By Patrick Winn
Air Force Times
Jan 22, 2008
In a hypothetical future scenario, the U.S. and China are poised to
clash likely over Taiwan.
The democratic Republic of China, commonly called Taiwan which America
backs and the communist Peoples Republic of China considers part of its
territory frequently irritates Chinese leaders with calls for greater
independence from the mainland. But while the American military mulls
its options, Chinese missiles hit runways, fuel lines, barracks and
supply depots at U.S. Air Force bases in Japan and South Korea.
Long-range warheads destroy American satellites, crippling Air Force
surveillance and communication networks. A nuclear fireball erupts high
above the Pacific Ocean, ionizing the atmosphere and scrambling radars
and radio feeds.
This is Chinas anti-U.S. sucker punch strategy.
Its designed to strike Americas military suddenly, stunning and stalling
the Air Force more than any other service. In a script written by
Chinese military officers and defense analysts, a bruised U.S. military,
beholden to a sheepish American public, puts up a small fight before
slinking off to avoid full-on war.
This strategic outlook isnt hidden in secret Chinese documents. Its
printed in Chinas military journals and textbooks. And for much of last
year, Mandarin literates and defense experts working for the Santa
Monica, Calif.-based Rand Corp. on an Air Force contract combed through
a range of Chinese military sources.
They emerged with Entering the Dragons Lair, a lengthy report on how the
Chinese Peoples Liberation Army would likely confront the U.S. military
and how the Air Force in particular can brace itself. In many cases, the
theoretical enemy nation Chinas officers discuss in these scenarios isnt
explicitly named but is unmistakably the U.S.
These arent war plans, said report co-author Roger Cliff, a former
Defense Department strategist and China military specialist who spoke to
Air Force Times from Taiwan. This is the military talking to itself. Its
not designed for foreigners or even Chinas general public to read.
Element of surprise
When it comes to conflict with the U.S., Chinese military analysts favor
age-old schoolyard wisdom: Throw the first punch and hit hard.
Future conflicts are likely to be short, intense affairs that might
consist of a single campaign, Cliff said. Theyre thinking about ways to
get the drop on us. Most of our force is not forward-deployed.
Chinas experts concede its army would lose a head-on fight, with one
senior colonel comparing such a scenario to throwing an egg against a
rock. Instead, the Chinese would attempt what Rand calls an anti-access
strategy: slowing the deployment of U.S. forces to the Pacific theater,
damaging operations within the region and forcing the U.S. to fight from
Taking the enemy by surprise, one Chinese military expert wrote, would
catch it unprepared and cause confusion within and huge psychological
pressure on the enemy and help [China] win relatively large victories at
relatively small costs. Another military volume suggests feigning a
large-scale military training exercise to conceal the attacks buildup.
The Dragons Lair
Striking U.S. air bases specifically command-and-control facilities,
aircraft hangars and surface-to-air missile launchers would be Chinas
first priority if a conflict arose, according to Rands report.
U.S. facilities in South Korea and Japan, even far-south Okinawa, sit
within what Rand calls the Dragons Lair: a swath of land and sea along
Chinas coast. This is an area reachable by cruise missiles, jet-borne
precision bombs and local covert operatives. Air Force bases within this
area include Osan and Kunsan in South Korea, as well as Misawa, Yokota
and Kadena in Japan. And in a conflict over Taiwan, any nation allowing
an intervening superpower such as the U.S. to operate inside its
territory can expect a Chinese attack, according to Chinas defense
China is designing ground-launched cruise missiles capable of nailing
targets more than 900 miles away well within striking range of South
Korea and much of Japan, according to the report. Cruise missiles able
to reach Okinawa home to Kadena Air Base are in development.
The Chinese would first launch concentrated and unexpected attacks on
tarmacs using runway-penetrating missiles and, soon after, would target
U.S. aircraft. Saboteurs would play a role in reconnaissance, harassing
operations and even assassinating key personnel, according to another
Chinese fighter jets would scramble to intercept aerial refueling
tankers and cargo planes sent to shuttle in fuel, munitions, supplies or
troops. High-explosive cluster bombs would target pilot quarters and
other personnel buildings.
Because the American public is abnormally sensitive about military
casualties, according to an article in Chinas Liberation Army Daily,
killing U.S. airmen or other personnel would spark a domestic anti-war
cry on the home front and possibly force early withdrawal of U.S.
forces. (The U.S. experience in Somalia is usually cited in support of
this assertion, according to the Rand report.) Once this hard-and-fast
assault on U.S. bases commenced, the Chinese army would swiftly divert
its forces and guard vigilantly against enemy retaliation, according to
a Chinese expert.
Dumb and blind The PLA also would likely use less conventional attacks
on the American militarys vital communications network. The goal, as one
Chinese expert put it: leaving U.S. combat capabilities blind, deaf and
Losing early-warning systems designed to detect incoming missiles would
be, for the Air Force, the most devastating setback one that could force
the service to exit the region altogether, according to Rand.
China could also launch a nuclear e-bomb, or electromagnetic explosive,
that would fry U.S. communication equipment while ionizing the
atmosphere for minutes to hours, according to the report. This would
likely jam radio signals in a 900-mile diameter beneath the nuclear
The PLA could also employ long-range anti-satellite missiles similar to
one successfully tested last January to destroy one or more American
satellites. However, the PLA has a host of less dramatic options:
short-range jammers hidden in suitcases or bombs and virus attacks on
Air Force computer networks. U.S. Air Force options
Shielding against a swift Chinese onslaught is, according to Rand, as
simple as reinforcing a runway or as complex as cloaking the orbit of
In the short term, U.S. air bases inside the Dragons Lair should add an
extra layer of concrete to their runways and bury fuel tanks
underground. All aircraft, the report said, should be parked in hardened
shelters, especially fighter jets.
Parking larger aircraft bombers, tankers and E-3 Sentry Airborne Warning
and Control Systems jets in hard-shell hangars would be expensive and
difficult but likely worth the cost, according to the report.
U.S. fighter jets remain the best defense against incoming Chinese
missile attacks. But, given Chinas taste for sudden attacks,
surface-launched missile defense systems must be installed long before a
conflict roils. Because the PLA is expected to strike quickly, the
report said, waiting for the first tremors of conflict is not an option.
The Air Force also should fortify itself against Chinese hackers by
using software encryption, isolating critical computer systems and
preparing contingency plans to communicate without a high-bandwidth
network. Though China maintains a no first use nuclear bomb policy, the
U.S., according to Rand, should warn China that nuclear electromagnetic
pulse attacks will be considered acts of nuclear aggression and could
prompt nuclear retaliation.
Rand insists the Air Force must defend satellites which support
communication, reconnaissance, bomb guidance and more against Chinas
proven satellite-killing missiles. This could be accomplished in the
Cold War tradition of mutually assured destruction by threatening to
retaliate in kind if the PLA blasts U.S. satellites.
That might be the one restraining factor, Cliff said. They might not
want to start that space war.
Or, Rand suggests, the U.S. could invest heavily in satellite protection
or evasion techniques, including stealth, blending in with other
satellite constellations or perhaps developing and deploying
microsatellites capable of swarming to defend larger satellites, which
the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is working toward.
Could this really happen? The Chinese first-strike strategy is more than
hypothetical, according to the report. But in the near term, at least,
its considered unlikely.
If the most contentious issue is Taiwan, Cliff said, then the likely
trigger would be Taiwanese elections, where assertions of complete
independence from the mainland can infuriate Chinese leaders. Chinas
current president, Hu Jintao, has built up Chinas military but also its
ties with America. In 2012, however, when Taiwan holds an election and
mainland Chinas leadership is expected to turn over, perhaps for the
worse, the risk of conflict could increase.
It really depends on the circumstances, Cliff said. Would Taiwan be the
provocateur? If so, it might be hard for the American public to support
However, if China moves to capture control of the island, Cliff said he
believes the U.S. would face a rocky dilemma.
Are we really going to let a small, democratic country get snuffed out
by a huge authoritarian country especially when you think about how our
own country came into existence? Cliff said.
As China pours more resources into its evolving and expanding military,
it buys the power to more strongly assert itself against America. In
November, China denied U.S. Navy minesweepers shelter from a storm and,
in another incident that month, turned down an Air Force C-17 flight
shuttling supplies to the American consulate in Hong Kong. Experts
speculate this was a rebuff to American arms sales to Taiwan, as well as
President Bushs autumn meeting with the Dalai Lama, the exiled spiritual
leader of another state China claims, Tibet.
If this conflict happened today, Im certain wed prevail, Cliff said. But
as time goes on, thats not a given.
All content 2008, Army Times Publishing Company
Subscribe to InfoSec News