China Rising

June 1, 2005

“The Middle East is just a blip. The American military contest with China in the Pacific will define the 21st century. And China will be a more formidable adversary than Russia ever was.”

So begins “How We Would Fight China,” a provocative treatise from noted foreign affairs expert Robert D. Kaplan in the June Atlantic Monthly.

In Kaplan’s view, China’s modernized Navy is now poised to push outward into the Pacific. There it will encounter the US Navy and US Air Force, which will refuse to make way for the newcomer. The result is predictable: “A replay of the decades-long Cold War,” leading to, “if not a big war with China, then a series of Cold War-style standoffs … over years and decades.”

It seems that “traditional” conflict may not be as obsolete as the Pentagon claims.

Pushed by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, DOD has embarked on a reshaping of US forces and strategy, de-emphasizing conventional or “traditional” war in favor of preparing for insurgencies, terrorism, and other “nontraditional” threats.

This approach has been encoded into this year’s Quadrennial Defense Review, which is to determine US military strategy and forces. Its premise is that the US has “excessive overmatch” in tactical airpower and seapower, so funds can be diverted from fighters and warships to less-traditional areas.

This premise is weak. As Kaplan and others point out, China’s soaring $1.4 trillion economy is fueling a huge conventional buildup. The Chinese military budget is set to grow by 12.6 percent in 2005, marking 15 straight years of double-digit increases.

China now has some 700 accurate missiles targeting Taiwan, cyber-war systems to attack communications, a growing fleet of advanced Russian-designed fighters, and antiship cruise missiles. It is building nuclear-powered and stealthy diesel submarines.

Chinese military writings emphasize war with the United States.

This is hardly a military secret. CIA Director Porter J. Goss recently told Congress China’s buildup “could tilt the balance of power in the Taiwan Strait” and “threaten US forces” in Asia.

Because of geography, Washington’s dominance in the Far East hinges on superior naval and air power. The US Navy knows no peer in the Pacific. However, China’s deployment of newer submarines and missiles has begun to complicate US naval operations.

If anything, therefore, the need for land-based airpower has increased, and Chinese modernization gives officers “pause,” said Gen. Paul V. Hester, head of USAF’s Pacific Air Forces.

Hester pointed specifically to China’s acquisition of Russian-designed fighters and defensive surface-to-air missiles.

Even at a time of global US retrenchment, PACAF has no intention of reducing its 47,000-airman force. According to Hester, it will maintain its bases in Japan, South Korea, Alaska, and Hawaii.

Moreover, PACAF has embarked on a major buildup on the US island of Guam, which is only four hours’ flying time from China. Guam has become a vast storehouse of bombs, missiles, and fuel. Plans call for permanent stationing there of ISR and refueling airplanes.

To provide long-range strike capability, USAF will rotate heavy bombers through Guam. In a recent meeting with reporters, Hester pointed out that B-52s and B-2s deployed to Guam in recent months and B-1Bs will do so next year.

The looming contest with China seems to be fueling, at least to some extent, airpower innovations in the Pacific. A major case in point: Operation Resultant Fury, held last November in waters off Hawaii. Long-range bombers and fighters, working with specially equipped E-8 radar aircraft, demonstrated a capability to target and sink multiple moving ships, day or night, in poor weather.

Maj. Gen. David A. Deptula, PACAF director of air and space operations, said USAF was preparing not only to strike pirates or terrorists at sea but also for “larger-scale situations, where one major power might threaten an amphibious assault or other major action.”

As the China case shows, the danger of big, regional clashes of modern conventional forces will be around for a while, and the US needs first-class weapon systems to compete effectively.

“This nation needs to be capable of engaging across the spectrum of conflict,” said one Pacific airman. “Right now, we’re engaged in counterinsurgency operations [in Iraq]. However, we can’t forget that we need to prepare for engagements at the high end of the spectrum. We can’t mortgage the future to pay for the present.”

That, say airmen, is exactly what’s happening in the case of the F/A-22 fighter. The Air Force wanted 381 F/A-22s, but Rumsfeld has reduced the approved number to about 180 to free up funds to pay for other priorities.

The Raptor’s speed, range, stealthiness, and powerful radar and avionics make the fighter ideal for combat in the Pacific, where USAF forces would have to cover enormous distances and fight against numerically superior adversaries.

The Raptor is the only aircraft that would be able to defeat advanced “anti-access” defensive systems around the clock and in all weather. This vital capability is underappreciated in the Pentagon and Congress, but it would be critical in any face-off with China.

Major war with China certainly is not inevitable, and maybe not even likely. However, it would be a serious mistake to give short shrift to the possibility of a very rough ride in years ahead.

As Kaplan noted, “Whenever great powers have emerged or re-emerged on the scene (Germany and Japan in the early decades of the 20th century, to cite two recent examples), they have tended to be particularly assertive—and therefore have thrown international affairs into violent turmoil. China will be no exception.”