The U.S.-China Military Scorecard: Forces, Geography, and the Evolving Balance of Power 1996-2017

By McNaugher, Thomas | Joint Force Quarterly, July 2016 | Go to article overview

The U.S.-China Military Scorecard: Forces, Geography, and the Evolving Balance of Power 1996-2017


McNaugher, Thomas, Joint Force Quarterly


The U.S.-China Military Scorecard: Forces, Geography, and the Evolving Balance of Power 1996-2017

By Eric Heginbotham et al.

RAND Corporation, 2015

430 pp. $61.00

ISBN: 978-0833082190

and

China's Military Power: Assessing Current and Future Capabilities

By Roger Cliff

Cambridge University Press, 2015

362 pp. $32.99

ISBN: 978-1107103542

Over the past 20 years China's military spending, a low priority in the 1980s, has grown, in real terms, at roughly 11 percent per year. At the same time, the focus of China's military strategy has pivoted sharply from an army-centric "people's war under modern conditions" aimed to blunt a Soviet attack from the northwest to an air and naval force-centric emphasis on "local wars under informationized conditions" along the country's long coast, with the United States as the principal adversary. It has been a prodigious transformation, modeled after--and surely provoked by--the U.S. military's own transformation.

And from a distance, China seems to be doing remarkably well. A largely obsolete inventory of 1950s Soviet weaponry--"the world's largest military museum," as one wag put it--has been replaced by an array of far more sophisticated weapons: a prototype "fifth generation" fighter, an aircraft carrier (with one or two more on order), diesel and nuclear submarines, air defense and surface-to-surface missiles of ever-increasing range and accuracy including the notorious DF-21C, and an antiship ballistic missile meant to keep U.S. carriers outside the so-called First Island Chain. On the personnel front, a shrinking People's Liberation Army (PLA) has become more professional, better educated, and more highly trained.

But how are they doing, really? Both of these excellent books document, in convincing detail, the growth of an increasingly formidable Chinese force posture. Neither concludes that China has caught up with, much less surpassed, U.S. military capabilities that can be brought to bear around Taiwan or the South China Sea, the two scenarios at the core of each book's assessment. They make clear, however, that the days when the United States could cavalierly sail two aircraft carriers into the seas around Taiwan, as it did in 1996, confident that the PLA was virtually helpless to do anything about them, are long gone.

In keeping with its title, the RAND report rates the U.S.-China military balance over time (1996, 2003, 2010, 2017) and across 10 mission areas: Chinese attacks on air bases; relative air superiority; U.S. airspace penetration; U.S. attacks on air bases; Chinese anti-surface warfare; U.S. anti-surface warfare; U.S. counter-space; Chinese counterspace; cyberwar; and nuclear stability. RAND's analysts use an array of models to assess the outcome of conflict in each mission area, highlighting the changing balance over time in "stoplight" charts that convey U.S. or Chinese advantage.

U.S. readers will be pleased at the total absence of "red stoplights" (major Chinese advantage) on these charts, even in 2017. Indeed, RAND finds that the U.S. military's ability to attack Chinese air bases (should the President choose to do so) has actually improved since 1996, due in large part to the purchase of stealth aircraft and a number of standoff missiles. Still, in the Taiwan scenario, all major U.S. advantages disappear after 2003. The authors estimate that in today's environment, "a war for Taiwan would be a short, sharp, and probably desperate affair with significant losses on both sides" (p. 332). Even more alarming, they see "a series of tipping points" in China's favor that might, in the Taiwan scenario, "come as early as 2020" (p. 342).

U.S. forces fare better in the scenario involving the Spratly Islands, according to the authors, because "the PLA's ability to control military events diminishes rapidly beyond the unrefueled range of jet fighters and diesel submarines" (p. …

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