China plans to double its nuclear warhead stockpile within the next decade, according to a report released by the Pentagon.
This would include an increase in the number of nuclear intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) that are capable of reaching the United States.
China’s current nuclear warhead arsenal is estimated to be in the low 200s. Even with the planned increase, Uncle Sam’s Finest still maintains a prohibitive advantage with the U.S.’s estimated 3,800 warheads in active status and more in reserve.
As a practical matter, nuclear weapons are useful only as a strategic deterrent. A nuclear shoot-out between China and the U.S. would end in mutually assured destruction that would see major cities in both countries incinerated, leaving any survivors with a bittersweet consolation prize of radioactive s’mores.
But nuclear weapons are not the only measure of military strength. Military conflict between the U.S. and China is likely to unfold in other ways.
Here is one potential scenario for war between the U.S. and China that, above all, keeps the U.S. military awake at night.
War Over Taiwan
Taiwan is like the ex-girlfriend who broke up with her abusive, controlling boyfriend and peeled out of their driveway in a U-Haul in the middle of the night with all of her things (along with his Ken Griffey Junior-signed game ball – the neve!) never to turn back.
Since their breakup in 1949, Taiwan has built a rich and vibrant multi-party democracy and the world’s 22nd largest economy. China (aka, communist girlfriend-beater) jealously regards Taiwan’s success and still claims Taiwan as part of China.
Officially, 17 countries in the world recognize Taiwan’s democratic government. In a bit of convoluted diplomacy, the U.S. does not officially recognize the Taiwanese government under the U.S. government’s “One-China” policy, but the U.S. maintains military relations with Taiwan and agreements to defend the island if under Chinese attack.
Military experts regard a Chinese attempt to invade Taiwan as a “nightmare scenario.”
One key advantage for China in any conflict with the U.S. over Taiwan is China’s proximity to Taiwan. To use a sports metaphor, we call this home-field advantage.
The distance between China and Taiwan is 1,307 miles (the width of the Taiwan Strait); whereas, the distance between Taiwan and the U.S. mainland is around 7,000 miles. The distance alone between the U.S. and Taiwan, which spans the entirety of the Pacific Ocean, would make for a difficult logistical engagement.
This is true despite U.S. bases and forces in Hawaii, Guam, Okinawa, the Philippines, and South Korea, which could rapidly be called upon to aid Taiwan in the event of war.
The U.S. military is extended around the world, while China is focusing its military resources in its own back yard in hopes of carving out its own sphere of influence in the Pacific.
In fact, the entire eastern theater command of China’s military is focused on Taiwan and Japan. China’s army “continues to enhance its readiness to prevent Taiwan independence and execute an invasion if necessary,” according to the Pentagon report.
Further complicating matters is that China has the world’s largest array of advanced range, surface-to-air missile systems that line the Chinese coast with their aim trained on Taiwan, ready to barrage the island.
To continue our belabored sports analogy, we might call this Chinese ground-based missile advantage the “12th Man,” after the N.F.L.’s Seattle Seahawks’ deafening crowds at CenturyLink stadium.
Except in this case, the fans are missiles (a lot of them) and they are much more destructive than beer-soaked Seahawks regulars (though possibly not as destructive as Seattle’s Antifa contingent, which burned Seattle to the ground this summer. Perhaps U.S. military planners should consider deploying Antifa to defend Taiwan?).
As Taiwan is an island, a critical factor in any U.S. war with China is the battlefield capabilities and performance of the countries’ navies and air power.
China has the largest navy in the world with a battle force of 350 ships versus the U.S. Navy’s 296 ships. But the comparison is apples to crab apples: the U.S. Navy has eleven aircraft carriers to China’s two aircraft carriers, and many of the battle-ready ships in China’s fleet that pad out their grand total are patrol ships or smaller corvette ships.
U.S. air superiority over the Chinese in a Taiwanese conflict is questionable. The U.S. faces long supply lines and limited bomber range from U.S. bases in the region. U.S. pilots would also have to confront the mainland Chinese surface-to-air missiles aforementioned.
In addition, the U.S. faces potentially higher costs of engagement with expensive equipment like its Lockheed Martin’s F-35s, which cost around $80 million per plane, versus Chinese hardware which is produced on a mass scale and on the cheap. An F-35 could be taken out with one missile, whereas a Chinese drone swarm could absorb multiple hits and continue to fight.
Conflict: Likely or Unlikely?
War with China over Taiwan would carry immense costs for all parties involved. This hasn’t stopped China from inching closer and closer to an invasion, building islands, and bases on top of them, in disputed South China Sea territories enabling a greater projection of power into the Pacific.
Every day that China continues to increase its presence in the South China Sea and the greater Pacific increases the likelihood of military conflict between the U.S. and China, if only because it increases the risk of miscalculation.
The U.S. Air Force’s chief of staff, General Charles Brown warns that a war with China would be highly contested and see “combat attrition rates and risks — that are more akin to the World War II-era than the uncontested environment to which we have become accustomed” since the Gulf War.