The Nightmare Scenario: A U.S.-China War

The Nightmare Scenario: A U.S.-China War

By James R. Holmes

Our great and powerful editor has requested—nay, demanded!—a series of posts exploring how a U.S.-China war might unfold. That sounds like a request for prophecy. But making predictions is a dicey business, as the equally great and powerful sage Yogi Berra reportedly observed—especially when they’re about the future. The Naval Diplomat is no clairvoyant. Undeterred, we nonetheless commence a five-post cycle exploring some of the big ideas likely to shape each phase of a Far Eastern maelstrom.


Aristotle observed that every plot has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Let’s take our cue from classical Athens’ philosopher of common sense and start this drama from the beginning, with the American decision for war. Giving the order might seem like the easy part. But whatever the cause of the conflict—whether it’s Taiwan, the Senkakus/Diaoyus impasse, a quarrel over free passage through the South China Sea, or something unforeseen—Beijing will refuse to make Washington’s choice to intervene easy.


In fact, Chinese leaders will go out of their way to make it hard. They will sow doubt and dissension among U.S. leaders. For instance, they will determinedly withhold the stark casus belli—a Pearl Harbor or a 9/11—necessary to rally a liberal republic like the United States around the battle flag. Ambiguity will reign. U.S. leaders should anticipate it.


> China Map


Staying beneath the provocation threshold constitutes purest common sense for Beijing. Why not play head games with prospective foes? I would. As Shakespeare memorably showed, it takes time and moral courage for an individual to overcome Hamlet-like indecision. Some never do. That’s doubly true in big institutions, where decisions typically emerge from political wrangling among many individuals and groups.


Time spent in internal debate would work in China’s favor in any contingency along the Asian seaboard. It would postpone U.S. military movements, perhaps long enough to let the People’s Liberation Army accomplish its goals before the cavalry arrives. The result: a fait accompli. Even better (from Beijing’s standpoint), the United States might simply stand aside, reckoning the goals of such an enterprise too diffuse and abstract, the likely strategic rewards too few, to justify the costs and dangers inherent in combat operations against a fellow great power.


One heartening thing about the U.S. military’s AirSea Battle Doctrine is that it affords prospective adversaries healthy respect—signaling that commanders grok that the United States’ post-Cold War holiday from history is over. Taking opponents’ capability and resolve seriously is the first step toward overcoming them in the arena of power politics and warfare. As Carl von Clausewitz points out, wise commanders are bound to fear being overthrown if they haven’t managed to overthrow the enemy. What Edward Luttwak terms the non-linear, “paradoxical logic” of strategy often brings about “ironic reversals” of fortune.


The victor and vanquished can exchange places by Clausewitz’s and Luttwak’s pitiless logic. They can switch back again. And on and on. Maddening, isn’t it?


Yet debates over “access denial” and forced-entry countermeasures often imply that the defender can scour offshore waters and skies clear of enemy forces, imposing absolute command of the commons. This is much the same idea Alfred Thayer Mahan voiced when he defined command of the sea as “overbearing power” that expels the enemy’s flag from vital expanses or at most allows it to appear as a fugitive. But paradoxical logic is a logic that cuts both ways. A U.S.-China struggle for mastery over the maritime commons will display the mercurial character of which theorists write. That translates into strategic opportunity not just for China but for the United States. American commanders and their political masters must grasp that opportunity.


However appealing absolute sea control may appear in the abstract, reality seldom conforms to ideal forms of this kind. Mahan’s contemporary Sir Julian Corbett takes a more supple and more useful view of command, and one that better illuminates the opportunities and hazards found in maritime Asia. Corbett notes that far from the seas’ falling under the absolute control of one navy or another, an uncommanded sea represents the normal state of affairs. No force boasts the surveillance capacity, long-range weaponry, or sheer numbers of assets to sweep the commons clean of its foes and assure that it stays swept clean. The oceans are too big, the biggest armed force too small to police vast sea areas.


As a corollary, the fact that one navy loses command doesn’t mean another automatically inherits it. Rather, rival forces struggle for supremacy, the action ebbing and flowing, until—perhaps—one wins permanent mastery. Nor does Corbett’s apostasy—his flouting of accepted Mahanian wisdom—stop there. In effect Mahan describes a sequence by which one power wrests maritime command from another. The aspirant builds a superior fleet in peacetime, concentrates that fleet in wartime, defeats its adversary decisively, and then exploits command by imposing blockades and otherwise throttling enemy shipping. What could be simpler?


Corbett agrees with Mahan’s sequential approach for the most part, estimating that it’s the right course of action nine times out of ten. It only makes sense to think a navy must crush its opponents before exploiting command of the sea. It must clear away obstacles to command. But, he says, war “is not conducted by logic, and the order of proceeding which logic prescribes cannot always be adhered to in practice.” Sometimes fleet commanders might find themselves compelled to exercise command before winning it. They might, say, carve out a small zone of temporary superiority along hostile shores in order to land marines, assault a small enemy naval detachment, or bombard coastal sites. Deviating from the linear approach—from the Mahanian script—is sometimes necessary to prevail.


All of which is a roundabout way of returning to our hypothetical U.S.-China conflagration. Many China-watchers, myself included, have made much of the PLA’s emerging anti-access capabilities, citing such hardware as anti-ship ballistic missiles and missile-armed fast patrol craft. And indeed these are impressive systems, assuming they perform up to their hype. But that’s not to say China could seal off the Western Pacific entirely. If it could, U.S. forces would have to undertake sequential operations, puncturing the PLA’s outer defenses first before steaming across the Pacific to conduct combat operations in theater—whether to succor allies or for some other purpose.


Something messier lies in store. PLA anti-access defenses cannot hoist an impenetrable shield over the Western Pacific and China seas. U.S. forces are already in theater, furthermore, as are allied forces and those of informal partners. American commanders should put these facts to use, patterning operations on Corbettian illogic. They should look for ways to create pockets of naval and air supremacy even while overall command of the seas and skies eludes the allies. By refusing to proceed strictly by logic, the United States can protract a conflict, discover ways to impose high costs on China at low cost to itself, and otherwise sow mayhem in the Western Pacific. It can prevent a Chinese walkover while proving that China cannot win on the cheap. A more accommodating Beijing might result.


As Corbett might advise, time will be the critical variable in any maritime war. U.S. forces can gain time by adopting his defensive methods. In so doing they will boost their chances of making the transition to the strategic counteroffensive, and thus of either winning outright or extracting a compromise peace. Helpful though Mahan’s writings are, Corbett should be the U.S. military’s north star during the opening phases of a U.S.-China war. Let’s hear it for illogic!


Students of strategy tend to assume the classic works were all written long ago by people with German or Chinese names. That does an injustice to contemporary thinkers who push the field’s conceptual frontiers outward. Strategist Edward Luttwak is one such thinker. Indeed, his Strategy is a treatise U.S. naval commanders and their political overseers should consult when contemplating how to force entry into maritime Asia in wartime.


And regaining access will be a must. The last installment in this series pointed out that while the People’s Liberation Army can dispute U.S. command of the maritime commons, it will be unable to shut U.S. and allied forces out of Asia altogether. Contested command, a.k.a. a mess, will typify the early phases of war. While allied forces will have options, however, U.S. reinforcements must ultimately fight their way into the region to concentrate enough combat power to defeat China on China’s turf.


For Luttwak the “great choice” in offensive theater strategy is “between the broad advance that only the very strong may employ”—for otherwise the advancing force will find itself outnumbered everywhere—“and the narrow advance that offers the opportunity of victory even to the weak.” By focusing ships, aircraft, weaponry, and manpower at select places on the map, that is, the weaker contender can amass superior strength at points of contact with enemy forces. The downside: a belligerent that risks a narrow advance courts danger by weakening itself away from the main line of advance. It could be clobbered along vulnerable flanks or other places where its defenses are feeble.


The very strong can afford the broad approach. It leaves no flanks exposed. Caution, oddly, is the province of commanders of dominant forces. The not-so-strong lack that margin of material superiority. They must dare all to gain all, accepting risk in hopes of a lavish payoff. Luttwak portrays blitzkrieg as a prototypical narrow-front strategy. It’s about punching “pencil-thin penetrations” through enemy frontiers, sending columns rapidly through the gaps, and sowing mayhem in enemy rear areas. It is “part adventure and part confidence trick,” and not for the faint of heart.


The strong, then, can bludgeon lesser opponents; the weak must use a spear against more numerous foemen. The American way of war is the way of the strong. Ever since World War I—when the United States raised an army bigger than the French Army, built enough ships to transport that army across the Atlantic, deployed it along the Western Front, tipped the balance in favor of the Western Allies, and helped put an end to the bloodletting, all in nineteen months—U.S. commanders have predicated their strategies on overwhelming material superiority. They incline to broad-front strategies.


In the closing stages of World War II in Europe, for instance, Allied commanders debated whether Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery should head a narrow-front dash across Germany, or whether the less daring broad-front approach was more prudent. Monty told anyone who would listen that he would make a splendid leader for such a charge, but U.S. leaders successfully pushed to overrule him. Or, U.S. forces were so preponderant by the latter phases of World War II in the Pacific that they could pursue twin offensives across the Central and Southwest Pacific. This “whipsaw” strategy kept the beleaguered Japanese perpetually off-balance, unable to defeat both offensives or to decide whether to concentrate dwindling naval forces to blunt one of them.


U.S. planners should break with American traditions when designing strategy and plans for a new Pacific war. It would be prudent for them to embrace Luttwak’s strategy of the weak rather than patterning their efforts on World War II. While Chinese anti-access strategy—the subject of the next installment in this series—is in important ways a replay of Japan’s anti-access strategy for World War II, Washington must not assume it can replay U.S. strategy from that conflict.


Why not? Because Admiral Chester Nimitz and General Douglas MacArthur, who oversaw the dual offensives, were the beneficiaries of a colossal defense buildup that commenced long before the United States entered the war. Pearl Harbor administered a blow to U.S. power and prestige, to be sure. But shipwrights back home had been bolting together an entirely new, bigger, higher-tech fleet since 1940. Units from that fleet started arriving in the Pacific in 1943, far sooner than they would have had the buildup started after Pearl Harbor. After some desperate days in 1942, massive reinforcements afforded Nimitz and MacArthur the luxury of reverting to strategies of the strong.


That history is unlikely to repeat itself. No new U.S. Navy is under construction; nor is the nation likely to lay down massive numbers of new hulls in times of fiscal malaise, and when the prospective adversary, unlike Imperial Japan, has refrained from provocative actions like invading its neighbors. America will steam off to war in the Pacific with the navy it has. Custodians of U.S. military strategy should plan on the assumption that they must win with the assets already in the fleet. Foresight and ingenuity will be at a premium if the United States hopes to prevail. Let’s think like the weak.


Tomorrow we’ll consider the sequence in which China may bring anti-access weaponry to bear against U.S. forces venturing into likely battlegrounds along the Asian seaboard.



The Diplomat 






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