The U.S. Military Has a New Strategy to Fight China in a Taiwan War

U.S. Navy Aircraft Carrier
March 2, 2024 Topic: Security Region: Americas Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: DF-21DChinaMissilesDronesU.S. MilitaryMilitaryDefense

The U.S. Military Has a New Strategy to Fight China in a Taiwan War

The U.S. is adopting asymmetric strategies to counter China's military expansion, particularly around Taiwan. Historically reliant on its manufacturing prowess and technological edge, the U.S. military now emphasizes missiles and drones to offset China's numerical superiority

Summary: The U.S. is adopting asymmetric strategies to counter China's military expansion, particularly around Taiwan. Historically reliant on its manufacturing prowess and technological edge, the U.S. military now emphasizes missiles and drones to offset China's numerical superiority. Initiatives like the "Replicator" program and the revival of Cold War-era projects aim to enhance U.S. capabilities against a larger Chinese force. Despite rapid advancements, the sustainability of U.S. regional influence hinges on reviving its defense industrial base, as large stockpiles of advanced weaponry are essential for maintaining strategic parity. These developments underscore a strategic pivot, focusing on innovative solutions to counterbalance China's growing military threat.

U.S. Turns to Asymmetric Warfare to Counter China's Military Buildup

China once relied on asymmetric warfare to compensate for its military disadvantages against the United States. Now, the reverse is happening, partially offsetting the Chinese military buildup that threatens Taiwan.

The U.S. is accustomed to enjoying industrial and technological superiority over its adversaries, including the ability to overwhelm an adversary with more significant numbers of military platforms such as warships, aircraft, and tanks. At the end of World War II, the United States accounted for half the world’s manufacturing capacity.

Until recently, the Chinese military was clearly and thoroughly inferior to the force the USA could bring to bear in a Pacific Rim conflict.

In 1996, for example, the US Navy boasted 12 aircraft carriers, 82 cruisers and destroyers, and 79 attack submarines. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy had 52 destroyers and frigates of mostly 1970s and 1980s vintage and 77 submarines that were obsolescent, noisy, and lacked sufficient trained crewmen. China’s air forces would have been unable to protect a Chinese fleet attempting an invasion of Taiwan. That year, the US Navy put the PLA Navy to shame by dispatching two aircraft carrier battle groups in response to PRC exercises intended to intimidate Taiwan. 

Unable to match the US Navy and Air Force in advanced ships and aircraft, the PLA took an asymmetric approach. From ancient times, Chinese strategic culture has extolled the idea of an “assassin’s mace,” a clever weapon that could defeat a stronger adversary by targeting his weakness. For the PRC, missiles have been such a weapon.

The Chinese leveraged their prowess in building missiles, which are cheaper and less technologically demanding than, for example, the latest-generation fighter aircraft. For at least two decades the PRC used missiles to compensate for a lack of modern platforms that could compete directly with US forces.

Beijing used missiles, not warships, to temporarily blockade Taiwan’s two major ports during the 1996 crisis. Missiles were the most formidable threat to a theoretical regional intervention by a US Navy task force. 

The Chinese DF-21 missile entered service in 1991.  The improved DF-21D variant, deployed in 2006, attracted the nickname “carrier killer” because it could theoretically knock out a moving US aircraft carrier at a distance of up to 1,000 miles. Official PRC commentary has called the DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile “the assassin's mace for maritime asymmetric warfare."

Today’s PLA, however, has less need for an assassin’s mace. While the United States is the world’s qualitative leader in many weapons systems, it no longer enjoys world-beating arms production capacity. The US defense industrial base is struggling to supply Ukraine and maintain US stockpiles for a possible conflict with China. Thousands of companies have stopped supplying armaments to the US Department of Defense, and American defense industries now have only one-third the number of workers they had in 1985.

China, on the other hand, has become the world’s arsenal of non-democracy. The PLA Navy now includes 370 ships (counting major surface combatants, aircraft carriers, submarines, amphibious assault ships, mine warfare ships, and fleet auxiliary ships). By contrast, the US Navy has 292 ships.  China’s fleet is on track to grow to 435 by the end of 2030, while the US Navy will shrink slightly to 290 based on the latest budget projections. Furthermore, US Navy assets are spread throughout the world, while China can concentrate its forces in eastern Asia.

China’s strategy is to win without fighting by demonstrating a clear military overmatch. Beijing hopes to field such formidable capabilities that Washington abandons the possibility of intervening to help defend Taiwan and Taipei accepts the PRC government’s demand for a negotiated capitulation.

The U.S. Military Goes Asymmetric to Match China's Military Might 

Unable to keep up with China's manufacturing capacity, the USA is developing asymmetric approaches to the problem of superior Chinese military mass.  Like the Chinese before them, the Americans are relying on missiles to change the game, along with drones, which offer precision guidance at a relatively low cost.

The US Department of Defense’s “Replicator” program foresees swarming a well-armed enemy with thousands of aerial drones and unmanned suicide boats. Adm. John Aquilino, commander of US forces in the Indo-Pacific region, said he would expect a thousand Chinese “targets” in the first 24 hours of a Taiwan Strait war. The US government’s Defense Innovation Unit has invited bids for the production of a large number of fast and lethal sea drones. 

During the Cold War, the U.S. government pioneered but abandoned efforts to develop hypersonic glide vehicles--missiles that can defeat anti-missile defenses through a combination of high speed, maneuverability and low trajectory. Last year, President Joe Biden invoked the Defense Production Act to revitalize US development and production of these weapons.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is rebooting the Cold War-era Assault Breaker program, initially responding to the danger that a sudden attack by huge numbers of Soviet tanks could overwhelm NATO defenses. The program envisaged that missiles launched from outside the battlefield would release precision-guided submunitions to destroy some of the Soviet vehicles before they reached the front lines. The new “Assault Breaker II” program, improved with cutting-edge components, would be suitable for attacking Chinese warplanes parked at airbases or Chinese warships in port or underway, reducing the size of the invasion force.

Last year the Department of Defense pressured Lockheed Martin to increase its output of the Long-Range Anti-Ship Missile and the Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile from 500 to 1,000 per year.

All of the major US armed services are enhancing their capabilities to conduct missile strikes.

The US Army is organizing hypersonic missile batteries in the Pacific. With the establishment of Marine Littoral Regiments, the US Marine Corps is reshaping itself to fulfill a new primary mission: establishing forward positions from which to operate drones and fire anti-ship and anti-aircraft missiles to support the US Navy in a war against China.

The US Navy has urgently pushed for anti-ship missiles with longer ranges and in larger numbers. To increase the number of missile delivery platforms, the Navy started in 2022 to modify P-8 surveillance aircraft so that they could fire anti-ship missiles.

In the same year, the US Air Force announced it was testing a system that would allow cargo aircraft such as C-17s and C-130s to launch cruise missiles. Both of these programs are linked to US plans for China-related contingencies.

While the PRC continues its military buildup and modernization, these countervailing asymmetric responses credibly strengthen the capability of the United States and its partners to degrade the horde of platforms China would bring into a regional conflict. Increasingly, it is not just the US military, but also the PLA that must contemplate the scenario of its own ships and aircraft charging into a hail of missiles.

The speed with which Washington has pursued asymmetric solutions is pretty impressive. Taken together, these measures might be cancelling out the confidence that Beijing might otherwise gain as it adds more warships and warplanes to the Chinese arsenal. 

The inability to surge production of large platforms, which are expensive and vulnerable, has the possible upside of forcing US planners to leapfrog legacy weapons systems in pursuit of potentially more efficient methods of countering PLA adventurism.

But although the United States is finding ways to address strategic vulnerabilities to the PLA in the short-term, maintaining regional influence will not be possible in the medium term without a robust defense industrial base.  Indeed, even asymmetrical approaches require large stockpiles of weapons.

The results of the much-cited Taiwan Strait war games conducted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies published in 2023 indicated that a Chinese attempt to capture Taiwan would fail. Still, the USA military as well as the PLA would suffer massive losses.  Even this result would be to China’s eventual advantage, because China could rebuild its forces more quickly than could an industrially-weak United States, allowing Beijing to assume the unchallenged position of strategic leader in the region.

About the Author: Denny Roy

Denny Roy's work has focused mostly on Asia Pacific security issues, particularly those involving China. Recently Roy has written on Chinese foreign policy, the North Korea nuclear weapons crisis, China-Japan relations, and China-Taiwan relations.  His interests include not only traditional military-strategic matters and foreign policy, but also international relations theory and human rights politics. Roy is a Senior Fellow at the East-West Institute