TAIPEI — A new RAND report challenges the US military to rethink a war with China. The report examines US and Chinese military capabilities in 10 operational areas, producing a “scorecard” for each, from four years: 1996, 2003, 2010, and 2017. Each of the scorecards evaluates capabilities in the context of geography and distance, each of the scorecards evaluates capabilities in the context of two scenarios: a Taiwan invasion and a Spratly Islands campaign. These scenarios center on locations that lie roughly 160 km and 940 km, respectively, from the Chinese coastline.
The 430-page report, U.S.-China Military Scorecard: Forces, Geography, and the Evolving Balance of Power, 1997-2017, was written by 14 scholars, including RAND’s wargaming whiz David Shlapak; modeling and simulation specialist Jeff Hagen; Kyle Brady, formerly with Lawrence Livermore; and operations researcher Michael Nixon.
This report is about muscle and machines, not about policy and political issues. This is an objective ‘where the rubber meets the road’ analysis that looks at China’s capabilities at clobbering US air bases in the region, sinking US aircraft carriers with new anti-ship ballistic missiles, and turning American spy and communication satellites into space junk.
The scorecard format with analysis gives the reader a sports-like feel for how bad things can go for the US military in a conflict with China. The 10 scorecards each address relative US and Chinese capabilities in a specific operational areas: air (1-4), maritime (5-6), space, cyber, and nuclear (7-10).
Scorecard 1: Chinese Capability to Attack Air Bases
Since the 1996-97 Taiwan Strait Missile Crisis, it has been assumed that China would cripple Taiwan’s air bases with multi-layered saturation attacks using short-range ballistic missiles (SRBM). However, today that now includes Kadena Air Base on Okinawa. The number of SRBMs from 1996 have grown from a handful to around 1,400, and the circular error probability has shrunk from hundreds of meters to as little as five meters. Even a relatively small number of accurate missiles could shut Kadena down during the critical days at the outset of a war, and “committed attacks might close a single base for weeks.” This will force American aircraft to fly from longer distances to engage Chinese forces, e.g. Alaska, Hawaii, and Guam.
Scorecard 2: Air Campaigns Over Taiwan and the Spratly Islands
China has replaced half of its fighter fleet with fourth-generation fighters. The impact of this effort has been to narrow, but not close, the qualitative gap between the US and China air forces. However, this has led to problems creeping into protecting Taiwan in 2017. By that year, “US commanders would be unable to find the basing required for US forces to prevail in a seven-day campaign,” but they could relax their time requirement and prevail in a more extended campaign, but this would entail leaving ground and naval forces vulnerable to Chinese air operations for a longer period of time.
Scorecard 3: US Penetration of Chinese Airspace
Chinese air defense advances have made it more difficult to operate in or near Chinese airspace. In 1996, China’s surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems were largely copies of older Russian systems, such as the 35 km range SA-2. By 2010, China deployed roughly 200 launchers for “double-digit SAMs” with more sophisticated seekers with ranges of up to 200 km. The analysis showed net gains for China from 1996 to 2017 with improved integrated air defense systems, fourth generation fighters, and airborne early warning aircraft. However, in a Spratly Island scenario, far from mainland China, the U.S. ability to penetrate targets is far more robust due to the use of stealth aircraft and a much smaller target set.
Scorecard 4: US Capability to Attack Chinese Air Bases
While penetrating Chinese airspace is more dangerous, the development of American-made precision weapons has given the US more options and greater punch in a Taiwan scenario. Examples such as the Joint Direct Attack Munitions and longer-range standoff weapons give the US some advantages in China’s backyard. The report modeled attacks on the 40 Chinese air bases within unrefueled fighter range of Taiwan. In 1996, the US could close down runways for an average of eight hours, and this increased to between two and three days by 2010, and remains roughly the same in 2017. “While ground attack represents a rare bright spot for relative US performance, it is important to note that the inventory of standoff weapons is finite, and performance in a longer conflict would depend on a wider range of factors.”
Scorecard 5: Chinese Anti-Surface Warfare Capabilities
China has a near obsession with US aircraft carriers since the US deployed two during the 1996-1997 Taiwan Strait Missile Crisis. A common joke now bandied about amongst China defense analysts is that when there is a crisis, the US president always asks ‘where is the nearest aircraft carrier?’ But in a future crisis, the first thing a Chinese president asks is ‘where is the nearest US aircraft carrier?’
China has finally reached the point where it can hold at risk US aircraft carriers with new anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBM), the first ever deployed by any nation. Though the report indicates that the kill chain still makes ASBMs vulnerable to US countermeasures, the US has to face the fact that China has developed a capability to locate and engage US carriers that will only improve in the years to come. At present, China has an increasingly robust over-the-horizon intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capability, which includes military imaging satellites. Along with the ASBM threat, the US must consider the increased sophistication of Chinese submarines armed with cruise missiles and torpedoes.
Scorecard 6: US Anti-Surface Warfare Capabilities Versus Chinese Naval Ships
The US does a far better job preventing a Chinese amphibious landing on Taiwan. Thanks largely to submarines, air power, and surface forces, the report indicates that 40 percent of Chinese amphibious shipping would be destroyed during a seven-day campaign, “losses that would likely wreck havoc on the organizational integrity of a landing force.” However, China is improving its anti-submarine warfare helicopters and ships, and is continuing to expand its fleet of amphibious vessels. Since 1996, China has doubled its amphibious lift capabilities, and its fleet now includes four large Type 071-class transport docks that can carry four air cushion landing craft.
Scorecard 7: US Counterspace Capabilities Versus Chinese Space Systems
In response to China’s increased dependence on satellites and worrying signs it was developing counterspace weapons, in 2002 the US began funding selective counterspace capabilities. This includes the creation in 2004 of the Counter Communication System to jam enemy communications satellites. The report also suggests the US develop high-energy laser systems to dazzle Chinese satellites’ optical sensors, and task ballistic missile interceptors to shoot down Chinese satellites. These recommendations are largely the result of China’s 2007 shoot-down of one of its weather satellites, and not a unilateral decision made by the US.
Scorecard 8: Chinese Counterspace Capabilities Versus US Space Systems
China has tested three kinetic anti-satellite missile tests since 2007 at low earth orbits (LEO). China also operates laser-ranging stations that could dazzle US satellites or track their orbits to facilitate other forms of attack. The report found that threats to U.S. communication satellites in the form of jamming and imaging systems that are in LEO are severe. The report argues that “more worrisome” are the China’s Russian-made jamming systems and high-powered dual-use radio transmitters, which might be used against US communication and ISR satellites.
Scorecard 9: US and Chinese Cyberwarfare Capabilities
China’s cyber units have been in operation since the late 1990s and are closely tied or operated by the Chinese military. Though the US has suffered from serious attacks, most notably the recent US Office of Personnel Management incident, the report indicates the US “might not fare as poorly in the cyber domain as many assume” during wartime. The US Cyber Command works closely with the US National Security Agency and can draw heavily on the latter’s sophisticated toolkit. Despite the US advantage during wartime, both will “nevertheless face significant surprises” and US logistical efforts are particularly vulnerable, since they rely on unclassified networks on the Internet.
Scorecard 10: US and Chinese Strategic Nuclear Stability
This scorecard evaluates the survivability of both sides’ second-strike nuclear capabilities in the face of a first strike. China has improved its nuclear forces steadily since 1996 with the introduction of new intercontinental ballistic missiles, such as the DF-31/31A and an upgraded MIRV-capable DF-5. The navy has also deployed their first operational JL-2 submarine-launched ballistic missile aboard its Jin-class submarines. Despite these new capabilities China does not have the capability of denying the US a second strike capability. The U.S. has a numerical warhead advantage of 13 to one.
Conclusions and Recommendations
The report states that over the next five to 15 years, if US and Chinese forces remain on current trajectories, Asia will witness a progressively receding frontier of US dominance. Chinese forces will become more capable of establishing temporary local air and naval superiority at the outset of a conflict, and this might enable China to “achieve limited objectives without defeating US forces.”
“Perhaps more worrisome from a military-political perspective, the ability to contest dominance might lead Chinese leaders to believe that they could deter US intervention in a conflict between it and one or more of its neighbors.” This could undermine US deterrence and could during a crisis tip the balance of debate in China as to the advisability of using force.
The report recommends that the US work to shape Chinese leaders misperceptions that US military strength is weakening in the region and emphasize there are serious risks of engaging US military forces.
Procurement priorities should be adjusted to emphasize base redundancy and survivability, more standoff weapons, stealthy survivable fighters and bombers, improved submarine and anti-submarine warfare capabilities, and a robust space and counterspace program. The US military should also make rapid cuts to legacy fighter forces and decrease the emphasis on large aircraft carriers.
The US military should consider an active denial strategy that uses Asia’s strategic depth and “enables US forces to absorb initial blows and fight their way back.” Defense of static positions near China “may simply become unaffordable.”
Political-military relations with regional nations should be expanded with an emphasis on wartime access to facilities and bases, particularly in the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia and Malaysia.
Despite these efforts, the US faces serious challenges in the region. China has a narrower focus on a range of regional missions, especially Taiwan, which allows it to optimize its forces for those jobs. “Geographically — the ‘bones of strategy’ — vastly complicates the challenges faced by the United States.” The close proximity of China to areas of potential conflict allows it to capitalize on relatively secure staging areas. “This enables the PLA to focus largely on ‘tooth’ (combat forces) as opposed to ‘tail’ (support assets).” In contrast, the US must maintain an extensive sea and air logistical capacity, along with a largely space-based communication system, that are vulnerable to disruption by China.