“What they do is very heavily built on preemption,” Wortzel said. “The problem with the striking the enemy’s center of gravity is, for the United States, they see it as being in Japan, Hawaii, and the West Coast….That’s very escalatory.”
(Students of the American military will nod sagely, of course, as we remind everyone that President George Bush made preemption a centerpiece of American strategy after the terror attacks of 2001.)
Wortzel argued that the current version of US Air-Sea Battle concept is also likely to lead to escalation. “China’s dependent on these ballistic missiles and anti-ship missiles and satellite links,” he said. Since those are almost all land-based, any attack on them “involves striking the Chinese mainland, which is pretty escalatory.”
“You don’t know how they’re going to react,” he said. “They do have nuclear missiles. They actually think we’re more allergic to nuclear missiles landing on our soil than they are on their soil. They think they can withstand a limited nuclear attack, or even a big nuclear attack, and retaliate.”
What War Would Look Like
So how would China’s preemptive attack unfold?
First would come weeks of escalating rhetoric and cyberattacks. There’s no evidence the Chinese favor a “bolt out of the blue” without giving the adversary what they believe is a chance to back down, agreed retired Rear Adm. Michael McDevitt and Dennis Blasko, former Army defense attache in Beijing, speaking on a recent Wilson Center panel on Chinese strategy where they agreed on almost nothing else. That’s not much comfort, though, considering that Imperial Japan showed clear signs they might attack and still caught the US flat-footed at Pearl Harbor.
When the blow does fall, the experts believe it would be sudden. Stuxnet-style viruses, electronic jamming, and Israeli-designed Harpy radar-seeking cruise missiles (similar to the American HARM but slower and longer-ranged) would try to blind every land-based and shipborne radar. Long-range anti-aircraft missiles like the Russian-built S-300 would go for every plane currently in the air within 125 miles of China’s coast, a radius that covers all of Taiwan and some of Japan. Salvos of ballistic missiles would strike every airfieldwithin 1,250 miles. That’s enough range to hit the four US airbases in Japan and South Korea – which are, after all, static targets you can look up on Google Maps– to destroy aircraft on the ground, crater the runways, and scatter the airfield with unexploded cluster bomblets to defeat repair attempts. Long-range cruise missiles launched from shore, ships, and submarines then go after naval vessels. And if the Chinese get really good and really lucky, they just might get a solid enough fix on a US Navy aircraft carrier to lob a precision-guided ballistic missile at it.
But would this work? Maybe. “This is fundamentally terra incognita,” Heritage Foundation research fellow Dean Cheng told me. There has been no direct conventional clash between major powers since Korea in the 1950s, no large-scale use of anti-ship missiles since the Falklands in 1982, and no war ever where both sides possessed today’s space, cyber, electronic warfare, and precision-guided missile capabilities.
Perhaps the least obvious but most critical uncertainty in a Pacific war would be invisible.
“I don’t think we’ve seen electronic warfare on a scale that we’d see in a US-China confrontation,” said Cheng. “I doubt very much they are behind us when it comes to electronic warfare, [and] the Chinese are training every day on cyber: all those pings, all those attacks, all those attempts to penetrate.”
While the US has invested heavily in jamming and spoofing over the last decade, much of the focus has been on how to disable insurgents’ roadside bombs, not on how to counter a high-tech nation-state. China, however, has focused its electronic warfare and cyber attack efforts on the United States. Conceptually, China may well be ahead of us in linking the two. (F-35 supporters may well disagree with this conclusion.) Traditional radar jammers, for example, can also be used to insert viruses into the highly computerized AESA radars (active electronically scanned array) that are increasingly common in the US military.
“Where there has been a fundamental difference, and perhaps the Chinese are better than we are at this, is the Chinese seem to have kept cyber and electronic warfare as a single integrated thing,” Cheng said. “We are only now coming round to the idea that electronic warfare is linked to computer network operations.”
In a battle for the electromagnetic spectrum, Cheng said, the worst case “is that you thought your jammers, your sensors, everything was working great, and the next thing you know missiles are penetrating [your defenses], planes are being shot out of the sky.”
China’s Untested Military
For all the unpredictability of high-tech warfare, though, the US has extensive experience using most of its systems in combat, albeit against much weaker enemies. The PLA has operated along its border with India and other neighbors and at sea in aggressive efforts to convince the US and its allies to back off of areas China claims, but none of those was a significant combat operation.
“The first difficulty here is simply getting a sense of how good the PLA is if and when things go pear shaped,” said Cheng. “The PLA hasn’t fought a war since 1979,” when it invaded Vietnam and got badly bloodied. (There was also a naval skirmish with Vietnam in 1988). By contrast, said Cheng, “we have been at war for almost 25 years” – at least, on the ground and in the air.
“Arguably our naval forces have the least experience,” Navy strike pilots excepted, Cheng said. “There it’s almost even between us and the Chinese.”
The naval balance is the big question mark in the Sino-US military balance, agreed Norman Polmar, a leading naval analyst.
“The [PLA] ground forces are very powerful but they can’t go very far. They can’t even get to Taiwan if they wanted to,” Polmar told me. “They have amphibious troops and they have paratroopers,” he said, but China has very little capacity to move them across the 100-mile wide Taiwan Strait against serious opposition. Taiwanese troops can overwhelm whatever PLA troops get through: “They can land and they’ll be destroyed.”
“The Air Force is very large but not very sophisticated or advanced, despite several interesting prototypesthat have been flown in the last decade,” Polmar went on. China has bought a large number of advanced Russian aircraft, primarily the Sukhoi SU-30MK series, but their pilots train much less and in less challenging exercises than do their US counterparts — only about 100 to 150 hours a month.
“The 2nd Artillery Force, which controls their ICBMs and their intermediate range missiles, has a very capable force,” he said, and the conventional-warhead weapons they control (but not their nuclear ones, one prays) would play a major role in any conflict.
“The navy is much harder to determine,” Polmar said. “They are building and acquiring from Russia more sophisticated ships,” he told me, as well as a refurbished ex-Soviet aircraft carrier. More survivable in an all-out war would be China’s numerous submarines: According to the 2012-2013 edition of Strategic Asia, the PLA Navy also now has 50 to 60 quiet but short-range diesel submarines, and five less quiet but longer-range nuclear-powered attack submarines. Compared to America’s 54 attack subs (all nuclear-powered), “they spend very little time at sea,” Polmar said. What’s more, he added, “Japan has an excellent anti-submarine forces and we have one that’s pretty good.”
The PLA’s biggest problem, however, is not about buying hardware or even training to use it. It’s something much subtler.
The Achilles’ Heel of the PLA
The secret to America’s battlefield success since 1990, despite all our geostrategic errors, is what we call “joint operations”: the ability to get air, land, sea, space and cyber forces to work together effectively. That takes decades of often painful practice that the PLA has only just begun.
“Today their military doctrine is ‘integrated joint warfare,’” said Wortzel. “They’re not there yet.”
In fact, said Wortzel, “they’re just beginning to get people from other services than the ground forces commanding their air force, their Navy, and their Second Artillery [missile force]. For 50 years, the navy and the air force were commanded by soldiers.”
The Chinese are painfully aware that their planes can’t beat US or Japanese planes head-on, their ships can’t beat our ships, their submarines can’t beat our subs. But that kind of “symmetrical” warfare is not the way either the US or China plans to fight. A typical anti-submarine warfare (ASW) operation, for example, requires surface ships, aircraft from both carriers and land bases, satellites, and often friendly submarines to work together to hunt down and destroy the enemy sub.
For the Chinese in particular, they are betting heavily on land-based missiles to take out enemy airbases and ships at sea, with China’s own air and naval forces in a supporting and largely defensive role. But they have two big hurdles to get over to make that work.
First of all, while China’s missile force fired lots of warning shots into the waters off Taiwan in 1995-1996, there’s evidence that it has never conducted “a synchronized launch of more than a half-dozen missiles at one time,” Mark Stokes wrote in Strategic Asia. That’s not enough incoming rounds at once to swamp US and allied missile defenses or electronic countermeasures.
That’s purely a Second Artillery problem, however. The bigger issue is ensuring the Second Artillery can operate relatively seamlessly with the Chinese air force and navy. So far, the three forces rarely train together in peacetime and they have no real-world combat experience fighting together.
“Their military was always separated really into a ground force, a navy, and an air force, and since about ’63 a missile force, that never operated together, never,” said Wortzel. “They planned independent campaigns.”
But the Chinese are getting better, in the use of joint command structures in disaster relief operations and, most notably, with their “Vanguard 2009” exercises in the Jinan Military District, Dean Cheng notes. It’s well worth noting that the officer who commanded both those exercises and much of the response to the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, Gen. Fan Changlong, has since been promoted two ranks to become senior vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission, sort of China’s equivalent of the Joint Staff and the National Security Council rolled into one. That makes Gen. Fan senior to China’s defense minister and second on the CMC only to Chinese president Xi Jinping himself.
While not conclusive, Fan’s rapid rise to such an influential position “suggests that joint operations is really important,” Cheng said. Chinese doctrine has called for joint operations on paper since 1999, Cheng said, but “it appears he really lit a fire underneath [the PLA]: ‘Listen up, people, we’re going to take this to the next level.’”
Cheng declined to guess how good the Chinese had gotten at coordinating all their armed services in joint operations. “Is it a shortfall? Probably, but it’s a lot less of a shortfall than in 1999,” he said.