he United States faces an unveiled threat from China. Beijing has made clear, in its public pronouncements and its strategic doctrine, that it seeks to conquer Taiwan and engorge the whole of the Western Pacific, ultimately bending Asia’s political structures to its will. The U.S., and the world at large, would be far better served by deterring China than by being forced to defeat it.
The issue, however, is the marginal nature of the military balance.
Thus, the U.S. must take five steps immediately to try to prevent a war with China, by improving America’s deterrence credibility and combat capabilities before hostilities threaten to erupt. Those steps are ensuring Ukraine’s victory in its war against Russia, freezing U.S. Navy fleet retirements, marshaling additional aerial basing within the Philippine Sea, expanding air and naval logistics, and being prepared to hit targets in mainland China if war should occur.
Deterrence requires two elements — the military capability to implement a strategy if hostile action occurs, and the political credibility to follow through on such a strategy. The two are as intertwined as the double helix of a DNA molecule. Absent political credibility, even the most powerful state will face questions over its commitments and suffer probing against its periphery. Absent the military capabilities on full display that can counter and drive back an assault — or punish one severely enough to dissuade it — then an enemy’s aggression often is the result.
The Western Pacific military balance is extraordinarily close. China’s navy — and its People’s Liberation Army (PLA) more generally — have greatly improved their capabilities over the past decade.
Still, the PLA faces difficulties: It appears to lack experience with combined-arms and joint warfare of any kind; it has a massive stockpile of missiles but may struggle to push forward its reconnaissance units enough to track U.S. forces; its aerial tanker fleet is insufficient to sustain a fighter screen in the Philippine Sea, and it has only limited airborne-amphibious capabilities that restrict the size, number, and composition of PLA landing forces.
However, the U.S. Navy has deep-seated issues of its own. Basic ship-handling skills have declined, as have damage-control practices, on many Navy ships. U.S. crews are overstretched as the fleet shrinks and demand for combatants grows. U.S. munitions supplies are unclear in a long war, and U.S. reconnaissance and communications rely heavily on space-based assets that are likely to be disrupted in a conflict’s first week.
Most critically, the U.S. has a serious shortfall of logistical ships and aircraft, while all of its major bases today are within Chinese missile range. By contrast, although the First Island Chain restricts Chinese movement into the Pacific Ocean, combat within the First Island Chain would be easier for the PLA because it could generate forces and repair units from Chinese sovereign territory.
This raises two issues. First, the PLA may identify a brief window of opportunity to overturn the strategic balance in a short war — perhaps because of potential political turmoil in the U.S. that could reduce the odds of American intervention, perhaps because of an equipment disaster like the USS Bonhomme Richard fire that would reduce U.S. forces in the region, or perhaps because of a munitions or materiel imbalance in a specific set of weeks or months.
This was precisely the set of circumstances that Russia very probably identified in March 2021 to February 2022. The Kremlin decided that the U.S. and Europe would not respond rapidly enough to a Russian invasion of Ukraine in order to halt that attack and, once it was completed, Western sanctions would be moderate at worst.
Read the rest at The Messenger.
Seth Cropsey is a Senior Fellow at Yorktown Institute.