A war between the United States and China would cause severe losses on both sides, but—today at least—Beijing would bear the brunt of the casualties. However, as China’s anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities continue to improve—the balance of losses would shift more towards Beijing’s favor by 2025. Nonetheless, China would still suffer more losses than Washington even at that stage—according to a new report from the RAND Corporation. Victory for either side might prove to be elusive as the conflict could degenerate into inconclusive bloodletting.
“As its military advantage declines, the United States will be less confident that a war with China will conform to its plans,” reads the new report by David C. Gompert, Astrid Cevallos and Cristina L. Garafola. “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.”
A war with China—now and in the future—would likely be fought at sea and in the air, but cyber and space capabilities would play a significant role, according to the report. But the RAND researchers expect that should a war breakout, it would remain a conventional fight. “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,” reads the report. “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.”
A Sino-American war could develop in a number of ways—including short bloody war or a long and devastating war. Moreover, modern technologies incentivize either side to launch a preemptive attack first. “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,” the report reads. “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.”
In any of the cases above—a war would cause serious losses and enormous economic damage. Indeed, it might deplete the military capabilities of both sides at an unprecedented rate—leaving both vulnerable to other threats. “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,”
This is the basis of 2017 War with Russia, the unsettling new book by General Sir Richard Shirreff, who retired in 2014 as NATO’s deputy supreme commander of Europe, as well as its highest-ranking British officer. Although 2017 is technically a novel, this “future history” is really just a war game on the printed page, its preoccupations much closer to those of von Clausewitz and Churchill than those of Woolf or Wordsworth. Shirreff’s book is subtitled “An urgent warning from senior military command,” and he makes plain in his introduction that the novel’s primary intention is to convey the urgency of containing Russian President Vladimir Putin. He likens today’s Mother Russia to Germany in the late 1930s, when it seized the Sudetenland in brazen contravention of established borders. War-weary Europe let the matter slide, hoping that talk of a Thousand Year Reich was just bluster.
“I’m worried, very worried, that we’re sleepwalking into something absolutely catastrophic,” Shirreff tells me, speaking on a Friday evening from his home in Hampshire, in the bucolic country outside of London. A graduate of Oxford who served in the British army, with deployments in the Middle East and the Balkans, he is not a natural writer, so the judgment of the Financial Times—that this is a “literary disaster”—is not as stinging as it might otherwise be, since that same review praised Shirreff’s grim geopolitical vision as one of “profound importance.” 2017 is an unabashedly didactic work, a real-life warning with the bold-faced names changed.
Until a few weeks ago, most American readers of 2017 would not have thought twice about the preface by James Stavridis, the now-retired American admiral who served as the NATO Supreme Commander of Europe. But in July, media outlets reported that Stavridis was being seriously considered by Clinton as her vice presidential candidate. If he is to serve as an advisory role in her presidency, his view of Russia would be useful. And as presented here, that view is utterly unambiguous: “Of all the challenges America faces on the geopolitical scene in the second decade of the 21st century, the most dangerous is the resurgence of Russia under President Putin.” When Mitt Romney said as much during his 2012 presidential bid, he was mocked for stoking anachronistic Cold War fears. “The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back,” President Obama said glibly of Romney’s warning.
It is far more likely, according to most projections, that the next president will be Clinton, a longtime foe of Putin who has shown a willingness to use American force abroad. Shirreff believes that nuclear war with Russia is a possibility: Kaliningrad, a region of Russia that borders the Baltic States, now serves as a growing repository for both conventional and nuclear weapons, including Iskander missile systems that have nuclear capability and a range of 300 miles. These could be fired at the West—and will be, if Putin finds Russia’s borders with Europe threatened. Of course, if he invades the Baltics, such a counterattack would be required by the “collective defense” doctrine of the North Atlantic Treaty, known as Article 5. “If NATO goes to war with Russia,” Shirreff says, “that means nuclear war.”