Are We Ready for War With China?

Paramilitary policemen take part in summer training in Shenzhen, China, on June 27. The authors of a new Rand Corp. report write that a U.S.-China war could begin with devastating strikes, last years, have no winner and inflict huge losses on both sides. China Daily/via REUTERS

This article is an edited version of a report by the Rand Corp. The full report may be found in PDF format or online here.

As its military advantage declines, the United States will be less confident that a war with China will conform to its plans.

China's improved military capabilities, particularly for anti-access and area denial (A2AD), mean that the United States cannot count on gaining operational control, destroying China's defenses and achieving decisive victory if a war occurred.

With that in mind, this report examines alternative paths that a war between the United States and China might take, losses and other effects on both sides, preparations that the United States should make and ways to balance U.S. war aims against costs should war occur.

We postulate that a war would be regional and conventional. It would be waged mainly by ships on and beneath the sea, by aircraft and missiles of many sorts, and in space (against satellites) and cyberspace (against computer systems).

We assume that fighting would start and remain in East Asia, where potential Sino-U.S. flash points and nearly all Chinese forces are located. Each side's increasingly far-flung disposition of forces and growing ability to track and attack opposing forces could turn much of the Western Pacific into a "war zone," with grave economic consequences.

It is unlikely that nuclear weapons would be used: Even in an intensely violent conventional conflict, neither side would regard its losses as so serious, its prospects so dire, or the stakes so vital that it would run the risk of devastating nuclear retaliation by using nuclear weapons first.

We also assume that China would not attack the U.S. homeland, except via cyberspace, given its minimal capability to do so with conventional weapons. In contrast, U.S. non-nuclear attacks against military targets in China could be extensive. The time frame studied is 2015 to 2025.

The need to think through war with China is made all the more important by developments in military capabilities. Sensors, weapon guidance, digital networking and other information technologies used to target opposing forces have advanced to the point where both U.S. and Chinese military forces seriously threaten each other.

This creates the means as well as the incentive to strike enemy forces before they strike one's own. In turn, this creates a bias toward sharp, reciprocal strikes from the outset of a war, yet with neither side able to gain control and both having ample capacity to keep fighting, even as military losses and economic costs mount.

A Sino-U.S. conflict is unlikely to involve large land combat. Moreover, the unprecedented ability of U.S. and Chinese forces to target and destroy each other—conventional counterforce—could greatly deplete military capabilities in a matter of months.

After that, the sides could replenish and improve their forces in an industrial-technological-demographic mobilization contest, the outcome of which depends on too many factors to speculate, except to say that costs would continue to climb.

While the primary audience for this study is the U.S. policy community, we hope that Chinese policymakers will also think through possible courses and consequences of war with the United States, including potential damage to China's economic development and threats to China's equilibrium and cohesion. We find little in the public domain to indicate that the Chinese political leadership has given this matter the attention it deserves.

Four Analytic Cases

The path of war might be defined mainly by two variables: intensity (from mild to severe) and duration (from a few days to a year or more).

Thus, we analyze four cases: brief and severe, long and severe, brief and mild, and long and mild.

The main determinant of intensity is whether, at the outset, U.S. and Chinese political leaders grant or deny their respective militaries permission to execute their plans to attack opposing forces unhesitatingly.

The main determinant of duration, given that both powers have the material wherewithal to fight a long war, is whether and when at least one side loses the will to fight or calculates that continuing to do so would be counterproductive.

We categorize the effects of each case as military, economic, domestic political and international. Military losses include aircraft, surface ships, submarines, missile launchers and inventories, and C4ISR (command, control, communications, computing, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) systems, which are increasingly vulnerable to cyber- and anti-satellite (ASAT) warfare.

Economic costs include the contraction of trade, consumption and revenue from investments abroad. (The disruption of energy supplies is captured in the effects of trade contraction.) Should cyberwarfare escalate from military to civilian domains and infect critical information infrastructure, economic activity could be further disrupted.

Domestic political effects could range from impeding war policy to endangering internal stability. International responses could be supportive, opposed or destabilizing.

The current rate of advances in military technology, especially in Chinese A2AD and in cyberwar and ASAT capabilities of both sides, implies a potential for major change in the decade to come, which dictates examining 2025 cases distinct from 2015 cases.

Economic conditions will also change between now and 2025—with the Chinese economy potentially overtaking the U.S. economy, Chinese investments abroad growing, and both economies relying more than ever on computer networking—though not enough to alter qualitatively the economic impact of a war.

Attempting to specify domestic political and international effects of war a decade from now would be even more speculative. Thus, 2025 is analyzed distinctly from 2015 only in the military dimension.

People's Liberation Army soldiers in a military demonstration at a naval base in Hong Kong on July 1. The Rand report's authors write that the unprecedented ability of U.S. and Chinese forces to target and destroy each other—conventional counterforce—could greatly deplete military capabilities in a matter of months. Bobby Yip/reuters

The four cases and indicative findings about losses, costs and other effects are as follows:

1. Brief, Severe

If either U.S. or Chinese political leaders authorize their military commanders to carry out plans for sharp strikes on enemy forces, a severely violent war would erupt. As of 2015, U.S. losses of surface naval and air forces, including disabled aircraft carriers and regional air bases, could be significant, but Chinese losses, including to homeland-based A2AD systems, would be much greater.

Within days, it would be apparent to both sides that the early gap in losses favoring the United States would widen if fighting continued. By 2025, though, U.S. losses would increase because of enhanced Chinese A2AD. This, in turn, could limit Chinese losses, though these would still be greater than U.S. ones. It could be unclear then whether continued fighting would result in victory for either side.

Economically, even a brief, severe war would produce a shock to Chinese global trade, most of which would have to transit the Western Pacific war zone, whereas U.S. economic damage would largely be confined to bilateral trade with China. International and domestic political responses would have little impact.

2. Long, Severe

As of 2015, the longer a severe war dragged on, the worse the results and prospects would be for China. By 2025, however, inconclusive results in early fighting could motivate both sides to fight on despite heavy losses incurred and still expected.

Although prospects for U.S. military victory then would be worse than they are today, this would not necessarily imply Chinese victory. As the fighting persisted, much of the Western Pacific, from the Yellow Sea to the South China Sea, could become hazardous for commercial sea and air transport.

Sharply reduced trade, including energy supplies, could harm China's economy disproportionately and badly. The longer and harsher a conflict, the greater would be the likelihood of involving other states, especially U.S. allies in the region—most important, Japan.

3. Brief, Mild

Given the uncertain prospects of swift military victory, the risks of losing control, and the specter of major economic damage, both Chinese and U.S. leaders (for it would take both) might decline to authorize all-out strikes on the other side's forces. What could follow is tightly restricted, low-grade, sporadic, inconclusive fighting, with minimal military losses.

Assuming that leaders of both states were inclined and had enough political latitude to compromise, such a conflict could be ended before it produced major economic damage or domestic and international political tremors.

4. Long, Mild

With fighting contained and losses tolerable, the sides could try to escape the political costs of compromise by continuing a low-grade conflict. Because neither would gain the upper hand militarily, this could go on for some time.

In the meantime, even with fighting limited, economic losses would grow, especially for China. With the passage of time, domestic and international political reactions would intensify, though less consequentially than in the long, severe case.

These cases indicate that the advanced conventional counterforce capabilities of both the United States and China could produce major military losses from the outset and throughout unrestrained (though non-nuclear) hostilities.

Once either military is authorized to commence strikes, the ability of both to control the conflict would be greatly compromised. Each side could regard a pre-emptive attack on the other's forces as a way to gain a major early and sustainable edge in losses and thus in capabilities to prevail. This underscores the instability inherent in mutual, conventional counterforce capabilities and war-fighting concepts.

By 2025, enhanced Chinese A2AD will have shrunk the gap between Chinese and U.S. military losses: Chinese losses would still be very heavy; U.S. losses, though less than China's, could be much heavier than in a 2015 war.

Even as U.S. military victory became less likely, Chinese victory would remain elusive. Because both sides would be able to continue inflicting severe losses, neither one would likely be willing to accept defeat.

History offers no encouragement that destructive but stalemated fighting induces belligerents to agree to stop. A severe, lengthy, militarily inconclusive war would weaken both powers and leave them vulnerable to other threats.

The Importance of Nonmilitary Factors

The prospect of a military standoff means that war could eventually be decided by nonmilitary factors. These should favor the United States now and in the future.

Although war would harm both economies, damage to China's could be catastrophic and lasting: on the order of a 25 to 35 percent reduction in Chinese gross domestic product in a yearlong war, compared with a reduction in U.S. GDP on the order of 5 to 10 percent.

Even a mild conflict, unless ended promptly, could weaken China's economy. A long and severe war could ravage China's economy, stall its hard-earned development and cause widespread hardship and dislocation.

Such economic damage could in turn aggravate political turmoil and embolden separatists in China. Although the regime and its security forces presumably could withstand such challenges, doing so might necessitate increased oppressiveness and undermine the legitimacy of the Chinese regime in the midst of a very difficult war.

In contrast, U.S. domestic partisan skirmishing could handicap the war effort but not endanger societal stability, much less the survival of the state, no matter how long and harsh the conflict, so long as it remains conventional. Escalating cyberwarfare, while injurious to both sides, could worsen China's economic problems and impede the government's ability to control a restive population.

International responses could, on balance, also favor the United States in a long and severe war: The support of U.S. East Asian allies could hurt China's military chances; the responses of Russia, India and NATO would have less impact; and NATO could neutralize Russian opportunistic threats in Europe.

Japan's entry would be likely if the nation were party to the underlying dispute and almost certain if its territory (where U.S. bases are) were attacked. With Tokyo's more permissive interpretation of constitutional limits on its use of force and programmed improvements in Japanese military capabilities, Japan's entry could make a difference by 2025 in the course and results of war.

Heightened turmoil in the Middle East could be harmful to both Chinese and U.S. interests.

These findings reinforce the widely held view that a Sino-U.S. war would be so harmful that both states should place a very high priority on avoiding one. While expectations of huge costs make premeditated war improbable, they also demand strong crisis management and civilian control of the military by both governments.

Given the extreme penalty for allowing one's forces to be struck before they strike, creating mutual forbearance at the outset of hostilities could be as difficult as it is critical. It requires an ability to cooperate, in effect, even after fighting has begun. Thus, the need for instant and unfiltered leader-to-leader communication is as great when hostilities begin as it is during crises that could lead to them.

Because the United States might be unable to control, win or avoid major losses and costs from a severe conflict, it must guard against automaticity in executing, if not initiating, a sharp and prompt counterforce exchange. This demands fail-safe assurance of definitive presidential approval to carry out military plans, which in turn requires that military commanders provide the president with a range of feasible options.

Notwithstanding its improved A2AD capabilities, China has even more to lose from a severe conflict, yet it has less experience with civilian-military coordination during high-tech, high-speed warfare. China's leaders would be ill-advised to think that trends in military modernization point to a brief and successful war.

More likely is a severe, drawn-out, militarily inconclusive one, with economic, political and international effects that might favor the United States. China has as much cause as the United States to prevent automatic execution of military plans for a prompt and sharp counterforce exchange, including an unambiguous requirement for political decision-making.

Recommended Actions for the U.S. Military

Chinese restraint in attacking U.S. forces when hostilities begin depends on Chinese expectations of U.S. action.

The U.S. military should not rely on plans to destroy China's A2AD capabilities in the first moments of a conflict. Such reliance could undermine crisis stability, predispose the Chinese toward pre-emptive strikes and heighten the danger of automaticity and the inevitability of fierce fighting from the outset.

Furthermore, the U.S. military should not prejudge or limit the president's options by having only a plan for immediate conventional counterforce attack, nor leave itself unprepared to carry out alternative plans. It would be far better for stability, and at least as good for deterrence, for the U.S. military to emphasize, in general, planning for a prolonged high-intensity war and to make this emphasis known to China.

Signaling a specific predisposition to strike Chinese A2AD capabilities before they could be used against U.S. forces increases the risk that those capabilities would be used before they were themselves struck.

In parallel with measures to prevent crises from becoming violent and violence from becoming severe, the United States should try to reduce the impact of Chinese A2AD by investing in more-survivable weapons platforms and in its own A2AD capabilities: missiles, submarines, drones and drone-launching platforms, cyber and ASAT.

Such capabilities would deny the Chinese confidence of victory and would improve stability in crises, as well as in the critical initial stage of a conflict. But they would not restore U.S. military dominance and control or spare the United States major losses or economic costs in a severe conflict.

While keeping in mind the potentially huge costs of preparing comprehensively for a low-probability war with China, the United States should make certain prudent preparations:

  • improve the ability to sustain and survive severely intense military operations
  • enhance high-priority military capabilities of, and military interoperability with, allies and partners near China
  • conduct contingency planning with Japan and other East Asian allies and partners
  • consult with NATO regarding contingencies involving conflict with China, including possible Russian and Iranian reactions
  • adopt measures to mitigate the interruption of critical products from China
  • formulate options to deny China access to war-critical imports (e.g., fuels)

The U.S. Army, in its Title X and joint responsibilities, can contribute by

  • investing in counter-A2AD capabilities—for example, mobile land-based missiles and integrated air defense to worsen expected Chinese military, naval and air losses
  • strengthening, advising and enabling East Asian partners to mount strong defense
  • assessing high-demand weapons and stocks in the event of a long, severe war
  • Because such U.S. measures could be interpreted as hostile by the Chinese, the United States, including the U.S. Army, should also expand and deepen Sino-U.S. military-to-military understanding and measures to reduce risks of misperception and miscalculation.


Although advances in targeting enable conventional counterforce warfare and reduce U.S. war-fighting dominance, they do not point to Chinese dominance or victory.

War between the two countries could begin with devastating strikes, be hard to control, last months if not years, have no winner and inflict huge losses on both sides' military forces.

The longer such a war would rage, the greater the importance of economic, domestic political and international effects. While such nonmilitary effects would fall hardest on China, they could also greatly harm the U.S. economy and the United States's ability to meet challenges worldwide.

As China's military improvements neutralize the military advantages of the United States, and because technology favors conventional counterforce, war between the two countries could be intense, last a year or more, have no winner and inflict huge losses and costs on both sides.

The longer such a war continues, the more significant economic, domestic political and international effects would become. While such nonmilitary effects would hit China hardest, they could also greatly harm the U.S. economy and the U.S. ability to meet security challenges worldwide.

The United States should make prudent preparations to be able to wage a long and intense war with China. Of no less importance is the ability of the United States to limit the scope, intensity and duration of a war with China through its planning, its system of civilian control and its ability to communicate with China in peace, crisis and war.

Likewise for China, political control and good wartime top-level communications are imperative.

True, Chinese military improvements have lessened the danger of losing decisively to the United States. Yet China cannot count on a short war, and a long one could leave China weak, unstable, insecure and impoverished.

To paraphrase Frederick the Great, evenly matched well-armed powers considering war will want to weigh whether possible gains would even "pay the interest" on probable costs.

As the United States and China become more equal in their ability to destroy each other's forces, neither can be confident of winning at an acceptable price. Should a confrontation or incident nonetheless lead to hostilities, it would be better if both sides had thought through how to limit the harm, not just how to win.

Access the full Rand report in PDF format or online here.

David C. Gompert was principal deputy director of national intelligence from 2009 to 2010. During 2010, he served as acting director of national intelligence, where he provided strategic oversight of the U.S. Intelligence Community, and was the president's chief intelligence adviser. He is currently distinguished visiting professor for national security studies at the United States Naval Academy and adjunct senior fellow at the Rand Corp.

Cristina Garafola is a project associate at Rand. Before joining Rand, she worked at the Department of the Treasury, the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs at the Department of State.

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