March 1982. Buenos Aires, Argentina.
The military junta ruling Argentina was losing the last shred of credibility—and, with it, control. In 1976, the junta had removed Juan Peron’s second wife from power in an attempt to restore political stability and economic prosperity. Six years later, it faced massive popular discontent amid 130 percent inflation, frozen wages, a 5 percent—and accelerating—decline in gross domestic product, crumbling infrastructure, fleeing foreign global investment, international condemnation, and a dirty war against dissidents that may have killed 30,000. Its social compact with the Argentine people was broken.
Seeking to restore public approval and retain power, it chose to forcibly resolve a long-standing nationalist grievance. Calculating it could achieve a fait accompli as the world stood by, the junta ordered elite commandos to lead its armed forces in an invasion of the offshore British territory of the Falkland Islands—“las Malvinas.” The distance between the Falklands and the Argentine mainland is a little more than 320 nautical miles. It was inconceivable to the junta that the United Kingdom, a declining global power, would—despite massive financial costs, reduced military strength, appalling environmental conditions, and low net worth of the islands, and the possibility of failure—mount an 8,000-mile expedition to restore British sovereignty and islander self-determination. Renewed popular support for the junta seemed within reach.
September 2035. Beijing, China.
The spiraling cycle of deglobalization was gaining in intensity, along with rage at inequalities of wealth directed at global corporations, financial markets, tech industries, and other nations. The emergence of Covid-34 added a more existential fear.
Countries with strong, potentially self-sustaining domestic economies were able to weather severe but manageable economic declines. Others, particularly those whose prosperity relied on exporting manufactured goods or natural resources, faced successive waves of populism, nationalism, ethnic separatism, depression, and social unrest. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) was hard hit by a shrinking export market, threatening the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
Despite a goal of eventually creating a self-sustaining domestic economy, the financial wealth built over the past four decades was largely directed overseas, through the Belt and Road Initiatives and similar efforts, and these investments had begun to collapse even before the latest pandemic: moribund ports, roads and rails underutilized, money evaporating or siphoned off. Instead of being respected by other developing nations, the poorer parts of the world began to see the “Chinese Dream” as built on exploitation.
Inside China, wealth inequalities between the urban and rural populations, the loss of jobs to artificial intelligence, rampant corruption, pollution, and brutal measures to “let Covid burn itself out”—not to mention the bureaucratic nightmare of the social credit system—began to break down the unspoken compact between the population and the Party that had once been characterized by “We bring you prosperity; you don’t challenge our power.” The CCP perceived dissidents and rivals everywhere, particularly after a handful of former party insiders followed the lead of Cai Xia in denouncing 82-year old president-for-life Xi Jinping. Leaders faced the difficulty of what will restore legitimacy, “the mandate of heaven.”
A festering wound—the one part of China that has defied the party’s control since the civil war of the late 1940s—perhaps offered the solution. Xi Jinping and his cronies looked across the 70–nautical mile Taiwan Strait and saw opportunity.
Risk existed, but the calculations appeared favorable. The People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA’s) antiaccess/area-denial network had increased in strength year-by-year for a decade, and Taiwan was in its range. The network was not perhaps invulnerable to hypersonic missiles, but it was resilient, with considerable hardening. The United States retained an advantage in certain defense technologies, but the PLA Navy and associated China Coast Guard and maritime militia had double the number of ships of the U.S. Navy. The PLA Marine Corps expanded and, though unproven, was well trained. PLA hypersonic missiles could hit Guam and Japan, not to mention Hawaii, and antisatellite weapons were placed in orbit. Finally, nuclear-armed ballistic missiles fired from the Chinese mainland could reach anywhere in the United States—or the world, for that matter. Taiwan’s military might fight, but it was dwarfed in all categories.
If Taiwan could be taken swiftly and cleanly, the CCP would have done what no Chinese dynasty had ever accomplished—unified a Han China from Tibet to Taiwan. Solidifying undisputed power would be worth certain risks, particularly taken against the reaction of what is perceived as a declining power.
The omens were favorable, too. No U.S. Navy carrier strike or surface action groups were at sea in the western Pacific.
Only recently, the Secretary of Defense (SecDef) had announced reduction of the U.S. aircraft nuclear-powered carrier (CVN) inventory to seven to free up funds to harden additional hypersonic missile sites in Hawaii, California, and Guam and to obtain additional artificial-intelligence systems to provide command-and-control assistance.
At the socially distanced remote press conference announcing the reductions, the SecDef excoriated “legacy admirals,” saying: “I don’t ever want to hear the term ‘forward presence.’ Forward presence has gone the way of gunboat diplomacy. With the reach and speed of hypersonic missiles, wars will be over in minutes, and we have all necessary targets in China covered.” The secretary added that the admirals “need to get used to the fact that, if needed at all, we have a ‘surge Navy’ now and stop sending me these ridiculous, over-budget ship-building plans. The Department of Defense is responsible for deterring or winning wars, not conducting so-called naval diplomacy—as pointless as the former freedom-of-navigation exercises always were.” He concluded, “The only maritime forces we need in the region are a few autonomous ISR [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] and strike platforms to augment land and air forces.”
As the PLA prepared, the U.S. joint artificial intelligence strategic decision recommendation system (JAISDRS) noticed some activity but discounted it, since—although the data analysis was inconclusive—it was illogical that the PRC would pursue political risky actions in an economic crisis. Even so, reports from human intelligence sources in Hong Kong, now renamed Xi City, provoked a National Security Council meeting at the White House Situation Room.
WASHINGTON DC. NSC PRINCIPALS + TREASURY.
0339Z 23 OCT 34.
SECDEF: Madam President, JAISDRS indicates that the potential for war in the Taiwan Strait remains low. Hunts forward by CyberCom indicate no planned cyber attacks evident, although the effectiveness of the decoupled Chinese internet does make our penetration more difficult. The PRC knows very well we can strike any target we wish in mainland China with hypersonics in a matter of minutes, if not seconds. Our forces are always on alert. Challenging our resolve is illogical.
POTUS: I’m still uncomfortable about the reports. We need to have options. We can’t just sit around waiting for war. Can’t we interpose some naval forces? Put them in the Strait to make the PRC recognize our commitment to prevent forcible annexation? If there is an amphibious invasion—can’t we stop it at sea?
SECDEF: We can bring some SSNs forward along with autonomous underwater systems. But, Madam President, you are forgetting that we have shifted to surge. We have replaced the Yokosuka carrier strike group with an unmanned fleet. It’s designated as part of the contact layer. But it is primarily designed to supplement land- and space-based assets. Strike capacity is limited, and it’s not designed to actually patrol the Taiwan Strait.
SECSTATE: But if forcible annexation did take place, it would doom our relationships around the globe—allies, partners. We must do something real, tangible.
SECTREASURY: A PRC move now would destroy what remains of the global financial market. They can’t be as stupid as that, can they? In fact, any movement or even discussion of forces in the vicinity of Taiwan would rattle Wall Street, which is clinging to the remnants of our investments in China, who still own a lot of our bonds.
[INAUDIBLE WHISPER FROM MILITARY AIDE TO CHAIRMAN, JOINT CHIEFS OF STAFF (CJCS).]
CJCS: CyberCom is reporting that the PRC severed all ties to the global internet. Worse, Space Force says some type of electromagnetic anomaly has occurred in the western Pacific. GPS is jammed, as are most long-range communications. This has—that is, it’s degraded control of autonomous systems. But, fortunately, most manned sites are still online.
POTUS: How many prompt global strike weapons require GPS or command inputs?
SECDEF: About—70 percent. We made the decision to try to harden GPS rather than convert all the weapons. Despite cuts in other programs, the budget would not—
NSADVISOR: Madam President, I just got a secure text. President Xi Jinping wishes to speak with you right now.
POTUS: Put him on the screen.
XI [PRC] [AI translation]: Madam President, I wish to inform you that we have decided to enforce our antisecession law and bring our long-rebellious province of Taiwan back under our control.
POTUS: You intend to invade.
XI [PRC]: That is why I am contacting you. I wish to assure you that during this operation we intend to conduct no military strike on any land territory of the United States. I know that a prudent U.S. President would consider any missile attack on her land territory a potential nuclear attack. We do not want such escalation to occur.
POTUS: Obviously, neither do we. But you cannot get away with this. We intend to take action to prevent invasion of Taiwan.
XI [PRC]: I thought that might be possible. That is why I also wish to inform you that, as a prudent President of the PRC, I must assume that any American missile strike on the land territory of the People’s Republic could be a nuclear attack and will take retaliatory steps accordingly.
POTUS: You are risking nuclear war!
XI [PRC]: No, Madam President. You are risking nuclear war. If even a single of your prompt global strike weapons hits my country’s territory, we must assume the worse. I cannot foretell what may happen in the Strait itself. Perhaps ships will collide, perhaps even fight. But whatever happens there, we intend to honor our pledge and attack no U.S. territory, including your outlying possessions. As I said, that is because we are prudent and we both must assume a nuclear attack. Again, we recognize that confrontations may happen at sea, where there is no civilian population. That would be unfortunate, but much different than a strike on China. When my daughter, Xi Mingze, studied at Harvard, she learned a cant popular phrase: [SPOKEN IN ENGLISH] “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.” Well, what happens at sea. . . .
[LONG PAUSE] We prefer nothing happen, of course. You liked to send warships through our territorial waters in the past. I am merely speculating that a confrontation might occur in such a case now. But if it does, we must be prudent and not attack each other’s territory. That would be calamitous for many American civilians as well as Chinese. But I am afraid I must go now. Goodbye, Madam President. But remember, if U.S. missiles strike Chinese territory, we must assume the worse.
POTUS: Can we strike the PLAN’s ships at sea with the hypersonics?
SECDEF: Well, they—uh—they weren’t designed to do that. Out target set—that is, it’s all ashore. C2 nodes, missile launch areas, air bases. Real threats. We—we do have some antiship weapons, but Guam is out of range for that sort of strike.
CJCS: The mainland targets are definitely covered. Guam hypersonics can be launched in a moment. We will have the mobile launchers scramble on the Big Island. [INAUDIBLE] Vandenberg stands ready.
POTUS: I cannot risk nuclear war. Admiral, can the Navy meet them at sea?
CNO: Madam President, I—I do not control the fleet. That’s in the hands of Indo-PaCom—Admiral Howard. But the strike group out of San Diego can be ready in 24 hours. We kept the crews on board because of Covid. In accordance with the surge policy. It is possible that the ships—manned and unmanned—at Pearl could link up with the Bremerton carrier in, say, 48 to 96 hours. The third Pacific carrier is in drydock, and many other ships are down for repairs. At best we can have the initial force there in about, ah, seven days. Swinging from the Atlantic and Mediterranean—obviously, that’ll take much longer.
POTUS: Are there no warships present there at all?
SECDEF: Warships in the region—we judged them, that is, you agreed they were too easily targetable. As you recall, Madam President, to reallocate funds we—we opted for a surge strategy—
POTUS: I cannot risk nuclear war. But we—we must take some military action. Seven days is a long time, but we must do something. Stop what we can. Our subs and UUVs in theater can hold some of them up, but they have numbers. Obviously, we can mine harbors and conduct air operations, but much of their fleet and the amphibious force must already be ready to sortie. I assume the Air Force is trained for over-water ops?
AIR FORCE COS: That was part of the old Air/Sea Battle concept. But that was . . . downgraded to a joint concept that was defunded. We have focused on the mainland—C2 strikes. Silos. Fixed targets. That kind of thing.
POTUS: How many PLAN carrier groups will our two strike groups face when they get there?
SECDEF: Four. They have four operational. That we know of.
POTUS: Oh my God. Two against four. That we know of. [LONG PAUSE] Admiral, Commandant, what can we expect from our sailors and Marines?
CNO: I know they will give all to their last ounce of strength and courage. But, given the odds and the scenario—are we sailing to Midway or Tsushima? I can’t really say with certainty. It’s a gamble.
SECDEF: I’ll have my staff check the JAISDRS analysis immediately.
POTUS: Don’t bother. I think I know what it will say.
NSADVISOR: Madam President, the Russian President wishes to speak with you right now. About—about averting nuclear war in the Baltic.