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9/3/16

Far East: Is the US Ready for War With China?

China’s improved military capabilities, particularly for anti-access and area denial (A2AD), mean that the United States cannot count on gaining operational control, destroying China’s defenses and achieving decisive victory if a war occurred.

With that in mind, this report examines alternative paths that a war between the United States and China might take, losses and other effects on both sides, preparations that the United States should make and ways to balance U.S. war aims against costs should war occur.

We postulate that a war would be regional and conventional. It would be waged mainly by ships on and beneath the sea, by aircraft and missiles of many sorts, and in space (against satellites) and cyberspace (against computer systems).

We assume that fighting would start and remain in East Asia, where potential Sino-U.S. flash points and nearly all Chinese forces are located. Each side’s increasingly far-flung disposition of forces and growing ability to track and attack opposing forces could turn much of the Western Pacific into a “war zone,” with grave economic consequences.

It is unlikely that nuclear weapons would be used: Even in an intensely violent conventional conflict, neither side would regard its losses as so serious, its prospects so dire, or the stakes so vital that it would run the risk of devastating nuclear retaliation by using nuclear weapons first.

We also assume that China would not attack the U.S. homeland, except via cyberspace, given its minimal capability to do so with conventional weapons. In contrast, U.S. non-nuclear attacks against military targets in China could be extensive. The time frame studied is 2015 to 2025.

The need to think through war with China is made all the more important by developments in military capabilities. Sensors, weapon guidance, digital networking and other information technologies used to target opposing forces have advanced to the point where both U.S. and Chinese military forces seriously threaten each other.

This creates the means as well as the incentive to strike enemy forces before they strike one’s own. In turn, this creates a bias toward sharp, reciprocal strikes from the outset of a war, yet with neither side able to gain control and both having ample capacity to keep fighting, even as military losses and economic costs mount.

This article is an edited version of a report by the Rand Corp. The full report may be found in PDF format or online here.


Read more: Are We Ready for War With China?

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