The coming war with China — and why the U.S. will lose, unless changes are made
As the global public health crisis continues, it is useful to reflect that its cause is the actions and policies of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Their conduct has been reprehensible. They have suppressed whistleblowers and information, destroyed lab samples and prevented the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) from gaining access when it might have blunted a global outbreak.
With the accidental or intentional release of the Wuhan coronavirus, armed conflict with China is more real than ever before. That infection of the world by the Communist Party of China with a disease native to horseshoe bats was clearly an act of war.
China is a rising power and our economic rival. It is growing in military strength, and it does engage in illicit business practices, including hacking and theft of trade secrets.
Beijing has acted without regard for other nations’ sovereignty and its treatment of the Uighur people and response to the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan have settled, once again, any remaining question of whether the Chinese government has adequate respect for human rights.
Speculation by defense experts prior to this year assumed the first shots of a conflict with China would be fired in space against the U.S. defense and communications satellite networks. The coronavirus changed all that.
It is entirely possible that there was no intentional release of the Wuhan disease, but then a deliberate decision was made by the Communist leadership to spread it to the rest of the world to “level the playing field” economically.
While locking down Wuhan from the rest of China, President Xi Jinping allowed nearly five million people to flee Wuhan on international flights in the opening weeks of the pandemic. They traveled to Italy, Iran, the UK and the U.S., where Los Angeles and New York were the primary disembarking points.
Not surprisingly, New York City is the epicenter of the disease in the U.S., with its densely packed population making it an ideal breeding ground for the virus. It is impossible to see China’s international travel strategy out of Wuhan as anything but an attack on the rest of the world.
When the shooting starts — which may be weeks, months or years from now — the release of the Wuhan coronavirus on an unsuspecting world should be marked down as the opening salvo of the coming war with China.
Just how prepared are we for war with China?
Since the 1970s, the United States has had an All-Volunteer Force (AVF). From the beginning of the United States until the end of the Vietnam War, the country had always conscripted eligible male members of its population to fight — and win — the nation’s wars.
Our military is not geared toward an all-out world war, having gone to an all-volunteer force and a high-tech approach to war that will not survive a Chinese attack. (Photo: China Daily/Via Reuters)
Yet, the American experience in Vietnam broke the national consensus on the draft. Since then, policymakers have struggled to square public ambivalence about foreign intervention with what they’ve viewed as preserving the national interest.
Many military leaders who had fought in Vietnam supported it, realizing that those who volunteered to serve and fight in a war were usually more effective in combat than those who were simply drafted into service. Despite the strategic failures of the AVF in Afghanistan and Iraq, most military leaders today insist upon preserving the AVF rather than institute conscription.
The AVF has also fostered a degree of technological innovation that helped to keep the U.S. force smaller than it ordinarily would be—freeing up more Americans to, theoretically, become net contributors to America’s economic miracle.
Should a great power conflict erupt, though, the age of specialization in warfare will go away, and total warfare will again be upon us again.
Unfortunately, that time is staring us right in the face today.
Currently, the U.S. defense budget is 4.2 percent of America’s overall GDP. While the defense budget in the United States is considerably higher than the defense budgets of its major rivals, it is nonetheless at historic lows. For example, during the Korean War, it reached 15 percent of U.S. GDP.
More importantly, less than one percent of the American population (1.29 million Americans) serves in the military. A little-known aspect of this smaller professional military is that, in 2016, nearly one-in-five military deaths in Afghanistan were private military contractors.
The Chinese refer to this smaller, lighter, highly technological war-fighting machine as “American Magic.” Small ground forces supported by superior air power of both rotary- and fixed-wing varieties can defeat a much larger but less well-trained insurgency. That is primarily the kind of war the U.S. has fought since Vietnam.
Satellites, air power, cyber combat, drones, and a coterie of other technical assets have allowed for the relatively small U.S. military to punch above its weight. Yet, the U.S. military and its leaders have come to fetishize high-technology and rely far too much on it to make up for real weaknesses in its overall force structure.
Defense and communications satellites, along with the GPS network, will be China’s first target when the shooting starts. (Photo: India Defence News)
This “magic” will not save U.S. forces when a world war starts. U.S. policymakers today tend to forget that wars are still fought and won by men, not machines. American rivals have not forgotten this timeless truth.
China has a two-million man standing army — most of them conscripts. The U.S. has slightly more than 1.35 million, though only a tenth of those are combat troops. To be sure, the rest are the brains behind the technology, and would be a massive support for ground forces.
But China can put all two million troops in the field. Our space forces are superior, providing they survive the first attack. They probably won’t. From there, cyber and information warfare techniques will be used to sow chaos and degrade America’s resistance quotient—before U.S. military forces can even respond to an attack by either Russia or China.
Once U.S. forces deploy, with their technological abilities stunted, they will then have to penetrate intense anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) bubbles where U.S. warplanes and transports will likely suffer high attrition rates if they move in too close.
This is where technologists will assert hypersonic weapons will be key. But, suppose the United States does not have a robust enough arsenal of hypersonic vehicles, how long does Washington wait for enough of those units to be built in order to retaliate against those who attack American forces? What happens during that interregnum?
For that matter, how will these weapons systems operate effectively in a degraded environment where GPS signals were being jammed? The loss of America’s satellites will ensure that U.S. forces responsible for defending either Europe or rolling back a Chinese invasion of Taiwan will be too small, disoriented, and isolated away from America’s power base to effectively resist either a Russian invasion of Eastern Europe or a Chinese invasion of Taiwan.
While the All-Volunteer Force is more dedicated and effective in fighting insurgencies, it won’t be sufficient to defeat the two-million-strong army of China. (Photo: Jo Gromelski/Stars and Stripes)
The AVF model will simply be insufficient to supply the military with the force levels that will be required to go up against China’s 2.18 million-man military or Russia's more than one million-man force.
American troops will also have to learn to fight in a pre-1970s manner, where smart bombs will be dumber; quantity will be more preferable to quality; America’s global logistical supply chain will not be secured, and any war will be as bloody as either of the world wars.
It will also be a time when not even the American homeland will be spared from the devastation and chaos of a great power war. As the same would be true for the homelands of both China and Russia, the world will effectively return itself to the 1930’s, without ever considering the use of nuclear weapons.
That is when, of course, nukes will be used, by whichever side is the most desperate.
Such a war will be waged along the lines of previous great wars wherein great powers possessed of relatively equal capabilities leveled each other. Former Marine Col. Mark Cancian, a think-tank specialist in warfare, believes that after about nine months of intense peer conflict, attrition would grind the U.S. armed forces down to something resembling the military of a regional power.
The only thing that changes that assessment is if the United States can embrace a total warfare ethos— as it did in the first two world wars.
Such a total war, mind you, will devastate the world order. Premodern tribalism will quickly replace postmodern enlightenment — especially as the technological trappings of modernity were stripped away.
The exchange of nuclear weapons, not to mention biological and chemical, weapons will be a high probability as the combatants looked for leverage over one another, just as the Germans and Allies did with chemical weapons in the First World War, the longer that war ground on.
This would especially be the case after early-warning missile satellites were knocked out in the opening phases of a space war. Being blind in the nuclear age is rarely good.
Victory in a new world war would be Pyrrhic. What’s more, revolutionary politics in the countries of each combatant will likely become the norm, forever changing those societies, just as politics during the interwar years became radicalized.
Remember: the rise of communism in Russia and fascism in the Axis Powers occurred in responses to the devastation of the First World War and the inevitable Great Depression that followed.
U.S. policymakers should start planning now for the inevitable need to reconstitute the draft and should start anticipating how best to prepare for the demands placed upon its future force—and the country overall—in the event of another world war. When God told Noah to build the ark, he did not wait until the rain began.
Similarly, U.S. policymakers have a moral duty to better prepare the country for the coming storm right now. A lack of planning will ensure the worst possible scenario befalls the United States when a great power war begins.
Already, the forces of Russia, China, and Iran are conducting joint naval drills, Russian and American forces have already brawled with each other in Syria, and Russia has announced a key breakthrough in hypersonic weapons technology. It is only a matter of time before the situation becomes too tense, and the fighting begins.
Washington must be ready for this dark future, as preparations will likely help to delay it and give U.S. forces a fighting chance at victory.