The means for this attack matters. An attack launched from a ship or a submarine makes any PLAN military vessel fair game for the United States, but doesn’t necessarily incur US attacks against PLAAF airbases, Second Artillery missile installations, or even naval installations.
The most dangerous form of attack would involve a ballistic missile volley against a carrier. This is true not simply because these missiles are difficult to intercept, but also because such missiles could carry nuclear warheads. The prospect of a nuclear state using a conventional ballistic missile against another nuclear state, especially one with a presumptive nuclear advantage, is laden with complexity.
The next “hold your breath” moment will come when the first US missiles strike Chinese targets. Given the overwhelming nuclear advantage that the United States holds over China, the first wave of US attacks will prove deeply stressful to the PRCs military and civilian leadership. This is particularly the case if the Chinese believe that they can win at the conventional level of escalation; they will worry that the United States will bump to nuclear in order to retain its advantage.
We can expect that China will deploy its submarines in advance of the onset of hostilities. The surface fleet is a different story, however. In any high intensity combat scenario, the U.S. Navy (USN) and U.S. Air Force will see Chinese warships as legitimate targets for destruction, and will attack with air and subsurface assets. Indeed, even hiding in port probably won’t prevent attacks on the PLAN’s largest ships, including the carrier Liaoning and the big new amphibious transport docks.
China will only sortie the PLAN under two circumstances; if it feels it has sufficient force protection to allow a task force to operate relatively unmolested, or if China’s position has become desperate. In either situation, US submarines will pose the most immediate threat to the surface forces.
Under most war scenarios, China needs to fight for some affirmative purpose, not simply the destruction of US or Japanese military forces. This means that the PLAN must invade, capture, supply, and defend some geographical point, most likely either Taiwan or an outpost in the East or South China Sea. The PLA will need to establish the conditions under which the PLAN can conduct surface support missions.
Who Will Win?:
The most difficult question to judge is “who will win?” because that question involves assessing a wide variety of unknowns. We don’t know how well Chinese anti-ship ballistic missiles will function, or how destructive US cyber-attacks against the PLAN will prove, or how dangerous the F-22 Raptor will be to conventional Chinese fighters, or how effectively the different elements of the PLAN will cooperate in actual combat. Finally, we don’t know when the war will start; both the PLA and the US military will look much different in 2020 than they do in 2014.
However, in general terms the battle will turn on these questions:
1. Electronic Warfare:
How severely will the United States disrupt Chinese communications, electronic, and surveillance capabilities? Attacking US forces will depend on communication between seers and shooters. To the extent that the US can disrupt this communication, it can defang the PLA. Conversely, Chinese cyber-warfare against the United States could raise the domestic stakes for American policymakers.
2. Missiles vs. Missile Defenses:
How well will the USN and USAF be able to defeat Chinese ballistic and cruise missiles? The PLAN, PLAAF, and Second Artillery have a bewildering array of missile options for attacking deployed and deploying US forces in depth. The American capacity to survive the onslaught depends in part on the effectiveness of defenses against cruise and ballistic missiles, as well as the ability to strike and destroy launchers within and around China.
3. Joint Operations:
How well will the disparate elements of the PLA operate together in context of high intensity, disruptive military operations? Unlike the US military, the PLA has little relevant combat experience from the last three decades. On the flipside, how well will US “Air-Sea Battle” work prepare the USN and the USAF for working together?
4. Quality vs. Quantity:
Chinese forces are highly likely to achieve local numerical superiority in some types of assets, primarily aircraft and submarines. The (narrowing) gap between US and Chinese technology and training will determine how well American forces can survive and prevail in such situations.
How the War Would End:
This war doesn’t end with a surrender signed on a battleship. Instead, it ends with one participant beaten, embittered, and likely preparing for the next round.
The best case scenario for an American victory would be a result akin to the collapse of the Imperial German government at the end of World War I, or the collapse of Leopoldo Galtieri’s military government after the Falklands conflict. Humiliating defeat in war, including the destruction of a significant portion of the PLAN and the PLAAF, as well as severe economic distress, could undermine the grip of the CCP on Chinese governance. This is an extremely iffy prospect, however, and the United States shouldn’t count on victory leading to a new revolution.
What if China wins? China can claim victory by either forcing the United States into an accommodation to US goals, or by removing the alliance framework that motivates and legitimates US action. The United States cannot continue the war if South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and the Philippines no longer have an interest in fighting. Either of these require doing significant damage to US military forces and, potentially, to the US economy.
The impact of a defeat on US domestic politics would be tough to predict. The United States has “lost” wars in the past, but these defeats have generally involved negotiated settlements of areas not particularly critical to US global interests. It’s not clear how the US people would interpret a major military defeat at the hands of a peer competitor, especially a peer competitor that continues to grow in military and economic power. The President and political party that led the US into war would likely suffer dramatically at the polls, at least after the immediate shock of defeat wore off.
The biggest diplomatic and political challenge that both countries face will probably be finding a way for the other side to give up while maintaining its “honor.” No one benefits if this war becomes a struggle for regime survival, or for national prestige.
How the Peace Begins:
The prospect for US conflict with China in the Asia-Pacific depends on a basic appreciation of the changing balance of economic and military power. World War I could not change the fact that Germany would remain the largest and most powerful state in Central Europe. Similarly, war is unlikely to change the long-term trajectory of Chinese growth and assertiveness.
A key to peace involves the re-establishment of productive economic relations between China, the United States, and the rest of the Pacific Rim. Regardless of how the war plays out, it will almost certainly disrupt patterns of trade and investment around the world. If either side decides to attack (or, more likely, inter) commercial shipping, the impact could devastate firms and countries that have no direct stake in the war. However, the governments of both the US and China will face strong pressures to facilitate the resumption of full trade relations, at least in consumer goods.
China will not find it difficult to reconstruct war losses. Even if the United States effectively annihilates the PLAN and the PLAAF, we can expect that the Chinese shipbuilding and aviation industries will replace most losses within the decade, probably with substantial assistance from Russia. Indeed, significant Chinese war losses could reinvigorate both the Russian shipbuilding and aviation industries. Moreover, the war will, by necessity, “modernize” the PLA and PLAAF by destroying legacy capability. A new fleet of ships and planes will replace the legacy force.
War losses to trained personnel will hurt, but the experience gained in combat will produce a new, highly trained and effective corps of personnel. This will lead to better, more realistic training for the next generations of PLA soldiers, sailors, and airmen. Win or lose, the Chinese military will likely be more lethal a decade after the war.
The United States may have a harder time replacing losses, and not only because US warships and aircraft cost more than their Chinese counterparts. The production lines for the F-15 and F-16 are near the end, and the US no longer produces F-22. Moreover, US shipbuilding has declined to the point that replacing significant war losses could take a very long time. This might prove particularly problematic if the war demonstrated severe problems with the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Given US intention to arm the USAF, USN, and USMC with F-35 variants over the next decade, proof of inadequacy would wreck force planning for the foreseeable future.
The United States will have to face the “was it worth it?” question. In victory or defeat, the US will suffer substantial military and economic damage. Even if the US wins, it will not “solve” the problem of China; even in the unlikely event that the CCP collapses, a successor regime will still dispute China’s littoral.