The United States faces an unveiled threat from China. Beijing has made clear, in its public pronouncements and its strategic doctrine, that it seeks to conquer Taiwan and engorge the whole of the Western Pacific, ultimately bending Asia’s political structures to its will. The U.S., and the world at large, would be far better served by deterring China than by being forced to defeat it.
The issue, however, is the marginal nature of the military balance.
Thus, the U.S. must take five steps immediately to try to prevent a war with China, by improving America’s deterrence credibility and combat capabilities before hostilities threaten to erupt. Those steps are ensuring Ukraine’s victory in its war against Russia, freezing U.S. Navy fleet retirements, marshaling additional aerial basing within the Philippine Sea, expanding air and naval logistics, and being prepared to hit targets in mainland China if war should occur.
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Deterrence requires two elements — the military capability to implement a strategy if hostile action occurs, and the political credibility to follow through on such a strategy. The two are as intertwined as the double helix of a DNA molecule. Absent political credibility, even the most powerful state will face questions over its commitments and suffer probing against its periphery. Absent the military capabilities on full display that can counter and drive back an assault — or punish one severely enough to dissuade it — then an enemy’s aggression often is the result.
The Western Pacific military balance is extraordinarily close. China’s navy — and its People’s Liberation Army (PLA) more generally — have greatly improved their capabilities over the past decade.
Still, the PLA faces difficulties: It appears to lack experience with combined-arms and joint warfare of any kind; it has a massive stockpile of missiles but may struggle to push forward its reconnaissance units enough to track U.S. forces; its aerial tanker fleet is insufficient to sustain a fighter screen in the Philippine Sea, and it has only limited airborne-amphibious capabilities that restrict the size, number, and composition of PLA landing forces.
However, the U.S. Navy has deep-seated issues of its own. Basic ship-handling skills have declined, as have damage-control practices, on many Navy ships. U.S. crews are overstretched as the fleet shrinks and demand for combatants grows. U.S. munitions supplies are unclear in a long war, and U.S. reconnaissance and communications rely heavily on space-based assets that are likely to be disrupted in a conflict’s first week.
Most critically, the U.S. has a serious shortfall of logistical ships and aircraft, while all of its major bases today are within Chinese missile range. By contrast, although the First Island Chain restricts Chinese movement into the Pacific Ocean, combat within the First Island Chain would be easier for the PLA because it could generate forces and repair units from Chinese sovereign territory.
This raises two issues. First, the PLA may identify a brief window of opportunity to overturn the strategic balance in a short war — perhaps because of potential political turmoil in the U.S. that could reduce the odds of American intervention, perhaps because of an equipment disaster like the USS Bonhomme Richard fire that would reduce U.S. forces in the region, or perhaps because of a munitions or materiel imbalance in a specific set of weeks or months.
This was precisely the set of circumstances that Russia very probably identified in March 2021 to February 2022. The Kremlin decided that the U.S. and Europe would not respond rapidly enough to a Russian invasion of Ukraine in order to halt that attack and, once it was completed, Western sanctions would be moderate at worst.
A short-war logic is most likely to trigger a PLA invasion. Indeed, conventional militaries, as distinct from insurgencies, generally seek short wars because mobilization and high-end combat are expensive and politically destabilizing. However, the PLA would certainly consider the possibility of a longer war in its strategizing, and it might conclude, depending on perceived U.S. weaknesses, that it can deal with such a war, calling on its ability to repair ships more rapidly, produce weapons in greater quantities, and collapse the U.S. logistical system.
Defeating China — or, more preferrably, deterring it in the first instance — therefore requires the five steps outlined below to restore America’s military posture.
First, the United States must demonstrate its credible political commitment to fighting a long Eurasian rimland war, principally by supporting Ukraine against Russia. This would have a direct effect on Beijing: Proving the U.S.’s ability to manage one Eurasian coalition through a long war would demonstrate America’s diplomatic-strategic ability.
Equally relevant is U.S. allies’ perceptions. The concept of differentiated credibility — the notion that Eurasian actors in different regions are indifferent to U.S. actions throughout Eurasia, considering only their own narrow geographical interests — is prima facie incorrect. The reality is that Japan, Australia, South Korea and Taiwan all see Ukraine as a test-case of America’s Eurasian resolve and strategic skill.
Other allies like the Philippines, and potential allies like Vietnam or even India, hold similar views, albeit privately. While India may be unwilling to intervene in a Pacific War beyond its immediate sphere, Washington’s ability to sustain a major coalition will impress upon Indian strategists that the U.S. can be trusted as a linchpin state in a broader rimland war, the sort of war that could prompt Indian engagement.
Victory in Ukraine may not deter Chinese action against Taiwan, but it will make Taiwan’s defense more politically tenable.
Second, the U.S. Navy should freeze all ship retirements for the next ten years and ensure that it keeps submarines in the fleet.
U.S. submarines would be the Navy’s primary offensive weapon over the first few weeks of a war, when the Chinese reconnaissance-strike network is likely to remain robust. The more submarines the U.S. can muster, the faster it can degrade China’s network, cutting incisions through which other American and allied assets can strike.
More generally, every ship in the fleet must have a role, even those ships like the Littoral Combat Ships (LCSs) that are not optimized for high-end combat, simply to keep numbers high enough to maintain coverage in multiple areas.
Third, the U.S. Air Force and Navy must accelerate the distribution of their basing networks, shifting from the “superbase” system that has defined the U.S. military since the 1990s to a decentralized, survivable model.
Both services have identified the need for a more flexible base network that diminishes reliance on massive installations within Chinese missile range, such as their base at Yokosuka, Japan, while also creating alternatives to traditional logistical nodes such as Guam. The U.S. must accelerate this distribution process, building out airstrips in less vulnerable areas, while emphasizing joint basing agreements with the Philippines and Australia for U.S. warships and submarines.
Fourth, the U.S. should expand its air-naval logistics. The U.S. logistical fleet is too small for a major war; it is optimized for uncontested peacetime sustainment, not an open-ended Eurasian contingency. The U.S. also must increase its merchant marine, expand the number of officers capable of handling large supply ships, and conduct multiple mobilization tests for the Ready Reserve Force of ships that form the steel backbone of a sustained surge.
Moreover, the U.S. must grow its aerial tanker fleet to enable its tactical fighter aircraft to deploy more frequently during a Pacific war, or risk forcing those aircraft to be based within Chinese missile ranges instead.
Fifth, the U.S. must be prepared to hit targets on the Chinese mainland such as ports, airfields, command posts, munitions depots and repair facilities if a general war erupts. Who imagines that China does not plan to strike American targets, both near and far? Those five target sets will be crucial if a Chinese amphibious assault on Taiwan is to be slowed or disrupted for long enough to organize an effective defense.
Moreover, ports, airfields and repair facilities will be key to China’s plan for any sustained conflict. If the PLA can out-build the U.S. Navy, it can also out-repair it, putting ships back into the fight in weeks or months, while it takes the U.S. and its allies months or years to do the same.
The U.S. must actively prepare, and signal its preparation, to strike the Chinese mainland in the event that China unleashes hostilities against us or our allies — even as it should simultaneously take the other measures recommended here in the hope of deterring war in the Western Pacific in the first place.
Seth Cropsey, president of the Yorktown Institute, served as a naval officer and as deputy undersecretary of the Navy and assistant secretary of defense during the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations. He is the author of “Mayday: The Decline of American Naval Supremacy” (2013) and “Seablindness: How Political Neglect Is Choking American Seapower and What to Do About It” (2017).
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