We all know that the chances of a U.S.-Sino war in Asia are remote— thank God. With hundreds of billions of dollars in bilateral trade, the strong possibility that such a conflict would draw in most of Asia’s big geopolitical players, as well as the very real eventuality that such a conflict could go global (and nuclear), is enough to shut down such apocalyptic thoughts. However, as I discussed last week , there is enough pressure points between the two superpowers that sudden tensions could spark a crisis— a crisis that could spiral out of control if cooler heads don’t prevail.
The purpose of this article is straightforward and scary enough: what if Beijing found itself in a situation where it felt war was inevitable with Washington (a crisis over Taiwan, a crisis in the East or South China Seas etc.)— how would it procede? While there are many different ways China could strike America— many of which would be non-kinetic and could even deny like a cyberstrike from a third party country or actor— Beijing has the means to do incredible damage to U.S. interests and alliance networks throughout Asia and even in the wider Indo-Pacific. Much of Washington’s “pivot” or “rebalance” is certainly based on such a fact: a realization that U.S. military primacy is no longer guaranteed thanks to a slick Chinese counter-intervention based military modernization ( despite what others may think ).
Setting the Scene for War:
Before one can set the course for war, we need to get some housekeeping items out of the way. Let us assume for the purposes of this article China has decided to strike kinetically and decisively. Let us also assume Beijing’s goal is to limit the ability of U.S. forces along with their allies the capability to strike back conventionally. China in this scenario has also decided it will not use nuclear weapons and limit its war aims to the Asia-Pacific theatre. So, knowing all that, how would China go to war against America? Here is what I would do if I was a China:
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Step #1: Blind America
As Mr. Miyagi put it best, “ If man can’t see, he can’t fight .” The same can be said of a modern nation state fielding state of the art weapons of war— Beijing could simply try to blind America before it knows it is under attack. This is a simple enough concept and one most scholars assume China would utilize in a conflict. America loves its command and control (C2) systems combined with state of the art C4ISR to destroy its enemies. Think the 1991 Gulf War and every other conflict America has fought since then. Modern C2 and C4ISR systems control the ability of U.S. war fighters to wage conflict with all military services fighting evermore jointly. This allows the sharing of information concerning enemy positions and capabilities in real time across the services and with allies, dropping “smart bombs” on target, and many other capabilities that give Washington what might just be its ultimate advantage.
What if Beijing simply degraded and destroyed the ability of U.S. forces to have those advanced eyes and ears and brought back an old foe of U.S. forces— the much hated “fog of war?” If that was the goal, a Chinese military campaign might just begin in cyberspace. Beijing might launch massive cyber strikes against U.S. command and control centers around the world— trying to blind America and disrupt the ability of U.S. warfighters from seeing the coming battlefield in real time. Such strikes, at least if I was in charge in Beijing, would come from third party countries (or at least look like it thanks to proxy servers). America would know its systems were under attack, but it might not be clear from who— at least not right away. China would have the advantage, at least for now.
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The next blow would come before America could ascertain who was striking at the heart of its best military capabilities— and this one would have China’s fingerprints all over them. Beijing would begin to attack American satellites in orbit, attempting to destroy Washington’s massive intelligence gathering machine and communications systems. At this point, war has definitely started and there is no mistake who is behind it.
Saturation Strikes: Think Chinese “Shock and Awe” With Lots of Missiles
First China blinds its enemy, than it drops the hammer. A large body of recent Western literature assumes China would leverage the large amounts of cruise and ballistic weapons it has developed and deployed over the last several decades in any conflict with America and its allies. This includes mostly accurate short, medium, and long-range weapons and the much ballyhooed anti-ship ballistic missile or “carrier-killer.”