war on the rocks

The Real Problem with Strikes on Mainland China

August 4, 2015

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.”