99 Red Balloons: How War with China Would Start


A former professor of mine was standing on the West German border as a young junior officer, wrestling with an unpleasant realization. The border patrols he had inherited were a finely tuned machine: precise, timely, but disturbingly predictable. In every scheduled gap lurked possible communist sorties. He vowed to discover what was happening in the fog, switching up his entire patrol schedule. Within hours, he had discovered previously undetected mobilizations all across his sector. His natural response was to send more soldiers on patrol. As actions across the border and communications within them grew more frantic, the senior NCO burst into HQ and, with all due respect, taught my professor his first lesson in international relations. The detected communist mobilization was his counterpart in East Germany responding to perceived aggressive maneuvering, not a change in the watch rotation. The situation normalized when the watch bill returned to normal.

The arguments on “great-power war” between the United States and China too often focus on the interests rather than the mechanisms of war. In the May 2012 edition of Proceedings, LT Doug Robb suggests that the weight of global popular opinion, interconnected trade, and mutual assured destruction are enough to make great-power war impossible. Recently, on WOTR, Scott Cheney-Peters explained how the deepening of these connections, militarily and politically, could further push back the brink of conflict. However, while both arguments offer a strong defense against conflict, bird’s eye view rationality is not always the cause of war. In the April 2012 edition of Proceedings, LCDR Rachael Gosnell and 2LT Michael Orzetti are closer to the truth: that war is unlikely but possible, but for the wrong reasons. Nationalism and perceived core interests in the South China Sea and Taiwan could not outweigh the continued economic success upon which the vitality of the Chinese communist party survives. Unlike the U.S. and China, the U.S. and Soviet Union had no strong economic ties. However, no number of parades in Red Square ever started a shooting war. Further, why would China fight a kinetic war when it already finds success against the U.S. in the veiled conflicts of cyber warfare? War, though unlikely, would begin much like it would with my former professor: not where strategic interests bring parties into conflict, but where tactical and operational level controls are accidentally engaged and rational escalatory responses are executed.

The seeds of war are often planted purely by military maneuver, no matter the intention. WWI was started just as much by mutual ire as a self-sustaining escalation mobius strip. The Schlieffen Plan, Imperial Germany’s concept for winning a two-front war, required Germany to be mobilized and on the attack in France before Russia was able to complete a full mobilization, a mere six week window. Russia’s mobilization in response to the Austrian declaration of war on Serbia unknowingly engaged the plan. While Scott Cheney-Peters’ article is right, that understanding between opposing actors can help prevent conflict… would Russia have stalled her mobilization if they knew Germany’s plan? That is hard to know. Would Germany have ever publicized the Schlieffen Plan as a way to make the conflict triggers more clear? Never. There are many cards no side will reveal until it is time for them to be played.

Conventional escalation can also be hard to perceive outside the rear-view: Secretary McNamara explained that the United States never thought to go to war in Vietnam, but rather found itself there. Japan’s recent announcement that it will destroy Chinese surveillance drones illegally entering its airspace is just and reasonable enough… but while drones keep humans out of the battlefield, in some scenarios they lower the initial entry cost for two countries to start shooting at each other’s assets and cross that threshold of what, in retrospect, was the start of a war.

The time to make these decisions has also decreased. With today’s lightning-fast weapon systems forcing split-second decisions, the time where leadership is able to ponder the motives and nature of their opponents is greatly condensed.  There have been some terrifyingly close calls. As XO of a soviet submarine in the Cuban Missile Crisis, Vasili Arkhipov prevented his commanding officer from deploying nuclear torpedoes. In 1983, Stanislav Petrov averted nuclear war by preventing the Soviet nuclear architecture from reacting to a false alarm by the early warning system. In both cases, neither the U.S. nor USSR had rationale based outside of enemy action for a nuclear exchange, but the automated responses would have engaged to the contrary. Off the coast of Taiwan, in the South China Sea, a great-power war will start not because of interests, but because of reactions to maneuver and perceived threats.

The first drink of the night is usually not meant to eventually put you drunk in a ditch. A public act of defiance is not always intended to start a riot. However, interest and intention are often overwhelmed by circumstance and procedure. A great-power war today will not start due to pre-mediation. Today, naval officers are extensively trained in the capabilities and limitations of their equipment as well as the enemy’s.  However, Stanislav Petrov ignored the early-warning system because he realized the U.S. would not start a nuclear exchange with a single missile launch. My professor’s NCO and Stanislav Petrov both understood that war involves not only an understanding of the opposition’s capabilities, but as Scott Cheney-Peters explains, an understanding of its intentions, interests, and modes of action. Even then, as Robert McNamara said, “rationality will not save us.” Sometimes, the only option is to be ready.


Matthew Hipple is a U.S. Navy surface warfare officer. A graduate of Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, he is Director of the NEXTWAR blog for the Center for International Maritime Security. While his opinions may not reflect those of the United States Navy, Department of Defense, or US Government, he wishes they did. Follow him on twitter: @AmericaHipple.

Photo credit: U.S. Navy