The Real Problem with Strikes on Mainland China

August 4, 2015

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Here’s the nightmare for any U.S. war plan that requires conventional strikes on mainland China: The president will balk. Even in the midst of a full-scale war, he or she would reject mainland strikes for fear of precipitating a nuclear exchange. American fears of a nuclear war would then provide China with what one analyst has called a “heckuva sanctuary” from which to attack U.S. forces. That’s why examining military history to understand the likelihood of this scenario is worthwhile. More on that shortly.

A U.S. war plan entailing strikes on mainland China, a plan originally dubbed “Air-Sea Battle” by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, has gained traction among top military thinkers in the U.S. Air Force and Navy. Many analysts previously believed that the U.S. military could have soundly defeated Chinese aggression without resorting to mainland strikes. Now, however, some strategists worry that the Chinese military will put up a tougher fight, and the U.S. military will have to target the missile launchers, radars, and command centers on which Chinese attacks depend.

And this is where the problem begins. China is a nuclear-armed state capable of launching nuclear-tipped missiles at the United States or U.S. forces in Asia. The Chinese nuclear missiles and the radars and command centers that support these missiles are all currently located on the Chinese mainland, which explains why the president might be reluctant to authorize mainland strikes. Furthermore, because the Chinese Second Artillery Corps controls both the conventional and the nuclear missile forces, the two types of missiles are sometimes co-located. This could lead the president to fear accidentally targeting a nuclear site, putting Chinese leaders in a use-it-or-lose-it situation. The president could also believe that China has rational incentives to turn the conflict nuclear.

Others have publicly debated whether the president would authorize conventional strikes against the homeland of a nuclear-armed China. One side cites U.S. caution in striking the Chinese mainland during the Korean War. This caution was ostensibly born of U.S. fears of Soviet nuclear retaliation. The other side insists that a U.S. president won’t hesitate to attack Chinese mainland targets if strikes are geographically confined (e.g. the Nanjing military region). The two camps, judging by the lull in the debate over this point, have agreed to disagree. I cannot.

Learning from the 1958 Taiwan Strait Crisis

My recent article in Infinity Journal examines the 1958 Taiwan Strait Crisis to investigate how a president might react to a mainland strike war plan. This harrowing crisis involved the United States, China, China’s nuclear-armed Soviet ally, Taiwan, and a war plan that some feared would start a nuclear World War III.

In August 1958, China’s leader Mao Zedong ordered an intense artillery barrage of Quemoy (or Jinmen), an island controlled by the Nationalist government on Taiwan and manned by nearly 100,000 Nationalist soldiers, but separated by only a few miles from the Chinese mainland. Communist and Nationalist fighter planes tangled in the skies above the strait. Top U.S. officials worried that Mao intended to invade Quemoy.

To prevent this outcome, U.S. military leaders proposed low-yield nuclear strikes against Chinese airfields located on the mainland, citing military necessity. President Dwight D. Eisenhower balked. He worried that the Soviet Union, then an ally of China, might retaliate against Taiwan. Additionally, CIA Director Allen Dulles believed that possible Soviet nuclear reprisal posed “a grave risk.” Secretary of State John Foster Dulles similarly thought that tactical nuclear strikes created a “possibility” that the conflict could devolve into “general war.” The nuclear shadow cast its pall over America’s military options.

China never actually invaded Quemoy, so the administration did not have to choose between tactical nuclear strikes and defeat. But the reaction of Eisenhower and his top advisers suggests that, should China have invaded Quemoy, the administration would have been extremely reluctant to authorize mainland strikes.

Before I suggest what modern strategists can learn from this episode, let me address the key weakness of this historical analogy: Eisenhower considered tactical nuclear strikes on the Chinese mainland, while Air-Sea Battle (now re-named the Joint Concept for Access and Maneuver in the Global Commons) calls for non-nuclear strikes. Those who stress this difference should not overlook, however, that the 1950s was the era of the “New Look,” a national security strategy that explicitly treated tactical nuclear weapons as, in Eisenhower’s own words, “no more likely to trigger off a big war than the use of a twenty-ton block buster.”

The Art of Limited War

The origins of Air-Sea Battle’s central problem — that it may be too escalatory for use — is the no-holds-barred thinking common in some parts of the national security community. Limited war is the antithesis of such brute force thinking, requiring the military to accept constraints on force in the service of political goals such as avoiding nuclear conflict. The military’s particular penchant for brute force thinking partially accounts for why Eisenhower’s top military leaders were enamored with nuclear weapons. Similarly, one reason Air-Sea Battle finds support in some quarters is because limited war has become alien to the modern U.S. military. After fighting a succession of insurgencies and non-nuclear states like Iraq, America’s forces, to quote the motto of the 7th Bomber Wing, are trained to rain “death from above,” not limit the danger of nuclear escalation.

In the name of fighting a limited war, the U.S. military and its political leaders ought to avoid a U.S.–China military balance where the U.S. president must authorize mainland strikes to ensure victory. The commander-in-chief, envisioning a mushroom cloud, might not authorize this plan. The reluctance of Eisenhower and his advisers to strike mainland China during the 1958 Taiwan Strait Crisis suggests this possibility. Research on the unwillingness of leaders during the Korean War and the Kargil Crisis to strike the territory of their nuclear opponents bolsters the argument that Air-Sea Battle might never make it to land.

Military leaders therefore ought to aim for a “defense-by-denial” strategy that avoids mainland strikes. Practically speaking, the U.S. Navy and Air Force should assess their own sufficiency by asking if their forces can deny Chinese objectives (say, a cross-strait invasion or blockade of Taiwan) without recourse to mainland strikes. Former Pentagon strategist Dave Ochmanek recently averred that this type of strategy is within reach. Investments consistent with this limited-war option include concrete super-hardened shelters for forward-deployed planes, a greater reliance on submarines, and investments in anti-ship missiles.

This plan, admittedly, has its skeptics. Some believe that a mainland strike war plan might pack its biggest punch before a war, deterring China from aggressive action. While intriguing, this line of thought is speculative. Additionally, critics provide no reason why a defense-by-denial approach that could avoid mainland strikes would be a less sure deterrent. Preparing for war, instead of hoping for deterrence, seems a wiser course of action.

Eisenhower once opined, “Only Americans can hurt America.” Those charged with shaping America’s military for a future that could involve conflict with China should heed these words by crafting plans and military investments that avoid primary reliance on mainland strikes, an American plan that could actually hurt America.


John Speed Meyers will begin the PhD program in policy analysis at the Pardee RAND Graduate School this fall. He earned an M.P.A. from the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University and previously worked as a research assistant at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. This essay is a condensed version of a longer article in Infinity Journal entitled, “Will a President Approve Air-Sea Battle? Learning from the 1958 Taiwan Strait Crisis.”

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21 thoughts on “The Real Problem with Strikes on Mainland China

  1. The Chinese governments primary focus is on preventing a popular uprising against themselves by the population. This focus will limit their ability to respond with nuclear arms – many Chinese people are actually quite proud of the no first use pledge after all – and may in fact cause them to encourage limited conventional strikes against the mainland. Few things stir up patriotism more than an external threat – the trick is letting the US hit enough things to stir that up without causing folks to think the government can’t protect them. It is a fine line to walk – but no finer than the line they walk everyday trying to keep the economy growing fast enough to placate their population.

  2. A war with imaginary lines and self inflicted restrictions of operations is a war guaranteeing US defeat.

    hell even Iraq

    All wars were the US put self defeating restrictions on the military that made victory only possible in a longterm attrition which is something the US will not cannot win.

    China is just as inclined to reject a nuclear war as we are, its called MAD because everyone loses. If a US president cannot authorize his military right to strike when, what, wherever determined only by assisting generating

  3. Weird it posted my comment in mid type..

    ” If a US president cannot authorize his military right to strike when, what, wherever determined only by assisting…..” the end goal of victory X president should not send the nation to war. War is not something you half a*s if you don’t have the will to fight and win don’t show up. To send thousands to sacrifice life and limb but then lose because you didn’t have the will to win is criminal.

  4. You don’t mention or analyze the potential to use cyber, electronic attack, jamming or localized limited EMP type actions on the Chinese mainland.

    No bombs go off, no pictures of flames, nobody dies, yet the assets you’re trying to take off the table are neutralized.

    You’re correct that a big, big part of implementing Air-Sea-Battle in A2-AD type conflicts is limiting the land forces’ ability to shape the conflict. But you don’t have to resort to conventional strikes and certainly not nukes to achieve that in 2015.

    1. “cyber, electronic attack, jamming or localized limited EMP type actions on the Chinese mainland.”

      Perhaps, because those are pie in the sky ideas, while they provide material for mediocre techno-thriller novels and B-movie scripts, don’t reflect the reality of any DoD capabilities, now or in the future.

      Let’s stop using “Cyber” like it has any meaning whatsoever. You have computer network operations , electronic warfare and information operations.
      People have some serious misconceptions as to what CNO and EW actually entail

      If China decides to invade Taiwan and military operations are underway….what exactly do you think someone can “hack” into to stop that?

      Jamming is a form of electronic attack, those are not separate items. That’s not going to be accomplished from outside of the theater, it’s going to require air assets and ships operating around Taiwan

      Localized EMP? Give me a break, doesn’t exist outside of Hollywood, you’ve been watching too many movies. Non-Nuclear EMP is fantasy land. EMP is a result of nuclear detonations

      Perhaps you’re confusing EMP with Directed Energy type devices such as high power microwaves, but those have limited applications and would require vehicles on the ground, which is this case is a moot point, since the whole discussion was to avoid mainland China.

      1. “Non-Nuclear EMP is fantasy land. EMP is a result of nuclear detonations” Not strictly true. See The Counter-electronics High Power Microwave Advanced Missile Project, an air launched directed energy weapon.

  5. I find it odd that every critic of the ASB concept can only envision a scenario in which the United States preemptively attacks mainland China with kinetic strikes. I envision an equally likely scenario in which China attacks first, perhaps sinking a U.S. aircraft carrier or destroying aircraft and/or runways on Okinawa or Guam in an effort to deter the U.S. from maneuvering U.S. forces in the Western Pacific. In this scenario, would it not be wise to have the option for the U.S. to counter these attacks? In either scenario, the President still maintains the option of either employing ASB or not, but to not even have a plan to strike at China’s A2AD assets simply cedes the Western Pacific to China’s vision of a regional order in East Asia–something that clearly will not serve U.S. national interests.

  6. There is no chance at all that a war, any substantial war between America and China will not end up full strength nuclear.

    When faced with increased risks of being on the receiving end of a nuclear first strike, the only proper response would be to start lobbing megatonners, for which accuracy is not an issue, AND making it clear that if hostility does not cease forthwith, the next one WILL hit population centers, causing maximum damage. Y’see the WU-14s, while fast (anywhere in the world in one hour), are not terribly accurate. So to be effective, they are perforce high yield, and they do not have to be launched from silos.

    Then it becomes a question of the survivability of the strikes. America does not have enough nukes to cover even 10% of China’s land area. China is only 55% urbanized. Folks not living in cities will survive. America on the other hand is 85% urbanized. You can count on all cities with more than 100,000 population being nuked. And the American infrastructure is a lot more “efficient” (meaning highly leveraged – you knock out a peg and the system collapsed), in contrast to the redundant infrastructure in China. Further, you can also count on the Russians jumping in and finishing the job on America, if American cities are hit already.

    Another factor, the Chinese eat less and can survive on 1,500 kcal a day (they did during the Mao years, for decades on end). Americans eat 3,750 kcal a day.

    WHICH population will better survive, Major Kong? Plus you can definitely count on the Russians coming in afterwards to finish the job.

    1. “Y’see the WU-14s, while fast (anywhere in the world in one hour), are not terribly accurate. So to be effective, they are perforce high yield, and they do not have to be launched from silos. ”

      –WU-14 is an R&D project, not an operational capability
      –They do need to be launched from Ballisitc Missiles

      What’s your point on silos? ICBMS can be silo based or launched from mobile TELs….

    2. “Then it becomes a question of the survivability of the strikes. America does not have enough nukes to cover even 10% of China’s land area. China is only 55% urbanized. Folks not living in cities will survive. America on the other hand is 85% urbanized. You can count on all cities with more than 100,000 population being nuked. And the American infrastructure is a lot more “efficient” (meaning highly leveraged – you knock out a peg and the system collapsed), in contrast to the redundant infrastructure in China. Further, you can also count on the Russians jumping in and finishing the job on America, if American cities are hit already.”

      You’re clearly living in fantasy land.
      •% of land area doesn’t matter in a nuclear conflict, you’re going after key targets- Nuclear sites, command and control, major military installations and only as a last resort, major population centers.
      •The reality is that there are a number of PLA, PLAAF and PLAN bases inside or just outside major cities, so they’re going to be collateral damage.
      •You may want to look at the actual numbers rather than making them up, there are over 300 cities in the US with populations greater than 100,000 people.
      •The 2nd Artillery Corp doesn’t have enough nuclear weapons in their arsenal to even hit all of the strategic military targets in the US, let alone those + over 300 cities. It’s also not a one to one ratio. It’s would take multiple warheads to take out a hardened military facility for instance, let alone a major metro area. This isn’t the movies where one nuke obliterates everything.
      •If you think Russia would come to China’s aid in a conflict, you’re sorely mistaken. Clearly you don’t understand that China and Russia are not allies. Don’t confusing them engaging in foreign military sales, with being allies that would support each other in a conflict.

  7. If China were to conduct an amphibious attack against Taiwan it would be a combined arms operation (naval, army, air, cyber). As has been noted, the US would have to have a significant force in the area already to stop it; and what could we use beyond carrier strike groups since putting several US Army divisions, forward based USAF wings,e tc is not only not supportable currently it would require years of preparation. And then if not on Taiwan where would all these forces marshall? Australia, Japan, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Philippines, a massive build up in Korea?

    Look at a map, there isn’t any location for that to occur (hence why ASB gained legs) and most of the above nations are either not friendly enough to allow that or too far away requiring significant air and naval transit 9and China has a lot of subs to torpedo ships with).

    This is the flaw with “defense by denial” and China already has built up its A2/AD capabilities and is expanding them while the US continues to drawdown its military and cut defense spending. Super hardened bunkers and forward basing are not only unaffordable they are not popular. We’re telling Russia to stop in the Ukraine while we continue the steady removal of attack planes, troops, helicopters and while a small trickle of tanks and Bradleys are going back what is a Brigade of armor against Divisions of armor? A speed bump.

    China has a growing arsenal of anti-ship missiles designed to take out our carriers. This is pushing our carrier strike groups further and further away meaning less dwell time for the air wings on those carriers and reducing the guided missile ships’ capabilities we do have. As for jamming, China has far more capability, and units, dedicated to that and we have lone aircraft. Cyber? Last I looked, China is one of the world leaders for that and being able to reach into the US for corporate, economic, defense, etc hacking is something they allegedly do quite well; the US? Not so much.

    And lets not forget the timeframe of the Eisenhower scenario depicted above. Simply pulling an incident out without more detail on what was going on at the time (and the article author briefly cruises over that) doesn’t provide the comparison aspect. The Cold War, MAD, and launch on warning were ruling the day then. Escalation was the fear and to claim that a US President would balk once war was occurring is a stretch. A better example would be far more current and using the Obama administration’s weak response to to Syria (a chemical and possibly biological WMD armed state) and Russia with Crimea/Ukraine. Geo-political aspects of a massive US withdrawal from Europe, a near shift from Europe to the Middle East and now, somewhat lazily, the Pacific, has allowed Russia to take bolder and bolder steps while thumbing their nose at the West.

    Russia allegedly takes down the entire nation of Estonia in a huge cyber attack, no one does anything but work on policy. Russia invades Georgia and recognizes two contentious areas, and complaints go to the UN (which Russia is a member of the Security Council) and not much occurs. Russia begins long range aviation patrols with its bombers in the Atlantic, Pacific, and North Sea and laments about how there isn’t a good response occur; and Russia begins flying off Alaska and California like they did during the Cold War. Russia walks into the Crimea and then, allegedly, the Ukraine and the US dawdles about whether or not to send arms and support to Ukraine as required by the 1994 Budapest Agreement (which US, UK and Russia all signed) which doesn’t guarantee support but requires assurances not to bother Ukraine so Ukraine would give the, at the time, third largest nuclear arsenal in the world.

    Bottom line: a Chinese attack on Taiwan would occur without US carrier strike groups in the area. Getting CSGs there would take at least a week and flying our aircraft to somewhere close (check that map again) requires agreements and logistical support that I’m not sure is readily available. And then what, start bombing Taiwan? Conduct an amphibious assault of our own into Chinese defenses not he island they would have had time to build up before enough US/Coalition forces arrived?

    Not to mention China cutting its own throat economically with the US since we’d simply default on the $3 trillion of debt China holds for us, stop or severely limit trade, impose sanctions, etc. Wars are expensive and without income you tend to go big at first and then trail off.

  8. War with China would have to go very badly for the US and its allies to consider strikes in mainland China. Elevating anti-missile defenses to a priority development will help counter China’s A2AD capability. China’s sea LOCs across the Indian Ocean are quite vulnerable to interdiction.

  9. @M.McGannon:

    “you’re going after key targets- Nuclear sites, command and control, major military installations and only as a last resort, major population centers.”

    WHY in the world do you insist that China must fight like America? When faced with bigger firepower, the only way to stop aggression is to make clear that major population centers will be hit.

    300? You do not think China has 300 nukes?

    WHY in the world would America want a nuclear war with China anyway? Spending $6 Trillion on the last two wars (Afghanistan and Iraq) and ending with over 10000 PTSD cases (disabled for life) is not enough? Now you want to fight China??


    1. Perhaps you forgot what you wrote “You can count on all cities with more than 100,000 population being nuked.”

      This is your statement, not mine. I was simply replying with the number of cities.

  10. China does not need to invade Taiwan, it will wait it out once all the US backed KMT that abandoned Chinese mainland and invaded Taiwan in 1949 have all died off, so the real Taiwanese can have their country back. Taiwan’s most important trading partner is China, US is 3rd and shrinking. War is most likely to happen due to Japan wanting to return to it’s war years of invading it’s neighbours.

    The local Chinese population will rally against any invader. They are very nationalistic. Regardless of an active military of 2.3 million and another 4 million in the militia and 1.5 million in armed security forces. US cannot deliver any sizeable land force into the Chinese mainland.

    Except for Desert Storm, US military has not won a war since WW2, fighting little countries and much inferior militaries.

    Russia and North Korea will not standby if it thinks there is potential for western domination over East Asia. By default that makes all of Japan & S Korea highly vulnerable. Japan with 95% urbanization, ½ the population lives in 2 metropolitan areas.

    Vietnam is a loyal Russian ally that allows Russian plans and navy to use Vietnam bases.

    So the big problem is uncontrollable contagion.

  11. Once China’s second strike is up to full availability the US Air Sea Battle plans will not be possible without inviting a response on the continental US. No president is ever going to trigger that. “The Aztlan Protocol” by Alderic Au explores this nightmare scenario and it does not turn out well for the US. The Pentagon, are inviting trouble with their focus on Air Sea Battle. Au’s thriller may be just a novel but it has a far better grasp of the essential geopolitical facts than Washington.

  12. ASB was not a plan as the author stated, rather, it was an operational concept. There is no situation where the President would have to order strikes on the PRC mainland, even an OPLAN is fluid. The author suggests that limited warfare has become alien to the US Military. Not sure what this guy’s background is, but it’s pretty presumptuous to suggest that military and civilian leaders in the DOD wouldn’t consider limited warfare options. Desert Fox, even Desert Storm achieved limited objectives.

    If China decides to attack Taiwan, the US military is going to have a difficult time operating close enough to the Taiwan Strait. It’s likely that our own bases in the region will fall under attack from ballistic missiles. Pursuing a denial approach with subs and anti-ship missiles may provide a partial solution, but won’t be enough to stop a determined PLA. Cruise missile strikes (and bombing missions, if it’s possible to get through their air defense systems) on C4ISR facilities, airfields, missile sites, POL facilities etc. opposite Taiwan will be necessary to blunt the PLA’s drive. Blockades, denial and other half-measures will not work, cyber is a joke.

  13. China maybe outclassed by the US by a mammoth margin.
    However it aint NV/Iraq or Afghanistan. It has firepower, though not as formidable as the US,can cause
    massive destruction something Mao could only dream of in the 50s.
    The thing is any US conventional/nuclear attack on Mailand China will trigger a PLA response which US anti missile defences cannot stop 100%.

  14. “Military leaders therefore ought to aim for a “defense-by-denial” strategy that avoids mainland strikes. ”

    This is stupid. It will fail, because it is impossible. Then, when it does fail, American leaders will be compelled to resort to strikes on the mainland anyway. Thus we’d get the worst of both worlds – failure to deter, and then increased risk of escalation after deterrence failed.

    The simple rule, which should be the basis for planning, procurement, training, and oft-repeated declaratory policy, is this:

    If China fires conventional weapons from the mainland at our forces, bases, or allies, we will respond by firing conventional weapons into the mainland. Tit for tat.