divisions in Germany and South Korea. Imagine if, after the Korean War, the US had said: “Eh, we’ll only ever fight brush wars in the future. Let’s get rid of all these tanks and expensive aircraft carriers.”  The Soviet Union would still be alive and well, with its western border along the coast of Portugal.

Today, we are not exactly throwing the tanks away, but we are investing far more in weapons, equipment and training that are aimed at fighting guerrillas and mujahidin, and less on weapons we would need to fight a Great Power in a regional conflict. Let’s not beat around the bush: that means fighting China in East Asia or Russia in the Caucasus or Eastern Europe. Neither possibility is likely, but neither can be entirely ruled out. Of the two, China is by far the more dangerous, even if the Russians have more nukes. So the worst case scenario is a conflict with China, most probably over Taiwan.

Military planners are not stupid, of course. They are perfectly aware of the facts I have summarized in the preceding two paragraphs. They do this for a living, and their lives depend on getting it right. The problem is that they are being asked to do too many things: prepare for LICs, prepare for China, prepare for a cyber-attack; prepare for every eventuality, but without spending too much money, without asking for more resources, and for God’s sake, without upsetting the American public from their Monday Night Football and Papa John’s pizzas.

Nor are the military strategists the only ones with a say in the matter. Your local Congressman, whose district hosts a manufacturing plant building equipment designed to fight insurgents, like the Stryker Combat Vehicles or Littoral Combat Ship, doesn’t want to hear about the China threat (unless that equipment can also be used against the Chinese). General Atomics (builder of the Predator and Reaper UAVs) has something to say in the matter of defense spending. The political calculus on Capitol Hill and in the White House is constantly changing too. The result is that the US military does the best job it can with the resources it has available to satisfy the priorities it has been assigned. And the job it does is a damn fine one, in the best tradition of our nation’s defense establishment.

The best, up until now, is almost certainly not enough. Not enough to ensure victory in a conflict with China; probably not enough to deter China from accepting the risks of war if her vital national interests were at stake: if, for example, Taiwan unilaterally declared independence. America is only now awakening to the rising challenge in the East; the President has rightly declared a “pivot to Asia” but that has mostly been rhetorical and diplomatic. The money still flows to the Middle East, to the conflict in Afghanistan, to the intervention in Libya and to the possible – perhaps inevitable – intervention in Syria.

While the US is focusing on all of these different countries; on Yemen, on the Horn of Africa, on a host of other headaches that always beset the world’s hegemonic power, the PLA is focused on one priority: preparing for a potential conflict with the United States and her allies. While the US is debating the sequester and how it will impact military spending, whether the force needs to be expanded or contracted, and whether we should cancel or expand the F-35 program, the PLA is debating one thing: how to prepare for a potential conflict with the United States and her allies. This makes perfect sense: only the United States and her allies pose an existential threat to the PLA and the CCP.


Unless the US brings more focus and more resources to bear on the China challenge, we could stumble into a war that we might very well lose. If we bring the wrong tools and the wrong organization to the fight[31], it is very doubtful we would have the opportunity or resolve to “get if right” if the Chinese win the first round of a conflict. The vast distances of the Pacific, the proximity of China to our allies and bases and her ability to neutralize them before they could be reinforced, the time and money that would be required to gear up for a major war, and the uncertainty of the political dimensions in a fight over what the US has already acknowledged as Chinese territory, all argue against a protracted Pacific Campaign like we fought against Imperial Japan. That means we must get it right from the go: have the proper forces in place to deter conflict, and failing that, to win at the outset.

What does that entail? The authors of the Air-Sea Battle Concept point to many things that can be done to enhance both our defensive as well as our offensive capabilities, to counter the PLA[32]. On the defensive side:

  • Develop survivability enhancements and countermeasures for our most important space-based assets, which would allow them to survive or avoid interception from Chinese anti-satellite weapons;
  • Develop and rigorously practice operations based on a degraded or absent network-centric C3ISTAR environment;
  • Build more ships with the Aegis Combat System as BMD platforms to protect Navy task forces;
  • Continue to develop ground-, sea-, and air-based anti-ballistic missile defenses, including directed energy weapons, and forward deploy them in key locations like Guam, the Marianas and the Aleutians. Continue to share development costs and technologies with key partners like Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and the Philippines to ensure adequate coverage of the approaches to the Eastern Pacific, as well as operational and logistical compatibility between allied forces;
  • Continue to develop the Cyber-warfare Command, in cooperation with key public and private institutions managing strategic infrastructure. Conduct “attacks” routinely to test systems, identify weaknesses and improve defensive cyber-capabilities among these actors;
  • Harden and forward-deploy some strategic assets to key regional bases, especially Guam;
  • Continue to develop military and diplomatic links with non-traditional US allies in the region, especially Vietnam, Indonesia and Malaysia.

Defense is critical to ensuring we have the means of absorbing the first blow. However, deterrence requires that the US also have a convincing counter to China. Just as the deployment of Pershing II tactical battlefield missiles to Germany in the 1980’s convinced the Soviets that the US had the means to implement its doctrine of tactical nuclear strikes[33], so too China and the PLA must be convinced that America has the means to – in AT&T’s words – “reach out and touch someone”. How can this be achieved?

  • Continue to develop longer-ranged strike aircraft and munitions capable of reaching mainland China from beyond the range of Chinese A2/AD forces;
  • Develop and deploy sea-launched intermediate ballistic missiles of our own with an adequate range to strike Chinese C3 assets as well as mobile launchers and radars[34];
  • Continue to develop anti-satellite weapons to deny China military access to space;
  • Enhance electronic and signals warfare capabilities to degrade PLA C3 capabilities.

From an operational and force structure point of view, this means de-emphasizing the Army somewhat (the US does not have the interest or the capability to invade China, though a fight in the Korean peninsula remains a distinct possibility) in favor of the Navy, Air Force and Marines. It will also mean re-focusing on “traditional assets” rather than on counter-insurgency and LIC assets. More ships, planes, missiles and even some tanks – less of the light stuff. As the Air-Sea Battle Concept points out, the interoperability between these three services will be crucial to ensuring victory; and since we fight as we train, that means starting now.

  • Enhance coordination, systems and doctrinal compatibility between Navy, Marine and Air Force units through frequent and sustained training exercises;
  • Ensure Air Force familiarity with operations over water (not something currently practiced with any frequency in the USAF);
  • Increase links at all levels with allied commands and units, to improve coordination, systems and doctrinal compatibility, through regular exercises;
  • Coordinate and share information in military cyber-security with key allied states like Japan, South Korea and Australia.

All of these measures will take time and money. Time, because you don’t reorient an organization of millions with a lot of institutional inertia in a day; nor do you develop, test and deploy a new generation of weapons systems in less than 5 years (usually longer). The US needs a definite sense of urgency if we hope to be taken seriously by the PLA in 2020. But the budgetary and institutional obstacles are formidable: Americans certainly don’t want to hear about more burdens to be borne and the possibility of a new arms race in the Pacific. Yet the race is on, whether they want to hear of it or no.

Final Thoughts

This article begins in battle and maintains what most would consider a belligerent tone. Personally, I have nothing but admiration for Chinese accomplishments, history and culture. Let me be clear: I do not believe that a Sino-American conflict is inevitable or in the interest of either nation. Wars occur by choice; arms races are sustained by choice. China and America have it in their power to choose the way of peace and cooperation.

That being said, the trend today is towards a repetition, not of the Cold War, but of pre-1918 Great Power politics. China is not to stop developing the military capabilities it considers its sovereign right to possess; and with the increase in its power, it is not likely to yield on its claims of sovereignty over most of the East and South China Seas. Since the United States cannot allow crucial allies like Japan, South Korea, or the Philippines to fall into the Chinese orbit or be “Finlandized”, the US will increasingly pivot to Asia and reinforce its alliances there; which the Chinese will increasingly view as “containment” by Washington. A self-reinforcing series of assumptions can be seen to be working here. Yet, despite plenty of bellicose rhetoric that comes out of Washington with disturbing regularity, it is clear that the US is not deliberately seeking this conflict. It is a burden neither Americans, nor American politicians are eager for[35].

But it is a burden we will have to bear. It will require extraordinary leadership to break this cycle. Neither nation appears endowed with leaders of this caliber, and popular opinion is markedly nationalistic in both countries. But even were such men and women to appear, it would not be possible for either side to negotiate from a position of weakness – certainly not the US. So I argue in this article that the US must make a serious and sustained effort to change its force structure and rearm to meet the Chinese challenge. International systems do not sustain themselves, nor can the US allow it to crumble from an abdication of our role in supporting it. Unless we take the measures to preserve the hard won peace of the region through a credible deterrence, we could wake up one day to read of the war that America lost.

Sources and Notes

 [1] The scenarios are my own invention and have no relation to any war games carried out by the CSBA or any other agency.
[2] The institute is staffed by national security experts with backgrounds in the U.S. military and in public service.
[3] Besides the dispute over sovereignty with the Republic of Taiwan, China has maritime boundary disputes with South Korea, Japan, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam.
[4] Zhàn Guó Cè (pinyin Chinese) or “Strategies of the Warring States”, a compilation of history and strategy from the Warring States Period, IIIrd to Ist centuries BC.
[5] With the exception of the 5-year “speed bump” between 1998 and 2002 when the economy “only” grew by 8.8% per year on average. This was the period of the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis. Data from FRED Database, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.
[6] Officially the PLA is the parent organization of all the military branches in the PRC
[7] The U.S. Department of Defense has the highest estimate of “real” Chinese military spending at almost double the official figures, but independent international organizations such as the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) also publish estimates which are between the PRC and DoD figures.
[8] Straight currency conversion at the oficial USD:RMB Exchange rate or Purchasing Power Parity conversion.
[9] Mao Zedong said during a 1957 television interview that he had no fear of American military might: “I’m not afraid of nuclear war. There are 2.7 billion people in the world; it doesn’t matter if some are killed. China has a population of 600 million; even if half of them are killed, there are still 300 million people left. I’m not afraid of anyone.” Tian, Ariel, “Mao’s ‘Nuclear Mass Extinction Speech’ Aired on Chinese TV,” Epoch Times, 5 March 2013
[10] The third largest river in China is actually the Heilongjiang, or Amur, River. This river, however, is located in Manchuria and reaches the Strait of Tartary in the Russian Far Eastern Federal District; it is not central to the history of classical China.
[11] Roughly the period between 1839 when the British defeated the Qing in the First Opium War, until 1949, with the establishment of the People’s Republic of China.
[12] In the U.S. Navy, the term “blue water navy” refers to a fleet of vessels capable of transoceanic voyages. By contrast, a “brown water navy” is composed of ships restricted to rivers, estuaries and coastal waters. In this sense, China’s fleet operations have historically been restricted to the coastal waters that include the arc stretching from Southern Korea to Kyushu, the Ryukyu Islands, Taiwan, the Philippine Archipelago and as far south as Borneo and Malacca. While ocean-going junks were perfectly capable of sailing further on the open seas, the Chinese rarely bothered to, so their doctrine could be said to conform to the brown/green water school.
[13] The First Battle of Hakata Bay (1274) resulted in Yuan forces retreating after meeting substantial resistance from samurai warriors on the beachhead in Kyushu – most histories argue that this expedition was never more than a reconnaissance in force. The Second Battle of Hakata Bay (1281) similarly resulted in a retreat of the smaller, northern fleet to Tsushima after meeting resistance: there it linked up with the larger southern fleet, but before the combined fleet could set sail, a typhoon destroyed the entire Yuan fleet. The Java expedition (1293) arrived and departed safely; it was the land operations that failed to defeat the local Javan forces.
[14] Curiously, the siege of Fort Zeelandia was won by the “Ming Loyalist” military of Zheng Chenggong (aka Koxinga) after the Ming Dynasty had already fallen to the Manchu forces who would establish the Qing Dynasty. Koxinga envisioned using Taiwan as a base of operations for the reconquest of the mainland, but the disparity of forces was too great. Eventually, Koxinga’s son, Zheng Jing, established the independent kingdom of Tungning. It was nevertheless the first Han Chinese (rather than native Formosan) kingdom to rule over the whole island. The parallel with the Kuomintang is obvious. Koxinga’s victory ensured that Formosa would not become a foreign protectorate or colony until the Japanese takeover in 1895.
[15] The one way distance between Shanghai-Surubaya-Aden is approximately 12,200 kilometers. The one way distance between Cádiz-Bariay, Cuba is approximately 6,800 kilometers. Of course, Admiral Zheng He had for more knowledge of this destination and many more intermediate ports to visit than Christopher Columbus did in his voyage; but Columbus did not have to negotiate with sophisticated and powerful local rulers in his expeditions. The dangers of the sea and the need to care for ships and men were the same for both navigators. It is interesting to note that the distance from Shanghai to Los Angeles is approximately 10,500 kilometers; but any Chinese ship sailing east towards North America would do so against the prevailing trade winds, an impossible feat for vessels of that era. The only practical route would be to sail north of Hokkaido and into the far Northern Pacific, where the prevailing winds blow towards the Americas. But what could possibly tempt any Chinese Emperor to fund such a voyage into the bleak and hostile north?


[16] For a more detailed presentation of the motivations behind the growth of China’s maritime power, please see “China’s Geographic Challenge”
[17] The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute
[18] Kagan, Robert, “The Return of History and the End of Dreams,” Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2008, pg. 15
[19] China has other international territorial disputes which I do not mention, including those with India, North and South Korea, Vietnam and others. I do not mean to downplay the importance of any of these disputes. These do not include internal territorial disputes, such as the dispute between China and Tibetans or China and the Uighurs of Xinjiang.
[20] “China, Russia solve all border disputes,” Xinhua Online, 02 June 2005
[21] Carrier Strike Group Five, centered on the USS Independence, and Carrier Strike Group Seven, centered on the USS Nimitz.
[22] There are many abbreviations in use to describe aspects of the command and control function, depending on what the authors mean to convey. C3ISTAR stands for: Command, Control, Communications, Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance).
[23] According to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Norris, Robert S.; Hans M. Kristensen. “U.S. nuclear forces, 2006”. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 62 (1): 68–71, January/February 2006. Just under half of these warheads are considered “active”. The stockpile is due to be reduced to 1,550 based on the 2010 New START Treaty signed by Presidents Barack Obama and Dmitri Medvedev.
[24] The use of tactical nuclear weapons in the event of a Warsaw Pact conventional attack, with or without a prior use of WMD’s, was long a central doctrine of the NATO Alliance in recognition of the vast numerical superiority of the Soviet-backed forces. Whether or not NATO would have actually used nukes in such an event (“trading Chicago for Hamburg” as the saying went) remains a – thankfully – unanswered question.
[25] GlobalSecurity.org and Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists
[26] Kopp, Carlo, “China’s Eyes in the Skies,” The Diplomat, 11 August 2010
[27] “Concern over China’s missile test,” BBC, 19 January 2007
[28] Shalal-Esa, Andrea, “U.S. sees China launch as test of anti-satellite muscle,” Reuters, 15 May 2013
[29] Such as planting malware, viral “sleeper” codes of a Stuxnet variety, only to be activated in case of war, or similar tactics.
[30] Lake, Eli, “Missile Defense Scores Political Hits”, The Washington Times, 30 August 2011
[31] That would be entirely in keeping with the tradition of the US Army, which has usually been to build a force entirely from scratch at the start of the conflict, take our licks for the first year of the fight, and then go on to overwhelm the enemy with our vast resources. It’s a slightly different story for the Navy and Air Force, though not entirely.
[32] Most of the following bulleted items come from the Air-Sea Battle Concept document (see note 1), but not all of them.
[33] Whether or not we would have had the balls to actually push that button is another question.
[34] The Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, to which the US is a signatory, limits the development and deployment of ground –based IRBMs.
[35] The conflict with the Soviet Union was far more visceral for most Americans and preceded the Cold War by more than 30 years, whereas there is no deep ideological difference with China despite its purely nominal adherence to communism. This is Great Power rivalry, pure and simple, which Americans have traditionally scorned.

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