As early as 2020, if all goes according to plan, the Pentagon will loft a triple-tier shield of unmanned drones reaching from the stratosphere to the exosphere, armed with agile missiles, linked by an expanded satellite system, and operated through robotic controls.
Weighing this balance of forces, the RAND Corporation recently released a study, War with China, predicting that by 2025 “China will likely have more, better and longer-range ballistic missiles and cruise missiles; advanced air defenses; latest generation aircraft; quieter submarines; more and better sensors; and the digital communications, processing power and C2 [cyber security] necessary to operate an integrated kill chain.”
In the event of all-out war, RAND suggested, the United States might suffer heavy losses to its carriers, submarines, missiles, and aircraft from Chinese strategic forces, while its computer systems and satellites would be degraded thanks to “improved Chinese cyberwar and ASAT [anti-satellite] capabilities.”
Even though American forces would counterattack, their “growing vulnerability” means Washington’s victory would not be assured. In such a conflict, the think tank concluded, there might well be no “clear winner.”
Make no mistake about the weight of those words. For the first time, a top strategic think-tank, closely aligned with the U.S. military and long famous for its influential strategic analyses, was seriously contemplating a major war with China that the United States would not win.
World War III
The technology of space and cyberwarfare is so new, so untested, that even the most outlandish scenarios currently concocted by strategic planners may soon be superseded by a reality still hard to conceive. In a 2015 nuclear war exercise, the Air Force Wargaming Institute used sophisticated computer modeling to imagine “a 2030 scenario where the Air Force’s fleet of B-52s … upgraded with … improved standoff weapons” patrol the skies ready to strike.
Simultaneously, “shiny new intercontinental ballistic missiles” stand by for launch. Then, in a bold tactical gambit, B-1 bombers with “full Integrated Battle Station upgrade” slip through enemy defenses for a devastating nuclear strike.
That scenario was no doubt useful for Air Force planners, but said little about the actual future of U.S. global power. Similarly, the RAND War with China study only compared military capacities, without assessing the particular strategies either side might use to its advantage.
I might not have access to the Wargaming Institute’s computer modeling or RAND’s renowned analytical resources, but I can at least carry their work one step farther by imagining a future conflict with an unfavorable outcome for the United States.
As the globe’s still-dominant power, Washington must spread its defenses across all military domains, making its strength, paradoxically, a source of potential weakness. As the challenger, China has the asymmetric advantage of identifying and exploiting a few strategic flaws in Washington’s otherwise overwhelming military superiority.
For years, prominent Chinese defense intellectuals like Shen Dingli of Fudan University have rejected the idea of countering the U.S. with a big naval build-up and argued instead for “cyberattacks, space weapons, lasers, pulses and other directed-energy beams.” Instead of rushing to launch aircraft carriers that “will be burned” by lasers fired from space, China should, Shen argued, develop advanced weapons “to make other command systems fail to work.”
Although decades away from matching the full might of Washington’s global military, China could, through a combination of cyberwar, space warfare, and supercomputing, find ways to cripple U.S. military communications and thus blind its strategic forces. With that in mind, here’s one possible scenario for World War III.
It’s 11:59 P.M. on Thanksgiving Thursday in 2030. For months, tensions have been mounting between Chinese and U.S. Navy patrols in the South China Sea. Washington’s attempts to use diplomacy to restrain China have proven an embarrassing failure among long-time allies — with NATO crippled by years of diffident American support, Britain now a third-tier power, Japan functionally neutral and other international leaders cool to Washington’s concerns after suffering its cyber-surveillance for so long.
With the American economy diminished, Washington plays the last card in an increasingly weak hand, deploying six of its remaining eight carrier groups to the Western Pacific.
Instead of intimidating China’s leaders, the move makes them more bellicose. Flying from air bases in the Spratly Islands, their jet fighters soon begin buzzing U.S. Navy ships in the South China Sea, while Chinese frigates play chicken with two of the aircraft carriers on patrol, crossing ever closer to their bows.
Then tragedy strikes. At 4:00 A.M. on a foggy October night, the massive carrier USS Gerald Ford slices through aging frigate Xuchang, sinking the Chinese ship with its entire crew of 165. Beijing demands an apology and reparations. When Washington refuses, China’s fury comes fast.
At the stroke of midnight on Black Friday, as cyber-shoppers storm the portals of Best Buy for deep discounts on the latest consumer electronics from Bangladesh, Navy personnel staffing the Space Surveillance Telescope at Exmouth, Western Australia, choke on their coffees as their panoramic screens of the southern sky suddenly blip to black.
Thousands of miles away at the U.S. Cyber Command’s operations center in Texas, Air Force technicians detect malicious binaries that, though hacked anonymously into American weapons systems worldwide, show the distinctive digital fingerprints of China’s People’s Liberation Army.
In what historians will later call the “Battle of Binaries,” CyberCom’s supercomputers launch their killer counter-codes. While a few of China’s provincial servers do lose routine administrative data, Beijing’s quantum satellite system, equipped with super-secure photon transmission, proves impervious to hacking.
Meanwhile, an armada of bigger, faster supercomputers slaved to Shanghai’s cyberwarfare Unit 61398 blasts back with impenetrable logarithms of unprecedented subtlety and sophistication, slipping into the U.S. satellite system through its antiquated microwave signals.
The first overt strike is one nobody at the Pentagon predicted. Flying at 60,000 feet above the South China Sea, several U.S. carrier-based MQ-25 Stingray drones, infected by Chinese “malware,” suddenly fire all the pods beneath their enormous delta wingspans, sending dozens of lethal missiles plunging harmlessly into the ocean, effectively disarming those formidable weapons.
Determined to fight fire with fire, the White House authorizes a retaliatory strike. Confident their satellite system is impenetrable, Air Force commanders in California transmit robotic codes to a flotilla of X-37B space drones, orbiting 250 miles above the Earth, to launch their Triple Terminator missiles at several of China’s communication satellites. There is zero response.
In near panic, the Navy orders its Zumwalt-class destroyers to fire missilesat seven Chinese satellites in nearby geostationary orbits. The launch codes suddenly prove inoperative.
As Beijing’s viruses spread uncontrollably through the U.S. satellite architecture, the country’s second-rate supercomputers fail to crack the Chinese malware’s devilishly complex code. With stunning speed, GPS signals crucial to the navigation of American ships and aircraft worldwide are compromised.
Across the Pacific, Navy deck officers scramble for their sextants, struggling to recall long-ago navigation classes at Annapolis. Steering by sun and stars, carrier squadrons abandon their stations off the China coast and steam for the safety of Hawaii.
An angry American president orders a retaliatory strike on a secondary Chinese target, Longpo Naval Base on Hainan Island. Within minutes, the commander of Andersen Air Base on Guam launches a battery of super-secret X-51 “Waverider” hypersonic missiles that soar to 70,000 feet and then streak across the Pacific at 4,000 miles per hour — far faster than any Chinese fighter or air-to-air missile.
Inside the White House situation room the silence is stifling as everyone counts down the 30 short minutes before the tactical nuclear warheads are to slam into Longpo’s hardened submarine pens, shutting down Chinese naval operations in the South China Sea. Midflight, the missiles suddenly nose-dive into the Pacific.
In a bunker buried deep beneath Tiananmen Square, Pres. Xi Jinping’s handpicked successor, Li Keqiang, even more nationalistic than his mentor, is outraged that Washington would attempt a tactical nuclear strike on Chinese soil. When China’s State Council wavers at the thought of open war, the president quotes the ancient strategist Sun Tzu. “Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win.”
Amid applause and laughter, the vote is unanimous. War it is!
Almost immediately, Beijing escalates from secret cyberattacks to overt acts. Dozens of China’s next-generation SC-19 missiles lift off for strikes on key American communications satellites, scoring a high ratio of kinetic kills on these hulking units. Suddenly, Washington loses secure communications with hundreds of military bases.
U.S. fighter squadrons worldwide are grounded. Dozens of F-35 pilots already airborne are blinded as their helmet-mounted avionic displays go black, forcing them down to 10,000 feet for a clear view of the countryside. Without any electronic navigation, they must follow highways and landmarks back to base like bus drivers in the sky.
Midflight on regular patrols around the Eurasian landmass, two-dozen RQ-180 surveillance drones suddenly become unresponsive to satellite-transmitted commands. They fly aimlessly toward the horizon, crashing when their fuel is exhausted. With surprising speed, the United States loses control of what its Air Force has long called the “ultimate high ground.”