War with China: TX Hammes, CSBA, RAND and CSIS–Thinking through the Unthinkable and rethinking Armaggedon

War with China: TX Hammes, CSBA, RAND and CSIS–Thinking through the Unthinkable and rethinking Armaggedon

The US and Chinese goverment both claim that no side wanted a sinoamerican war and that this event was unlikely.However, both sides and their strategists sometimes point out that misperceptions and miscalculations could trigger such a war. That Obama rebalances his Asian pivot and China at the same time claims territories in the South and East Chinese Sea and expands its spheres of influence in the Pacific steadily make crisis, conflicts and maybe even a war more likely.That this unlikely war seems to be perceived as not so unlikely proves the fact that a real flood of US studies about sinoamerican war secenarios are published at the moment. Starting with the Center for Strategic Budgetary Assessment (CSBA)´s study „Why Airseabattle?“ which promotes an operative concept to bomb China mainland as long as the Chinese give in, TX Hammes issued his Offshore Controll (OC) strategy which propagates a maritime blockade of China comparable to the US blockade of Imperial Japan in the Second World War. Both concepts and strategies claim that such a sinoamerican war wouldn´t escalate to a nuclear war and that the USA could win such a war.

In an interview TX Hammes explained Global Review the strategy of Offshore Controll:

Global Review : Could you give the German audience a description what OC is? And what are the differences to ASB/JOAC?

TX Hammes: Any U.S. military strategy for Asia must achieve six objectives: (1) insure access for U.S. forces and allied commercial interests to the global commons; (2) assure Asian nations that the United States is both willing to and capable of remaining engaged in Asia; (3) deter China from military action to resolve disputes while encouraging its continued economic growth; (4) in the event that deterrence fails, achieve US objectives with minimal risk of nuclear escalation; (5) discourage friends and allies from taking aggressive steps that further destabilize the region; and (6) be visible and credible today, not years in the future.

“Offshore Control is an effective and affordable approach. Offshore Control establishes a set of concentric rings that denies China the use of the sea inside the first island chain, defends the sea and air space of the first island chain and US allies therein, and dominates the air and maritime space outside the island chain.  Offshore Control does not strike into China but takes advantage of geography to block China’s exports and thus severely weaken its economy. No operations will penetrate Chinese airspace.  Prohibiting penetration is intended to reduce the possibility of nuclear escalation and make conflict termination easier.

Denial as an element of the campaign plays to U.S. strengths by employing primarily attack submarines, drones, mines, and a limited number of air assets inside the first island chain.  This area will be declared a maritime exclusion zone with the warning that enemy ships in the zone will be sunk or boarded.  If these ships evade the blockade and trade with China, they will be subject to seizure and prize court when they pass through the 1st Island Chain on their return voyage. While the United States cannot stop all sea traffic in this zone, it can prevent the passage of large cargo ships and large tankers, severely disrupting China’s economy relatively quickly.

The defensive component of Offshore Control will bring the full range of U.S. assets to defend allied soil and encourage allies to contribute to that defense.  It takes advantage of geography to force China to fight at longer ranges while allowing U.S. and allied forces to fight as part of an integrated air-sea defense over their own territories. It maximizes US strengths in blue water sea control, theater air defense, undersea warfare, and aerospace while avoiding China’s inherent advantages on and near the mainland.  In short, it will flip the advantages of anti-access/area denial to the United States and its allies.  Numerous small islands from Japan to Taiwan and on to Luzon provide dispersed land basing options for air and sea defense of the apparent gaps in the first island chain. Since Offshore Control will rely heavily on land-based air defense and short-range sea defense to include mine and counter-mine capability, we can encourage potential partners to invest in these capabilities and exercise together regularly in peacetime.   In keeping with the concept that the strategy must be feasible in peacetime, the United States will not request any nations to allow the use of their bases to attack China.  The strategy will only ask nations to allow the presence of U.S. defensive systems to defend that nation’s air, sea, and land space. The U.S. commitment will include assisting with convoy operations to maintain the flow of essential imports and exports in the face of Chinese interdiction attempts.  In exercises, the United States could demonstrate all the necessary capabilities to defend allies – and do so in conjunction with the host nation forces.

The dominate phase of the campaign would be fought outside the range of most Chinese assets and would use a combination of air, naval, ground, and rented commercial platforms to intercept and divert the super tankers and large container ships essential to China’s economy.  For example, eighty percent of China’s imported oil transits the Straits of Malacca.  If Malacca, Lombok, Sunda and the routes north and south of Australia are controlled, these shipments can be cut off.  Interdicting China’s energy imports will weaken its economy, but exports matter even more.   These rely on large container ships for competitive cost advantage.  The roughly 1000 ships of this size are the easiest to track and divert. China could attempt to reroute this shipping, but the only possibilities must still pass through the 1st Island Chain.  U.S. assets can control all these routes.  Alternate overland routes simply cannot move the 9.74 billion tons of goods China exported by sea in 2012 — the equivalent of roughly 1000 trains per day.   While such a concentric blockade campaign will require a layered effort from the straits to China’s coast, it will mostly be fought at a great distance from China—effectively out of range of most of China’s military power.

Further contributing to Offshore Control’s credibility is the fact the United States can execute the campaign with the military forces and equipment it has today.  Unlike other approaches, it does not rely on highly classified, developmental defense programs for success.  Rather, the United States can exercise the necessary capabilities with its allies now, not a generation on.

This brings us to the ends the strategy seeks. Offshore Control assumes that attacking China’s nuclear weapons or the regime itself is too dangerous to contemplate.  We do not understand the Communist Party’s decision process for the employment of nuclear weapons, but we do know the party will risk all to remain in control.  Thus, rather than seeking a decisive victory against the Chinese, Offshore Control seeks to use economic pressure to bring about a stalemate and cessation of conflict with a return to a modified version of the status quo.  Theoretical strategists may question the lack of a path to decisive victory, but decisive victory falls outside the logic of conflict with a great nuclear power. There, one seeks to avoid the clash or, failing that, to achieve acceptable outcomes short of a nuclear exchange that enable all sides to back away.  In this sense, Offshore Control offers a more realistic and pragmatic roadmap to resolution and peace.

Global review: Critics of OC say that it would be a long-term effort which would overstretch the financial and military resources of the USA, that the naval blockade could be undermined by train, roads and air lifts. Some even say that in military history a naval blockade never could bring down an enemy alone. And last, but not least: What happens, if China could make a breakthrough trough the naval blockade? Was there a plan B?

TX Hammes: By shifting the fight from close proximity to China out to the first island chain, OC significantly reduced the demands on US armed forces.  Only a small percentage of China’s forces can operate at that range from the mainland, so we only have to fight that percentage.  The closer we fight to China the more of their force we have to fight.

To move as many containers per day over rail as are moved through China’s port would require 1000 trains of 150 cars.  That is 1000 trains per DAY.  And of course, to return the cars would require 1000 trains returning each day.  Compounding the problem is the fact the traffic has to move over the Russian or Kazakhstan railway systems – neither known for efficiency.  And because of RR gauge changes, each container would have to be taken off at China’s border, shifted to Russian gauge and then shifted again if they attempt to take it by train into Europe.  Currently a limited amount of rail traffic does go from China to Europe – the last cost estimates I saw showed it was $10000 per container by rail but only $5000 by sea.  And of course, those rail lines go through some of the hottest and coldest climates on the earth.  Many goods would be damaged by the temperature extremes.

The objective is NOT to bring down the enemy.  We do not want the CCP to go away.  If they do, who rules China?  The objective is convince the Chinese they cannot win a war with the US.  The strategy attacks two of China’s great strategic fears – the Malacca dilemma and the fear of a long war.

It attacks a great weakness – China is export driven and succeeds because of the cost advantage of its products.  However, that cost advantage goes away if it can’t freely use the sea, particularly the post-Panamax container ships.Plan B is to interdict that shipping at even greater ranges from China.  Trade to Europe must pass through the Suez or go around the Cape.  Trade with the Middle East must pass through the Straits of Hormuz or Bab al-Mandab.  Trade with the western hemisphere can be control near the coasts.

Global Review: Why is ASB/JOAC not a strategy, but a concept and what is OC? What is missing to be a strategy? Some say that ASB/JOAC wouldn´t have a defined goal in opposite to OC—is that true?

The authors state in their title that ASB is an operational concept.  It explains how the US can fight through A2/AD to strike into China. It never explains why we need to do so or how doing so gets China to quit fighting. The authors never claimed it was a strategy.  It is not a strategy because it never expresses a theory of victory (actually just a theory of conflict termination in a war with China or any thermo-nuclear power.)  It seems to assume that if we bomb China enough, it will quit.

As noted OC is a strategy, that attacks China’s strategic vulnerability.  Its reliance on cost advantage to sustain its trade.

Glopbal Review: Where do you see the weak points of ASB/JOAC?

TX Hammes: It is unaffordable.  It never explains how it will win.  And it assumes a US president will authorize strikes on China – to include strikes that could easily be interpreted by the Chinese as an effort to destroy China’s nuclear deterrence.  This is despite the fact multi-Presidents would not authorize strikes into China during the Korean or the Vietnam wars.

Global Review: China started its One Belt-One Road Initiative (New Silkroad/ String of Pearls-Maritime Silkroad). Its a two track approach by land and by sea. OBOR will create massive infrastructure building, new roads, railways, airports, ports. Has OC to adopt to this new transportation networks? What will the proportions between transportation by land, sea and air be after the OBOR initiative is finished? Will China be more a continental land power or more a sea power—what are the effects on OC planning? Have you to complement the naval blockade by a continental blockade?

TX Hammes: As noted above, there is just too large a volume of material to move via rail or road. Some high value items can be shipped but not enough to replace the lost sea routes.  Keep in mind that although China has promised great investment.  It has not actually invested much.  Remember the much touted $4B China was going to invest in the Afghan copper mine.  That deal was made almost a decade ago and as near as I can find out only $10 to 20 M has been actually spent.Even if China invests heavily the return on investment is likely to be low.  When you examine the countries along One Belt (Pakistan, Central Asia), they are poor countries with little potential for growth. One Road is simply an expansion of already existing sea trade.  New ports will make it somewhat more efficient but remain vulnerable to blockade.“

From the CSBA report on ASBC: the section entitled “Executing a Missile Suppression Campaign.”

From the CSBA report on the ASBC: the section entitled “Blind PLA ISR Systems.”

Another new study about future wars is The Center for Strategic Budgetary Assessment (CSBA)`s „Rethinking Armaggeddon“which is about the „Second Nuclear Age“ or as the authors write in their own words:

Rethinking Armageddon

March 1, 2016 • By Andrew F. Krepinevich and Jacob CohnStudies

The First Nuclear Age was characterized by the Cold War era bipolar international system and a corresponding bipolar nuclear competition between the United States and the Soviet Union. While a few other states, such as Great Britain and France, also possessed nuclear arms, their arsenals were very small compared to those of the two superpowers.

The world is far different today. On the one hand, both the United States and Russia have far smaller nuclear arsenals than they did at the Cold War’s end. At the same time, new nuclear powers have emerged in pace with advanced conventional precision warfare capabilities. The rise of cyber warfare has also led to concerns over the security and reliability of early warning and command-and-control systems, and weapon systems as well. Advances in the cognitive sciences and research on Cold War crisis decision-making have challenged some of our thinking as to how strategies based on deterrence work, or risk failing. Together, these and other recent developments have combined to form what some are calling a Second Nuclear Age.

Dr. Andrew Krepinevich and Jacob Cohn have authored a scenario-based assessment of the competitive dynamics of the Second Nuclear Age. The assessment explores, among other things, the implications for extended deterrence, crisis stability, missile defense, prompt conventional global strike, growing multipolar or “n-player competitions, and planning assumptions as they have been influenced by advances in the cognitive sciences, to include prospect theory. Their paper also includes an analysis of the implications for U.S. interests, with an emphasis on preserving the seventy-one-year tradition of non-use of nuclear weapons (since their only use in 1945), also known as the “nuclear taboo.” The existing and prospective challenges posed by the Second Nuclear Age, as reflected in these scenarios, are sobering. If the United States seeks to preserve the nuclear taboo, it ignores them at its peril.”


The study calls for a new strategy in the Second Nuclear Age which takes into account the new factors and „drivers“described in 4 different war scenarios with Russia, China, Northkorea and Iran as adversaries.The study comes to the conclusion that there is no theoretical basis for future US nuclear deterence at the moment yet:

„The Thomas Schelling quote above laments that it took twenty years after the dawn of the nuclear age (or just about the time he introduced his seminal work) for strategists and policymakers to think through the implications of nuclear weapons. If we mark the advent of the Second Nuclear Age as the point the Sovjet Union collapsed and the United States introduced what has become known as precision warfare, then we are a quarter-century along in the new era.

Yet this new age, despite the advantage of being five years beyond the point marked by Schelling, has yet to produce the foundational analyses that Bernhard Brodies, Hermann Kahns, William Kaufmanns, Henry Kissingers, Andrew Marshalls, Thomas Schellings, Albert Wohlstetters and other notables of the first age contributed. Perhaps it is because the Second NUclear Age appears so much more complex–although a big challenge has hardly discouraged brilliant and ambitious analysts in the past. Or maybe because the Second Nuclear Age lacks the immediate existential danger posed by the Sovjet Union so soon after a major war that did so much to incentivizue thinking during the First Nuclear Age. Or it may be that in the current age the best analytic talent has been devoted primarily to supporting efforts to reduce the number of nuclear players (nonproliferation) and number of weapons (arms control and disarmament) rather than the consequences of these efforts achieving only partial success.

Whatever the reason for this benign neglect, the existing and prospective challenges posed by the Second Nuclear Age, as reflected in the scenarios presented here, are sobering. If the United States seeks to perserve the nuclear taboo, it ignores them at its peril“:

(Rethinking Armaggedon, page 123).


The Second Nuclear Age is much more instable, dynamic and unpredictable for a deterrence and has no „one-fits-for-all“-approach, but has to include new factors and drivers as global strike potentials, mininukes, precision strike weapons, cyberwar, missile defense, multipolar nuclear competition, haystack attacks and the tendency towards much more trigger-alert constellations as well as new analyses about the rationality of decision-makers.Till now no strategy integrates all this new parameters as a new framework for a Second Nuclear Age and its future wars. The study even thinks about the idea if the term Second Nuclear Age is sufficent or if there is already the dawn of a  Third Nuclear Age due to the appearance of new weapon systems.In such an enviroment a sinoamerican war would happen and the study also focuses on the scenario that China would raise its nuclear capabilities to the strategic nuclear level of the USA and Russia, therefore destabilizing the whole current framework of present global deterence.An tripolar strategic enviroment would occur with further implications on India, Pakistan and Northkorea.

Another new study is the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS)´s „China´s Nuclear Forces and Weapons of Mass Destruction“ which evaluates and assesses the Chinese capabilities and arsenal, its destructive potential in case of a nuclear war and the reactions of China and other powers to the nuclear developments.

„There is no way to assess the exact probability that China or the United States will ever make threats to use nuclear weapons in a regional conflict or escalate to their actual use, but the probability they would even make explicit threats seems extremely low.

A new report by the CSIS Burke Chair entitled “China’s Nuclear Forces and Weapons of Mass Destruction” explores the strength and capability of China’s nuclear weapons, and the steadily greater role they play in giving China strategic leverage and defining its role as a world power. The new report is available on the CSIS website at https://csis-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/publication/160720_China_Nuclear_Weapons_Report.pdf.

In the case of China and the United States, each side’s nuclear weapons already have an important deterrent impact in restraining the other’s behavior without overt threats, and continued nuclear modernization and the relative size of each side’s force sends all the signals China or the U.S. needs as to the other side’s power. Both nations must also take account of the fact that even openly raising the very possibility of an actual nuclear exchange would threaten the stability of Asia, the global economy, and the U.S. and Chinese economies in ways in which the end result could not be calculated.

As for actual nuclear war fighting, China and the United States have every reason to calculate that moving beyond the tacit threat already posed by the existence of the other’s nuclear forces to actual nuclear exchanges at any level would almost certainly be so destructive and to be far costlier to both sides than any strategic or military gains could ever be worth.

At the same time, history is a grim warning that deterrence sometimes fails, and escalation occurs in ways that are never properly planned or controlled. Moreover, despite China’s declared strategy of limited deterrence, China must look beyond the U.S. nuclear stance and to the fact that North Korea, Russia, India and Pakistan have nuclear weapons and the possibility that the ROK or Japan might eventually develop nuclear weapons.

China must also recognize that Russia and other powers will inevitably use China’s nuclear forces as a key metric in judging its status. Regardless of the rhetoric of restraint that China uses in discussing nuclear weapons, they remain important tools in shaping its influence and perceptions of its power through out the world.“


The RAND Corporation has now published a new study „War with China–Thinking Through the Unthinkable“ by David C. Gompert, Astrid Cevallos and Christina L. Garafola. It has four war scenarios in China and compares a war in 2015 and 2030. About the study you can read at the website of the RAND Foundation:

Research Questions

  1. What are the alternative paths that China and the United States might take before and during a war?
  2. What are the effects on both countries of each path?
  3. What preparations should the United States make, both to reduce the likelihood of war and, should war break out, to ensure victory while minimizing losses and costs?

Premeditated war between the United States and China is very unlikely, but the danger that a mishandled crisis could trigger hostilities cannot be ignored. Thus, while neither state wants war, both states‘ militaries have plans to fight one. As Chinese anti-access and area-denial (A2AD) capabilities improve, the United States can no longer be so certain that war would follow its plan and lead to decisive victory. This analysis illuminates various paths a war with China could take and their possible consequences.

Technological advances in the ability to target opposing forces are creating conditions of conventional counterforce, whereby each side has the means to strike and degrade the other’s forces and, therefore, an incentive to do so promptly, if not first. This implies fierce early exchanges, with steep military losses on both sides, until one gains control. At present, Chinese losses would greatly exceed U.S. losses, and the gap would only grow as fighting persisted. But, by 2025, that gap could be much smaller. Even then, however, China could not be confident of gaining military advantage, which suggests the possibility of a prolonged and destructive, yet inconclusive, war. In that event, nonmilitary factors — economic costs, internal political effects, and international reactions — could become more important.

Political leaders on both sides could limit the severity of war by ordering their respective militaries to refrain from swift and massive conventional counterforce attacks. The resulting restricted, sporadic fighting could substantially reduce military losses and economic harm. This possibility underscores the importance of firm civilian control over wartime decisionmaking and of communication between capitals. At the same time, the United States can prepare for a long and severe war by reducing its vulnerability to Chinese A2AD forces and developing plans to ensure that economic and international consequences would work to its advantage.

Key Findings

Unless Both U.S. and Chinese Political Leaders Decline to Carry Out Counterforce Strategies, the Ability of Either State to Control the Ensuing Conflict Would Be Greatly Impaired

  • Both sides would suffer large military losses in a severe conflict. In 2015, U.S. losses could be a relatively small fraction of forces committed, but still significant; Chinese losses could be much heavier than U.S. losses and a substantial fraction of forces committed.
  • This gap in losses will shrink as Chinese A2AD improves. By 2025, U.S. losses could range from significant to heavy; Chinese losses, while still very heavy, could be somewhat less than in 2015, owing to increased degradation of U.S. strike capabilities.
  • China’s A2AD will make it increasingly difficult for the United States to gain military-operational dominance and victory, even in a long war.

Conflict Could Be Decided by Domestic Political, International, and Economic Factors, All of Which Would Favor the United States in a Long, Severe War

  • Although a war would harm both economies, damage to China’s would be far worse.
  • Because much of the Western Pacific would become a war zone, China’s trade with the region and the rest of the world would decline substantially.
  • China’s loss of seaborne energy supplies would be especially damaging.
  • A long conflict could expose China to internal political divisions.
  • Japan’s increased military activity in the region could have a considerable influence on military operations.


  • U.S. and Chinese political leaders alike should have military options other than immediate strikes to destroy opposing forces.
  • U.S. leaders should have the means to confer with Chinese leaders and contain a conflict before it gets out of hand.
  • The United States should guard against automaticity in implementing immediate attacks on Chinese A2AD and have plans and means to prevent hostilities from becoming severe. Establishing „fail safe“ arrangements will guarantee definitive, informed political approval for military operations.
  • The United States should reduce the effect of Chinese A2AD by investing in more-survivable force platforms (e.g., submarines) and in counter-A2AD (e.g., theater missiles).
  • The United States should conduct contingency planning with key allies, especially Japan.
  • The United States should ensure that the Chinese are specifically aware of the potential for catastrophic results even if a war is not lost militarily.
  • The United States should improve its ability to sustain intense military operations.
  • U.S. leaders should develop options to deny China access to war-critical commodities and technologies in the event of war.
  • The United States should undertake measures to mitigate the interruption of critical products from China.
  • Additionally, the U.S. Army should invest in land-based A2AD capabilities, encourage and enable East Asian partners to mount strong defense, improve interoperability with partners (especially Japan), and contribute to the expansion and deepening of Sino-U.S. military-to-military understanding and cooperation to reduce dangers of misperception and miscalculation.


Exploring the Course and Consequences of a Sino-U.S. War


July 28, 2016

As Chinese military capabilities improve, the United States no longer can be certain that a Sino-U.S. war would lead it to achieve a quick and decisive victory, according to a new RAND Corporation study.

“A Sino-U.S. war may seem unthinkable, but the course and consequences need more thought in both countries,” said David Gompert, lead author of the study and an adjunct senior fellow at RAND, a nonprofit research organization.

The advanced strike capabilities of each side, combined with the shrinking of the military gap between them, could make such a war intense, highly destructive and yet protracted, according to the study.

“History suggests that wars that are very destructive to both combatants have a way of persisting as long as neither side faces complete defeat,” Gompert said. “Our findings indicate that this could be true of a future Sino-U.S. war.”

While the RAND study suggests that a premeditated attack from either side is unlikely, developments in military technology such as sensors, global positioning, weapon guidance and digital networking have advanced to the point where both U.S. and Chinese military forces pose serious threats to each other.

Tensions exist between the United States and China on a number of issues, and a crisis could occur and involve incidents or miscalculations that lead to hostilities. For example, China could try to intimidate its neighbors below the threshold of U.S. intervention and misjudge where that threshold is, or underestimate U.S. willingness to back Japan militarily in a crisis over disputed territory in the East China Sea.

The RAND study examines paths that a war between the United States and China might take in terms of intensity and duration, and the effects on both countries of each path. In addition, the study explores ways to balance U.S. aims against the expected costs, mechanisms for bilateral communications during war and preparations the United States should make. It also considers economic, domestic, political and international factors that could be involved. It regards nuclear war as highly unlikely.

Technological advances in the ability to target opposing forces are creating a condition of what Gompert and his colleagues call “conventional counterforce,” where each side has the means to strike and degrade the other’s strike forces.

Because this increases the incentive of each side to attack an enemy before one’s forces are attacked, it will make crises and military confrontations — such as the ongoing disputes in the South China Sea — increasingly and dangerously unstable, according to the study.

At present, Chinese military losses would significantly exceed U.S. losses during a war. However, the unrelenting improvement of Chinese “anti-access” capabilities could increase U.S. losses and, as U.S. strike capabilities are depleted, reduce Chinese losses.

But even as China improves its military abilities, it could not be confident of gaining military advantage. This suggests the strong possibility of a prolonged and inconclusive war, according to the RAND report.

In such a war, however, nonmilitary factors — economic costs, domestic political effects and international reactions — may become increasingly important and unfavorable to China. Because of the impact on trade, China’s gross domestic product could decrease by 25 percent or more in the course of an intense war lasting a year, according to the study.

Internally, China’s authoritarian regime and nationalistic public mood would, in the short term, enable it to wage war despite heavy losses, whereas U.S. politics are less predictable. Over time, however, China could be subject to heightened dissidence and separatist activities, especially as the economy — the ultimate source of regime legitimacy — is battered.

Internationally, Russia and NATO might line up behind China and the United States, respectively, but have no significant bearing on the fighting. Its network of Asian allies could provide the United States with important material advantages. Above all, Japan’s entry into a Sino-U.S. war could tilt the military situation, though this could increase Chinese resolve and result in attacks on Japan.

The study, “War with China: Thinking through the Unthinkable,” can be found at www.rand.org. Co-authors of the study are Astrid Stuth Cevallos and Cristina Garafola.

Research for the study was sponsored by the Office of the Undersecretary of the Army and conducted within the RAND Arroyo Center’s Strategy, Doctrine and Resources Program. RAND Arroyo Center, part of the RAND Corporation, is a federally funded research and development center sponsored by the U.S. Army.“


Q&A: An Unthinkable War Between the U.S. and China

by David C. Gompert

A new RAND study titled “War with China: Thinking Through the Unthinkable” found that improving Chinese military capabilities challenge the assumption that the United States would emerge an early and decisive victor in a war with China. The report noted that the advanced strike capabilities of each side, combined with the shrinking of the military gap between them, could make such a war intense, highly destructive, and yet protracted.

David C. Gompert, the lead author of the study and an adjunct senior fellow at RAND, recently participated in a Q&A on what the study does, and does not, say about the potential for a Sino-U.S. war and its possible outcome.

Are you predicting that the United States and China may soon go to war?

We do not predict a war between the United States and China. Rather, it is plausible that such a war could arise out of a mishandled crisis and, given improvements in the strike capabilities of both countries, could be intense, destructive, and protracted.

What kind of spark might ignite a Sino-U.S. war?

Tensions exist between the United States and China on a number of issues, and a crisis could occur and involve incidents or miscalculations that lead to hostilities. For example, China could try to intimidate its neighbors below the threshold of U.S. intervention and misjudge where that threshold is, or underestimate U.S. willingness to back Japan militarily in a crisis over disputed territory in the East China Sea.

How might a war scenario play out?

At present, Chinese military losses would significantly exceed U.S. losses during a war. However, the unrelenting improvement of Chinese “anti-access” capabilities could increase U.S. losses and, as U.S. strike capabilities are depleted, reduce Chinese losses. But even as China improves its military abilities, it could not be confident of gaining military advantage. This suggests the strong possibility of a prolonged and inconclusive war.

Could a Sino-U.S. war go nuclear?

Nuclear war is highly unlikely. 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.

If such a war were to break out, how might Japan react?

We do not predict that Japan would enter such a war. Rather, we say it could be militarily significant if Japan were to do so. It is more likely that Japan would enter a conflict between the United States and China if it was threatened or attacked. U.S. use of bases in Japan could well lead to Chinese threats or attacks against Japan. Likewise, if China attacked Japanese forces, Japan would presumably be more likely to resist. While we would not predict how Japan would react in circumstances such as these, the very possibility that Japan might enter a conflict on the side of the United States would weigh heavily on Chinese decision-making. Thus, a strong U.S.-Japanese alliance and capable Japanese forces could be major deterrents against a war.

What about other U.S. allies in the region?

In addition to Japan, the United States has several other important allies in East Asia, including the Philippines, Australia, and New Zealand. It is inherent in these ties that any conflict in the region would trigger consultations and possible joint action. This being the case, military planning for a variety of contingencies is prudent. We do not speculate on whether such planning would result in any particular U.S. ally entering a conflict.

Would Russia and NATO join the fray?

Internationally, Russia might line up behind China and NATO might back the United States, but it is unlikely that either power would have a significant bearing on the fighting.

How might North Korea react?

Predicting the behavior of North Korea in the event of a Sino-American war is fraught with uncertainty. However, if it involved attacks against Japan, the ballistic-missile defenses currently under development and construction could provide considerable protection.

Why think the unthinkable?

A Sino-U.S. war may seem unthinkable, but the course and consequences need more thought in both countries. History suggests that wars that are very destructive to both combatants have a way of persisting as long as neither side faces complete defeat. A Sino-U.S. war would be so harmful that both sides should place a very high priority on avoiding one. While such prospects make premeditated war highly improbable, they also dictate effective individual and bilateral crisis management, as well as other measures to avoid misperceptions and mistakes.


The RAND study can be downloaded at:


In summary: A lot of studies about an unlikely sinoamerican war which seems not so unthinklable as many politicans claim and suggest.“Rethinking Armaggedon“ is an appeal to rethink and modify the framework of Hermann Kahn´s escalation ladder in a Second/Third Nuclear Age and to make appropriate and thought-through decicions in an era of new weapon systems and multipolar competition.It´s a very complex thinking and simple ideas like  Donald Trump´s „We have nuclear weapons, so why don´t we use them?“ might be not the right approach, even produce the Armaggedon.

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