Could the US Defeat China in a Great-Power War?

Only if we defeat the technological path dependence paralyzing the military, argues analyst Chris Brose

Chinese military honor guard marching in 2012 to mark JCOS Staff Marine General Peter Pace’s visit to Beijing (Wikimedia Commons).

Have thirty years of unipolar hegemony lulled the American military-industrial complex into complacency? According to Aspen Institute defense policy analyst Chris Brose, yes.

In The Kill Chain, which came out in April and has garnered widespread attention in the defense world, Brose argues that the US is woefully underprepared for a great-power war—not due to a lack of weapons or advanced military platforms, but because of those platforms’ inability to communicate with one another. The Kill Chain, named after the process that describes military communications and decision-making, paints a disturbing picture of a stultified military bureaucracy that operates on outdated communications technology. According to Brose, tech built by commercial institutions such as Google and NVIDIA has vastly outpaced any technology the military has to offer. War on the Rocks described the phenomenon in a tongue-in-cheek fashion: “You can’t call in an airstrike with an iPhone.” Brose, too, points out the irony of the situation in a humorous but unsettling way: “When [soldiers] are off duty, they may use Nvidia’s technology to play video games or even assist them on their drive home. But in uniform, they are essentially doing the same jobs that their grandparents did in World War II.”

Rather than investing research into technology like AI and machine learning, Brose argues, the military bureaucracy simply churns out new versions of the same “platforms” (i.e., tanks and planes) because defense contractors have been financially incentivized to do so. The growing gulf between the military-industrial complex and the innovation-driven tech world has grown so large, according to Brose, that just a handful of companies—SpaceX and Palantir, for instance—are even willing to work with the government at all. Brose argues that this gulf has left the military reliant on humans to perform operations and make decisions that could be allocated to machines for greater efficiency and lower financial and human costs.

Digital Interoperability Speeds Up the Kill Chain” (Wikimedia Commons)

Brose repeatedly points out that the US military bureaucracy’s technological missteps have left it vulnerable to exploitation by an adversarial power— namely, Russia or China. Such an adversary would attempt to counter the US not through direct, conventional conflict, but by disabling the networks that allow military units and platforms to communicate and plan attacks. We have already witnessed Russia and China attempt this asymmetrical fighting style—as Sun Tzu might put it, “winning without fighting.” One particularly powerful example Brose employs, for example, revolves around the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2014. Russian technology completely blindsided American troops fighting in Ukraine: as Brose puts it, “US pilots had to content with jammed communications, highly accurate antiaircraft missile batteries, and advanced fighter jets that flew too close for comfort.” What resulted was a “high-speed kill chain that not only decimated Ukrainian … opposition forces but also undermined many of the ways and means of the US military.” Russian planners, as Brose pointed out, had spent a “long time” studying the US military’s tactics and producing weapons they knew could counter American strategies—”long-range missiles and rockets, highly capable special operations forces, advanced air defenses, electronic warfare, cyber weapons, lasers to blind satellites, missiles to shoot them down, and tactical nuclear weapons.” And in Ukraine, Russia’s efforts paid off.

Brose compares the American experience with Russia’s “little green men” to a contemporary “Sputnik moment”—an event he hopes will jar the US military bureaucracy out of its complacency and incentivize a revolution in military tech. The United States cannot rest on its Gulf War laurels, Brose argues. The Gulf War may have been a conventional conflict fought with tanks and jets (as opposed to a long-term counterinsurgency), but the US only prevailed because Saddam’s army had relied on vastly inferior, outdated Soviet technology. In a war with China—a conflict that some argue is becoming increasingly likely, especially given tensions over Taiwan and the South China Sea—the US cannot afford to be blindsided the way it was in Ukraine.

The Kill Chain isn’t analytically perfect—Brose certainly veers into the speculative at times—but it raises many interesting points about the US defense bureaucracy. Is the military really as far behind on AI and machine learning as Brose puts it? In my own (admittedly limited) experience, it would seem as though strategic thinkers at RAND and other military-focused organizations have begun to think about cutting-edge technology in fascinating new ways. At the undergraduate conference I attended at the US Air Force Academy in October 2019, for instance, one speaker discussed the notion of the kill chain and described how computers can be added to certain nodes of the chain to improve decision-making processes. Much of it went over my head at the time, as I had no context for the abstractions of the kill chain (Brose’s book would not come out for another six months). But if these sorts of ideas are being discussed openly at undergraduate national security conferences, can the military really be that far behind on developing cutting-edge comms technologies?

As this Congressional Research Service brief points out, technological path dependence is not a given, even within the sclerotic US defense bureaucracy. The fact that Congress established a Joint Artificial Intelligence Center within the DoD—currently headed up by former private-sector entrepreneur Nand Mulchandani—in 2019 is one cause for optimism. Mulchandani, who was just appointed in June 2020, will hopefully revitalize the DoD with much-needed private-sector innovation during his tenure as interim JAIC director (the DoD has plans to replace him with a three-star general or flag officer later in 2020). The JAIC is so new that it remains to be seen whether it will drive real innovation, or whether it will fall into the same trap of path dependence that afflicts other government bureaucracies. But a working group specifically dedicated to the pursuit of artificial intelligence—not just the creation of new versions of old platforms—is a step in the right direction.

At the end of the day, many different factors could determine the outcome of a US-China great power war. The power that the US and allies could project in the Indo-Pacific depends on a variety of factors—the capability of US allies in India and Australia, for instance, as well as the American ability to transport its carriers and warships rapidly enough to take action. American geostrategy would rely primarily on its blue-water navy, which would likely be used in conjunction with allies’ navies to blockade key chokepoints (such as the Strait of Malacca or the Andaman-Nicobar Archipelago) through which valuable supplies must travel en route to China. The US possesses more aircraft carriers than China does but, as Brose points out, sheer numbers aren’t everything. Chinese interception of American communications could have disastrous effects no matter how many carriers the US brings to the battlefield. And China’s A2/AD strategy, which I have written about here, could present the perfect trap for American naval forces. Additionally, American projection of power relies heavily on strategic islands, such as Guam, which China could attack with comparative ease.

China’s DF-21 “carrier killer” transporter erector vehicle on display in Beijing (Wikimedia Commons)

Brose writes that China’s long-range DF-21 “carrier killer” missile could prove especially deadly, as the US would need to rely heavily on aircraft carriers in a great-power naval war. The US, on the other hand, has a means of countering the carrier killer: Raytheon’s SM-6 missile, which, according to The National Interest, can “kill almost anything.” TNI points out that the Navy plans on buying 1,800 SM-6s over the next six years, which may lower the threat posed by DF-21s over time (unless China develops a new model capable of evading SM-6 fire). This video, based on a statement by US Admiral John Greenert, also provides an interesting overview of possible US defenses against DF-21s.

So, all things considered, would the US lose a great-power war with China? A great deal depends on unknowns: both sides’ technological capabilities, physical ability to project power, willingness to fight, and willingness to protect whatever is at stake. It would certainly seem unlikely that the US would risk great-power war with China over Hong Kong, the South China Sea, or Taiwan, even considering the diplomatic sparring that these flashpoints have sparked in recent months. Regardless of the United States’ reasons for fighting or for holding back, one thing is clear: innovation never hurts. As Sun Tzu put it, “The good fighters of old first put themselves beyond the possibility of defeat, and then waited for an opportunity of defeating the enemy.” By investing in true military innovation, the United States can put itself one step further beyond the possibility of defeat.

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