Competitive Mobilization: How Would We Fare Against China?


Earlier this year, War on the Rocks contributors David Barno and Nora Bensahel argued that U.S. policymakers and military planners should think about how to prepare for the next big war. Their stimulating essay identified six gaps — munitions, weapons platforms, manpower, planning, technology, and stamina — that a big war against a peer competitor could reveal.

This important article is a call for the United States to improve its planning for mobilization. Part of such planning should consider the competitive aspects of mobilization. In war, mobilization will favor some players and disadvantage others. Mobilization can be a risky, even debilitating act. By fully understanding the competitive aspects of mobilization, decision-makers can tailor mobilization to their advantage, exploiting relative strengths while avoiding vulnerabilities. Crucially, U.S. officials can substantially reinforce deterrence by publicly displaying an understanding of the competitive aspects of mobilization, including how the United States would employ its competitive advantages against adversaries during a prospective mobilization. As we will see, the United States has experienced both the benefits and perils of mobilization, along with missed opportunities for enhancing deterrence.

Defining mobilization

Mobilization entails the substantial and exceptional displacement, through either government conscription or bidding, of a country’s labor and productive capacity that would otherwise naturally go to civilian purposes. For the purposes of this article, mobilization extends beyond calling up reserve forces for active duty. Indeed, the U.S. reserve components have been an “operational reserve” for 15 years (and longer than that for the U.S. Air Force), regularly and continuously augmenting ongoing operations.

In the current context, under what circumstances would the United States have to mobilize substantial resources that would otherwise reside in the civilian economy? The Pentagon’s 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) implies the answer is “never.” The QDR’s introduction stated, “if deterrence fails at any given time, U.S. forces will be capable of defeating a regional adversary in a large-scale multiphase campaign, and denying the objectives of — or imposing unacceptable costs on — a second aggressor in another region.” But what exactly is a “regional adversary?” North Korea and Iran? Or Russia and China? Even more confidently, the next paragraph declared, “With the President’s Budget, our military will be able to defeat or deny any aggressor.”

If that assertion was beyond question, Barno and Bensahel need not have bothered writing their article. But if there are doubts about U.S. preparations for war against looming peer challengers, policymakers and planners should ponder the competitive aspects of mobilization. Let us assume, contrary to the 2014 QDR, that standing U.S. forces (active and reserve) are revealed to be inadequate for a “big war” with a peer adversary. Insufficient force structure, higher-than-expected attrition, ineffective operational concepts, misjudged inventories, and more combine to require some form of mobilization. What should decision-makers know about mobilization before they reach this point?

Escalation dominance in mobilization

Manpower and production mobilization are likely to provide a competitive advantage for one side during a conflict (the temporal aspect to this is discussed below). World War II provides a straightforward if prosaic example. Paul Kennedy, in his book The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, calculated that by 1943 the combined armaments production of the Allies exceeded the total for the Axis by a ratio of 3.4 to 1. The Axis strategy of employing major combat operations to quickly seize objectives sparked a disastrous mobilization competition that practically guaranteed its defeat.

Of course, the Axis operational concept envisioned rapid decisive operations that would induce political collapse before adversary mobilization could be brought to bear. That concept worked for Germany’s spring 1940 offensives in the West; Britain’s mobilization of fighter aircraft production was the only notable exception. But Adolf Hitler’s Germany vastly underestimated the rate at which the Soviet Union would mobilize. Within days of Germany’s eastward invasion in June 1941, Soviet industrial equipment was on its way from the western Soviet Union to the Ural Mountains in the interior to restart arms production. And within weeks, new Soviet army formations were entering the fight almost as rapidly as the invaders were destroying Soviet units. Germany was defeated by a massive mobilization miscalculation.

Japan’s war plan for late 1941 similarly counted on a rapid operation that would lead to a political settlement. In this, Japan’s decision-makers may have neglected that the United States was already mobilizing, a fact that would bolster U.S. resistance to a truce regardless of the shock created by Japan’s attacks on Pearl Harbor and East Asia. In July 1940, a full 17 months before the attack on Pearl Harbor, Congress passed the Two-Ocean Naval Expansion Act, which began the production of 18 aircraft carriers, 29 cruisers, 115 destroyers, 42 submarines, and 15,000 aircraft. Much more would follow after America officially entered the war.

In November 1940, Hitler surmised, “the United States will not be a threat to us in decades — not in 1945, but at the earliest 1970 or 1980.” A ridiculous thought in retrospect, but perhaps understandable at the time. In 1939, the U.S. Army consisted of 100,000 poorly equipped soldiers, a force smaller than Romania’s army. In 1945, the United States would have 14.9 million people under arms. Axis strategy centered on an unexamined assumption of rapid political settlement and brushed aside escalation dominance in mobilization.

Mobilization’s political risks

Two decades later, the United States would find itself on the losing side of a mobilization competition in Vietnam. In 1964, the United States had a low-level advisory presence in South Vietnam that was preventing a communist takeover, but failing to end the conflict or stabilize the country.

On August 7, 1964, the U.S. Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution to authorize stepped-up conventional military operations in Southeast Asia. Five days earlier, North Vietnamese patrol boats had fired on two U.S. Navy destroyers sailing in the gulf (though U.S. officials believed in error that a second attack occurred two days later). A major U.S. buildup in Vietnam and a supporting mobilization would begin the following winter. On February 6, 1965, Viet Cong infantry attacked the Pleiku airbase in South Vietnam, killing nine U.S. servicemen and wounding 128 more. Operation Rolling Thunder, the three-year bombing campaign of North Vietnam, began a week later. In March, the United States deployed two battalions of Marines from Okinawa to protect the airbase at Da Nang, beginning a rapid upsurge in U.S. conventional ground troops across South Vietnam. By September 30, 1965 there were 129,611 U.S. military personnel in the country, a number that would grow to 537,377 by September 1968.

Conducting a major conventional operation in Vietnam required the United States to expand its ground forces (Army and Marine Corps) from a total of 1,163,015 personnel in June 1964 to 1,877,595 in June 1968, an increase of 61 percent. This buildup required an expansion of conscription, which was soon deeply unpopular (the number of men conscripted by the Selective Service System more than tripled between 1964 and 1966). The U.S. economy was nearly fully employed in 1965, but greater conscription drawing from the civilian labor pool and the bidding over production resources for the war caused inflation to accelerate sharply, invariably a catalyst for political instability. In less than three years, political support for President Lyndon Johnson’s war policy collapsed and he declined to run for reelection. By 1969, the only politically acceptable course in the United States was “Vietnamization” and an end to mobilization. Defeat followed a few years later.

North Vietnam and its Viet Cong allies in the south also had to mobilize during this period. Compared to the United States, these players enjoyed escalation dominance, largely due to political will. The Vietnamese communists were able to sustain political support for mobilization longer than the United States. The goal of Vietnamese unification, in concert with authoritarian rule, provided the communist side with a strong political-military advantage during the mobilization competition, an advantage the communists exploited in the design of their political-military operations.

It is almost certainly not the case that the August 1964 attacks by the North Vietnamese patrol boats and the February 1965 attack on the Pleiku airbase were specifically designed to trigger an unpopular and ultimately war-ending U.S. mobilization. Even if triggering a U.S. mobilization was not such a gambit, the Vietnamese Communists nevertheless understood very quickly that they possessed escalation dominance regarding the political sustainment of each side’s respective mobilization strategies. Mobilization is a competitive act.

How to mobilize competitively

When considering prospective mobilization cases for the United States, the “pacing scenario” would likely be major combat against China. It will be critical for U.S. decision-makers to understand their mobilization advantages and vulnerabilities related to such a contingency.

Prospective mobilization advantages and vulnerabilities would be highly contingent on the rules of engagement and operating concepts employed. For example, U.S. policymakers might proscribe kinetic attacks on Chinese territory to avoid escalation concerns. Likewise, the U.S. operational concept may restrict the focus of combat operations to only deployed Chinese military forces, with attacks on other centers of gravity out of bounds. Such rules of engagement would likely accentuate the role of attrition in the conflict, and thus the importance of mobilization.

In a prospective war against China in East Asia, air and space superiority will be contested. Significant surface naval and ground operations would be either untenable or very costly until one of the combatants established air and space superiority. During the battle for air and space dominance, attrition of platforms and expenditure of munitions could be intense. In this event, both sides might end up mobilizing their respective aerospace sectors to replace combat losses and to expand aerospace combat capacity during the battle for air and space dominance.

The United States would likely have a large competitive advantage in a mobilization competition in the air and space domains, even if it would take time for that advantage to build (Barno and Bensahel noted how suppliers are currently struggling to meet demands for certain munitions for today’s low intensity conflicts). The United States has by far the largest aerospace industrial sector in the world, with leading-edge suppliers across the production chain. There are military fixed-wing and large commercial aircraft assembly operations in at least six states, with a significant U.S. civilian aerospace sector providing a latent production base in the event of a prolonged mobilization of aerospace production. It is certainly true that much of this civilian aerospace capacity could not be quickly converted to military production. But the United States would be better off than a competitor that had very little such capacity in any form.

Over the past two decades, China has made impressive improvements with its military aircraft production. It produces its own fourth-generation strike-fighter aircraft (such as the J-11 Flanker variant and its successors) and is nearing production of two fifth-generation fighter aircraft types (J-20 and J-31). However, China is mostly a follower on military aircraft electronics, still struggles with reliable engine technology, and has relatively little civilian aerospace capacity it could mobilize for wartime production. In a hypothetical attrition battle for air and space dominance, the United States would likely enjoy mobilization dominance.

For a prospective wartime shipbuilding competition, the roles would be reversed. According to a recent report from the U.S. National Defense University on the global shipbuilding industry, in 2014, U.S. shipbuilders of all types billed $25.5 billion in revenue, about 9.9 percent of the global shipbuilding market, with the majority of this military-related orders. China’s shipbuilding revenue for 2014 was $79.4 billion, over triple the U.S. capacity, making China the largest shipbuilder in the world. While U.S. shipbuilding capacity has experienced long-term decline, China’s shipbuilders, enjoying competitive labor rates, have grown to control about 35 percent of the global bulk carrier market, where the United States has a comparatively minimal presence. China possesses large latent shipbuilding capacity and would likely enjoy escalation dominance in a warship-building competition, especially if attacks against Chinese shipbuilders were prohibited.

Finally, in the China scenario, ground forces and associated manpower mobilization would not likely feature in the conflict, at least not initially. That is likely good news for the United States since large-scale manpower mobilization has been a recurrent political vulnerability and a competitive weakness that U.S. planners should aim to avoid.

Therefore, in a mobilization competition against a major power like China, the United States will likely look to air and space power for a large competitive advantage. The United States would enjoy technical and production advantages in these domains. Mobilizing the aerospace sector would be less politically risky than a major manpower mobilization, which in any case would be useless until the United States could first establish air and naval superiority and access to Eurasia. Finally, the United States would have to employ its air and space superiority in a counter-naval role to offset China’s mobilization advantage in shipbuilding.

Preparing for competitive mobilization

Mobilization is a competition. But dominating a mobilization competition is not enough. A player still needs a complete strategy with a sound theory of success and operational concept in order to succeed.

Finally, decision-makers should incorporate mobilization into their overall concepts for deterrence. This will mean communicating competitive strategies for mobilization both to internal audiences and to allies and adversaries. Mobilization plans aren’t just for war — they should be a component of peacetime competitive strategies.


Robert Haddick is a Visiting Senior Fellow at the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies and the author of Fire on the Water: China, America, and the Future of the Pacific.


Image: The guided-missile destroyer USS Fitzgerald (DDG 62) maneuvers with the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy Luyang-class destroyer Guangzhou (DDGHM 168) off the coast of North Sulawesi, Indonesia. Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Ian Schoenberg, U.S. Navy.