Where the Wargames Weren’t: Assessing 10 Years of U.S.-Chinese Military Assessments
Over the past 10 years, the U.S. defense community has produced a tremendous volume of analytical work on the military balance between the United States and China. Think tanks, scholars, and military institutions have weighed in, contributing valuable insights. Unsurprisingly, though, there remain noteworthy disagreements, gaps, and unquestioned assumptions within this vast body of research. Highlighting and addressing these points will help the United States better meet the challenge it faces in the Indo-Pacific.
Two major schools of prescriptive thought have evolved on how to respond in case of Chinese aggression in the Western Pacific. Those in the “direct approach” camp favor penetration of anti-access/area denial systems to enable U.S. forces to contribute directly to the conflict. Adherents of the “indirect approach” favor a variety of peripheral strategies to frustrate Chinese aims, hold assets at risk, or apply pressure through various means outside of the main theater of operations. Recognizing these schools can help sharpen the debate between them. This will benefit U.S. policymakers seeking to craft the optimal strategy while possibly creating further ambiguity for those seeking to craft a response in Beijing.
Even as the literature on a potential U.S.-Chinese conflict grows, topics such as proactive conflict termination and alliance dynamics remain understudied. Understanding the conditions, short of capitulation, in which a conflict might be brought to a conclusion will prove critical to managing escalation. Likewise, modeling the complexities of multinational military operations dispersed over thousands of kilometers is as important as understanding various operating concepts. Incorporating these strategically critical concepts into holistic assessments of the military balance is necessary to appreciate how they affect, and are affected by, more straightforward elements of military operations and strategy.
Finally, studies to date have suffered from several failures of imagination. While scenarios envisioning a direct invasion of Taiwan have received no shortage of analysis, other plausible roads to war get little or no attention. Further, the existing analyses overwhelmingly suppose that war will arise as the result of deliberate calculation — a historically reckless assumption. Nuclear dynamics in a high-intensity conflict likewise receive a narrow treatment, with analysts tending either to dismiss the possibility of nuclear use or confine it to a handful of readily avoided scenarios.
Scoping the Project
Conducting a critical review of the U.S. literature on military competition with China is a daunting task. This literature includes wargames, campaign analyses, qualitative analyses, and other methodologies published in a variety of formats. To avoid the pitfalls associated with comparing these analytical apples and oranges, I have tried to focus on their assumptions, findings, and recommendations to draw conclusions about the state of the literature. When I reference specific reports in the paragraphs that follow, it is typically to illustrate a trend common to works across the review. While some projects undoubtedly employed more rigorous analytical methods than others in reaching their conclusions, my review makes no attempt to assign more value to the findings of one report over another. Instead, I attempted to highlight topics of strategic significance, including large-scale force employment, nuclear dynamics, war termination, and cooperation and interoperability with allies and partners.
In writing this literature review, I sought to limit my reading to relatively recent works of appropriate significance and scope. Due to the constantly evolving nature of the military balance, my research included only reports published in the last 10 years, or during the Xi Jinping era, with preference for more recent publications. The reports that I deemed significant either contributed unique insights, such as Eric Heginbotham’s work on Chinese perspectives of the military balance, or garnered considerable attention in the media or among the public, such as the Center for a New American Security’s tabletop exercise before Congress. Appropriately scoped reports were those focused on military competition, rather than great power competition in general, and those that took a holistic perspective of combat, rather than focusing on a single domain or campaign. Further, the reports I selected examined the dynamics of conflict, or interactions of the two forces, rather than describing a force and its capabilities in a vacuum. Limiting the scope of my project necessarily resulted in the exclusion of some valuable and important works in the field. But I believe it offers a comprehensive perspective nonetheless.
Schools of Strategic Thought
The most significant disagreement among scholars concerns the optimal military approach to deter and, if necessary, defeat the People’s Liberation Army. Though the literature features a diverse assortment of nuanced strategies, they can be roughly categorized as direct and indirect approaches.
At the most basic level, the direct approaches tend to support a strategy of muscular intervention, often facilitated by forcible entry operations and the destruction, disintegration, or at least suppression of anti-access/area denial systems. These direct approaches largely support the Pentagon’s Joint Concept for Access and Maneuver in the Global Commons, which evolved out of the AirSea Battle concept. The Center for a New American Security’s Dangerous Straits wargame, for example, recommended bolstering existing warfighting concepts. These recommendations included procuring additional submarines and “munitions of choice” and increasing force survivability through dispersal, hardening, and enhanced access agreements. Owen Cote’s “One if by Invasion, Two if by Coercion” likewise identifies ways to hone existing strategic concepts. He advocates leveraging the U.S. attack submarine advantage to devastate the People’s Liberation Army Navy fleet, employing “submarine-bomber synergies” to facilitate targeting, and endorses Agile Combat Employment with the qualification that it is best suited for use in the second island chain.
Other authors, however, offer strategies that diverge significantly from the Pentagon’s current tack. Stephen Biddle and Ivan Oelrich explicitly call for the Department of Defense to abandon AirSea Battle and suggest that the U.S. and allies instead contest areas beyond the first island chain by acquiring and deploying anti-access/area denial capabilities of their own. Michael O’Hanlon’s paper, which considers the military dynamics of a maritime blockade of Taiwan, likewise cautions against headlong efforts. Rather than breaking a maritime blockade or penetrating anti-access/area denial systems by assault, he recommends a military strategy of attacking Chinese sea lines of communication paired with severe economic sanctions aimed at bringing China to the negotiating table.
This public debate over force employment indicates healthy dissent within the community. Indeed, it could actually strengthen deterrence by complicating adversary risk calculus. An ongoing analytical dialogue on the optimal strategy for addressing a threat could signal to Beijing that the ways and means of a U.S. response are not written in stone. Such uncertainty could prevent optimizing for a particular response and force potential aggressors to weigh the risks of a range of U.S. strategies.
In reviewing the canon of works on the U.S.-Chinese military balance, two topics stand out as meriting additional emphasis in future analyses. The first concerns efforts by one or both sides to de-escalate a conflict. While the reports offered many recommendations to bolster deterrence, few consider the conditions under which a conflict might be de-escalated. Once deterrence fails, managing escalation and seeking opportunities for conflict termination become matters of strategic importance.
As a welcome exception to the rule, Dr. O’Hanlon’s proposal details how his approach to countering a blockade of Taiwan might facilitate a favorable negotiated settlement before the conflict escalates out of control. Incorporating de-escalation and conflict termination into analyses of the U.S.-Chinese military balance will require identification of off-ramps and decision points, testing of military concepts that can facilitate (or at least not forestall) de-escalation, and thorough understanding of the conditions under which various parties might be willing to negotiate or disengage. In discussing the multifaceted concept of “war control,” the People’s Liberation Army’s 2020 Science of Military Strategy lists several conditions under which conflicts should be terminated, and explicitly acknowledges the role of force in “creat[ing] favorable conditions for political negotiations.” Future analyses should incorporate Chinese concepts on managing escalation and conflict termination while exploring opportunities to exploit risks that might bring them to the negotiating table.
The second topic concerns the fact that the outcome of any conflict with China in the Western Pacific will depend, to a large extent, on U.S. allies and partners. Thus, political agreements with these states, the military capacity and effectiveness of their forces, and their interoperability with U.S. forces may all prove key issues. For example, if Beijing attempts to take Taiwan by force, U.S. capabilities and warfighting concepts might be irrelevant if Taiwan’s armed forces cannot prevent a rapid coup de main. There have been too few attempts to analyze the integration of U.S. and allied or partner capabilities and fewer still that rigorously modeled allied and partner warfighting. A notable exception is the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ recent wargame, which effectively modeled the defensive efforts of Taiwan’s armed forces in delaying a Chinese invasion. Modeling the contributions of allies and partners, particularly those who will be the principal combatants, is necessary but insufficient. The U.S. defense community should test and develop concepts for how the United States, allies, and partners will wage a multinational campaign. These concepts should, at a minimum, support command and control and intelligence-sharing over great distances in the face of hostile intervening forces while effectively addressing operational security and signature management concerns.
A Failure of Imagination
It is not difficult to understand why some topics and concepts receive disproportionate analytical attention. The scientific research community has even established a metric, known as “topic prominence,” to track the tendency for topics to generate momentum, demand, and ultimately research funding. But in the current context, this narrow conception of the threat environment is exactly the “failure of imagination” that the 9/11 Commission Report identified as so dangerous several decades ago.
Not surprisingly, Taiwan scenarios remain particularly prominent. Seven of the 10 analyses I reviewed consider Chinese efforts to retake the island, with the majority focused on an invasion. Taiwan might well represent the most likely road to war, and an invasion could be the threat that the United States should optimize for. However, other roads to war, perhaps through the Spratley, Paracel, or Senkaku islands or Scarborough Shoal, merit attention as well. Further, conflict could arise out of a crisis resulting from an accident, miscommunication, or other factors outside of the realm of deliberate state policy. It is not difficult to imagine how a conflict arising from a maritime accident, for example, could create dynamics in which leaders on all sides operate reactively without the benefit of assembled forces or carefully selected courses of action. In any of these cases, the military and geopolitical situation could differ significantly from the most prominent scenarios in the literature.
History suggests that the likelihood we have correctly identified the road to the next war is low. To quote former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, “When it comes to predicting the nature and location of our next military engagements, since Vietnam, our record has been perfect. We have never once gotten it right.”
A second failure of imagination concerns the conditions under which a belligerent could perceive military or political utility in the use of nuclear weapons. A number of studies either discount nuclear use or focus almost entirely on a single impetus and fail to identify specific causal chains. In the camp of those that discount the likelihood of nuclear use, Dr. Cote argues that asymmetry of interests would prevent U.S. first use, while China will remain deterred due to its inability to limit damage.
The presumed catalyst for nuclear use that dominated the literature concerns U.S. strikes on the Chinese mainland, typically at anti-access/area denial nodes, that threaten or give the perception of threatening Chinese strategic second-strike capabilities. The Center for a New American Security’s Dangerous Straits wargame illustrated this dynamic when the red team, played by noted China experts, responded to attacks on the mainland that incidentally threatened the regime’s retaliatory capability with a nuclear demonstration off Hawaii. Likewise, RAND’s War with China: Thinking Through the Unthinkable assesses the risk of nuclear escalation as low with the stipulation that Beijing may consider nuclear use if “U.S. conventional strikes include or are perceived to include capabilities that are critical to China’s strategic deterrent.”
Some reports acknowledge this possibility and advise against striking targets on the Chinese mainland. However prudent that advice may be, none of the reports delve into the makeup of the Chinese anti-access/area denial system, consider which components of that system are critical to China’s assured second strike, or weigh the values of potential targets relative to risks.
Even if one concludes that the risk of attacking any mainland target is prohibitively high, there are other paths to nuclear use that warrant exploration and received none in the works I reviewed. For example, a holistic analysis of nuclear dynamics should include some consideration of the effects of dual-use weapon systems in the fog of a high-intensity conflict. Alternatively, the Chinese Communist Party could consider nuclear use if losing a conventional conflict threatened the legitimacy of the regime.
Many of those who are sanguine about the potential for avoiding nuclear escalation cling to the comforting notion that decisions are made by unitary rational actors operating with clear and complete information. But this isn’t always the case, and there is more than one road to nuclear war. The most valuable analyses of U.S.-Chinese military dynamics will be those that explore nuclear incentives and decision points during high-intensity conflict.
The security studies community has produced a body of literature on the U.S.-Chinese military balance that is impressive in scope but still maturing. By focusing analysis on understudied topics and adopting a more expansive view of relevant concepts and scenarios, the community can advance the state of the literature while continuing to provide a critical service to the policy and warfighting communities. Analysts from each of the major schools of thought should not only refine their prescriptions but also engage with and challenge the works of their peers. The best analyses will withstand the scrutiny of public debate, while weaker analyses will not, and the fitness of the literature as a whole will improve as a result.
Future analyses should also consider opportunities for conflict termination on terms favorable to the United States, allies, and partners. Likewise, these works should dive into the mechanics of multinational campaigns in order to identify areas of friction and propose organizational and operational concepts that will harness the strengths of the constituents. The analytical community should take a more expansive view of conflict scenarios to consider how differing combinations of geopolitical factors affect military dynamics. They should also diligently analyze all plausible roads to nuclear use in the midst of a high-intensity conflict. Crucially, the most useful analysis of any of these topics will likely take place within a holistic assessment of the military balance, where the interactions of all relevant factors can be observed.
Matthew Tetreau is an active-duty Army strategist and graduate student at Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the United States Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.