Academic journal article Naval War College Review

U.S. CONVENTIONAL ACCESS STRATEGY: Denying China a Conventional First-Strike Capability

Academic journal article Naval War College Review

U.S. CONVENTIONAL ACCESS STRATEGY: Denying China a Conventional First-Strike Capability

Article excerpt

The People's Republic of China makes extensive territorial claims over Taiwan, the East China Sea, and the South China Sea. China's neighbors openly dispute these claims and the international community does not recognize most of them. The Chinese government views the settlement of these disputes on terms favorable to China as a national priority. Ideally, the Chinese government would like to resolve these disputes through diplomatic channels or by using coercive and paramilitary techniques that fall short of triggering armed conflicts.1 However, concurrently the People's Liberation Army (PLA) is preparing war plans and acquiring capabilities to resolve these disputes through the use of armed force. The Chinese government views all its territorial disputes as "core interests" and has signaled its willingness to achieve these core interests through the use of armed force. The U.S. government openly opposes any coercive or aggressive activities that upset the status quo, putting it at odds with the Chinese government.2

The problem is that the Chinese leadership appears unconvinced that the United States would risk a conflict with China-one that could escalate to a nuclear war-over disputes concerning territories that geographically are distant from the U.S. mainland and seemingly are unrelated to core U.S. national security interests.3 However, the PLA has a relatively small nuclear arsenal, estimated at fewer than four hundred warheads, in contrast with the U.S. arsenal, which has around 1,550 warheads.4 Any nuclear strike China made on the United States would involve only a fraction of the PLA's overall arsenal, because it would need to retain some reserve to deter other nuclear-armed neighbors, such as Russia and India. If the Chinese leadership authorized a nuclear strike against the U.S. homeland, or even a limited nuclear strike against forward-deployed U.S. forces, it would be inviting overwhelming devastation from the considerably larger U.S. nuclear force.5 For these reasons, China likely would aim to confine itself to the use of conventional weapons during any potential high-intensity conflict with the United States-particularly given that China already possesses a lethal array of long-range, conventional, theater-strike options.6 Such a strategic, conventional, first-strike option is one that the United States should seek to deny China by developing an effective conventional access strategy.

The U.S. military has three principal strategic objectives. The first is to protect the U.S. mainland and offshore U.S. territories from armed attacks.7 The second is to foster a stable, rules-based, global security order through an interconnected web of alliances and partnerships. The third is to deter and, if necessary, decisively defeat aggressors through the projection of military power. Under the national military strategy that the Joint Staff published in 2015, the U.S. military would deter and defeat state aggressors by leveraging U.S. forward-deployed units, force-projection capabilities, alliances, communications networks, and "resilient logistics" infrastructure.8 This strategy appears identical to the U.S. military's force-projection approach to the 1991 Gulf War.9 But the central problem with emulating the Gulf War style of force-projection operations is that in future decades the U.S. military no longer will enjoy uncontested use of its forward bases or the ocean.10

Operation DESERT STORM required the U.S. military to transport around five hundred thousand personnel, 6.1 million tons of fuel, and 3.7 million tons of equipment and stores to the Persian Gulf theater. Building up sufficient personnel, equipment, stores, and supplies required seven months of intense air and sealift operations, as well as access to bases in Saudi Arabia.11 Because of the range limitations of tactical aircraft and payload-laden airlifters, the U.S. Air Force (USAF) was forced to use in-flight refueling tankers to form "air bridges. …

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