In the “War in 2026” scenario that appeared in the December 2023 Proceedings, China’s attacks on U.S. forces in the western Pacific have dealt a devastating blow to U.S. credibility and the U.S. alliance structure. Chinese forces seem to have every advantage: large numbers of ships and missiles, interior lines between mainland China and Taiwan, industrial capacity that harkens back to the United States in World War II, and a centralized command structure sitting atop a surveillance state.
From one perspective, the first month appears to have gone well for Beijing. China caught the United States and several allies by surprise, other partner nations are hesitant to choose a side in the fight, and Chinese forces have established a lodgment on the southern portion of Taiwan. For some, this might indicate the end of Taiwan as a self-ruled political entity. Looking beyond these initial Chinese successes, however, the contours of a longer fight emerge.
The inability of Chinese forces to break out of southern Taiwan owes to efforts Taipei began around 2022 as part of its “Fortress Taiwan” initiative, as well as lessons the Taiwanese took from the Russia-Ukraine and Israel-Hamas conflicts. Taipei quietly assembled asymmetric capabilities, such as minelayers and mobile self-propelled howitzers, and purchased the M136 Volcano ground vehicle mine-dispensing system. This was coupled with resilience efforts, including emergency runway operations on highways and moving command and some aircraft facilities underground.
Furthermore, Taipei’s defense spending in research and development yielded long-range surface-to-surface missiles, and the U.S. Foreign Military Finance grant program allowed for a more streamlined acquisition process for U.S. defense technologies.1 In fiscal year 2024, the Department of State created a Countering People’s Republic of China Malign Influence Fund with initial seed money of $50 million, in addition to funding for East Asia (primarily for Indonesia, Mongolia, Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam).2
Examination and Implications: The Immediate Aftermath
High-orbit infrared and low-earth orbit reconnaissance satellites observed China’s ballistic-missile launches and alerted commands across the Pacific. Of the U.S. Navy’s 53 ballistic-missile defense (BMD)-capable Aegis ships, 11 are stationed in Japan. If seven of these were at sea at the commencement of hostilities and five survived the initial attack, 506 missile cells would remain available for air and missile defense and strike operations.3 These ships at sea would begin counter-targeting maneuvers, active jamming, and using defensive missiles as they moved outside the first island chain. In doing so, they would expend a significant portion of their defensive missiles in area- and self-defense engagements and would have to pull into port facilities ranging from Australia (8-9 days) to Palau or Micronesia (4-5 days) to reload missile canisters and monitor wear of ablative coating.4 The United States would immediately dispatch Navy construction battalions (Seabees), the Air Force’s 820th Red Horse Squadron (a 345-person engineering and logistics unit), and the U.S. Army’s airfield damage-repair teams throughout the Pacific to return airfields to operational status.
China’s ballistic missiles would still threaten, but the initial volley would give way to a more conservative firing policy mainly because of the collateral damage inflicted on host countries and the American population’s outrage at China’s attack on U.S. forces. Forces would begin flowing from the West Coast (20 days), and the United States would invoke NATO’s Article 5 (collective defense). Air-defense armament and replacement aircraft would begin moving to the Pacific from Europe after 30 days.
A combination of unmanned surface vessels simulating aircraft carrier emissions and manned vessels in war-reserve mode emission control would confuse China’s ballistic-missile targeting platforms. China would then dispatch its more than 200 H-6 bombers armed with cruise missiles to keep U.S. and allied naval assets away from the first island chain. However, the fight would spread from the relatively concentrated area around Taiwan to the broader ocean area between the first and second island chains, and, with so many approaches to cover, the Chinese bomber fleet and refueling aircraft would be vulnerable to U.S. F-22 and F-35 fighter sweeps. The saturated and intentionally confusing emission environment, increased exposure of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) to antisurface-missile attacks, and inexperience of PLAN ship commanders in delousing procedures would result in numerous friendly fire incidents, whittling down China’s bomber fleet even more.
To create the space for the more numerous U.S. and Taiwanese fourth-generation aircraft that were in deep tunnels and bunkers, the U.S. Air Force would activate its “Rapid Dragon” capability.5 In this, C-17 and C-130 aircraft carrying palletized antiship cruise missiles would saturate PLAN ship air defenses between Taiwan and mainland China, forcing undamaged ships to return to the mainland to replenish, where they would be targets for U.S. global strike capabilities. PLAN ships with even minor damage would likely be mission kills because PLAN crews lack familiarity with damage-control procedures and the ships themselves have inferior design standards.
As seen in Ukraine and Israel, air and missile defense consume large quantities of defensive weapons, especially when firing two or three weapons against each incoming target. China’s People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force was prodigious at the start of the conflict, with an inventory of more than 1,000 short- and medium-range missiles of various types. While personnel purges in China’s defense establishment surrounding the rocket forces create some doubt as to the quality of those missiles, the sheer quantity cannot be assumed away.
For U.S. Aegis ships and shore facilities, the Standard Missile 2 (SM-2) variants (Block IIIA and IIIB) are effective against air and cruise missile targets and have been produced for foreign sales for the better part of the past decade. With more than 1,700 live firings by allies and partners, it is reasonable to expect that a stockpile numbering in the thousands still exists, separate even from those produced for Japan and South Korea.
The SM-6 replacement has a greater range and capability against a wider range of threats, including endoatmospheric intercept of ballistic missiles, and has been produced at a steady rate of 125 per year for the past decade.6 Subtracting test firings, around 1,000 of these missiles are probably available. Meanwhile, the SM-3s (of which approximately 265 remain) are used for exoatmospheric intercept and have proven themselves as antisatellite weapons.7 The exact distribution of SM-2, SM-3, and SM-6 missiles on U.S. ships would depend on finding the right balance between homeland defense and forward defense, with SM-3s subject to more central management.
Regarding U.S. land-based interceptors, 44 ground-based interceptors were produced and are preserved for homeland missile defense. For terminal defense missions, each Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) battery comprises six launcher vehicles carrying eight interceptors each. The FY24 National Defense Authorization Act called for a force structure of seven batteries, requiring approximately 350 interceptors, in addition to those produced for partner nations. The United States has also produced more than 200 Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3) missile interceptors per year for the past decade, and more than 1,000 likely remain in inventory.8
In the weeks following the initial attack, missiles and ships would continue to flow into the theater, and a steady war of attrition would continue unabated. While China would lose more ships and aircraft, each U.S. ship damaged or lost is a greater cost because of the United States’ limited capacity to produce ships and armament, as well as the distance replacements must travel.
Homeland Defense Implications
Complicating the defense of Taiwan, beyond the immediate actions already described, would be the expected call for a more comprehensive defense of the homeland. For the United States, air and missile defense architecture is multidimensional, with sensors at sea, on the ground from Alaska to Greenland, and on satellites in space. Interceptors include aircraft squadrons throughout the northern states and Alaska and ground-based ones in Alaska and California. As demonstrated around the 9/11 attacks, Aegis ships are easily integrated into this architecture.
The command and control required for such a comprehensive system is vested in the Joint Functional Component Command–Integrated Missile Defense (JFCC-IMD), a subordinate command of U.S. Space Command, which provides unity of command for homeland missile defense but, in doing so, may complicate the theater and/or fleet commander’s mission in the scenario.9
Defense authorization bills over the past few years have required the Missile Defense Agency and combatant commanders to contemplate similar comprehensive architectures for Guam, the Indo-Pacific theater, and the Middle East. How each of these defense structures nest into the homeland missile-defense architecture is undetermined, but each is built on a triad of missile and sensor systems: PAC-3, THAAD, and Aegis.
The ability to extend the technological shield of advanced sensors and interceptors is a powerful tool in defense diplomacy because it offers two implicit messages to partners and allies: Their populations can rest assured because U.S. systems will blunt any attack; and the U.S. nuclear umbrella extends to them, because the United States has defensive measures against a nuclear attack on its homeland.
The United States has provided these systems, or export-controlled versions of them, to multiple countries in response to specific threats from Russia, Iran, North Korea, and China. Of note, Japan and South Korea operate all three systems, as well as produce and integrate their own air-defense systems.
In the scenario, China’s partially successful attacks would lessen the U.S. public’s confidence in missile-defense systems. This performance gap, coupled with a disinformation campaign about the West Coast’s vulnerability to nuclear strikes, would create a near panic and force the services to adopt an overprotective stance. To ensure a layered defense, JFCC-IMD would ask for control of all BMD-capable assets along the China/North Korea threat vector, and Aegis ships would sortie to coastal approaches off West Coast ports to create favorable overlapping intercept geometries. Similarly, ships in Hawaii would create a defensive ring around the major islands. Army missile-defense units would be called forward to provide defenses in northern and western states, and, working with Canada, defensive emplacements would be augmented in the High North. These additional assets would be folded into the existing integrated threat warning/attack assessment ground-based architecture, requiring an infusion of reserve and civilian specialists to manage increased information.10
Over time, replacements for the Aegis ships would be brought from the East Coast and inactivated Aegis cruisers would be placed in West Coast ports, freeing some BMD assets for use forward but thinning out the ranks of Aegis specialists.
At the time of China’s attack on military installations in the Indo-Pacific, Guam’s missile-defense architecture was still in the initial deployment stage.11 The successful attack on U.S. assets abroad and the attendant shift favoring homeland defense would have a chilling impact on allies and partners, many of whom desire similar protections from Chinese missile strikes and had faith in the implicit message of protection. Allies and partners are wary of Chinese warnings and would need to be reassured not only of the United States’ commitment, but also of its competence to conduct operations.
The cumulative interests of defending Taiwan, punishing China, and defending the homeland would demonstrate the insufficiency of U.S. production capacity. Replenishing missiles fired in the first defensive wave and the likely change in firing doctrine (firing more interceptors at incoming missiles to ensure a higher probability of kill) would rapidly deplete missile stockpiles.12 U.S. production of defensive missiles (for example, 125 SM-6s per year for the past decade) was designed to create contract, supply chain, and workforce stability. While good for shareholders in a plowshare world, it has left the United States limited in its ability to produce swords for the unstable world order it faces. Using the difficulty in increasing the quantity of 155-mm artillery shells for Ukraine as an example, the notion that the United States would easily increase production of exquisite technologies is not plausible.
The higher expenditure rate of interceptors and low stockpiles suggests the necessity to think and use technologies differently today. Some that could be brought to bear include high-power microwave technologies that disrupt sensitive electronics over a broad area and high-power lasers that disrupt or disable systems at slightly longer ranges through focused energy.13 High-energy systems that have been developed jointly with Israel for many years are available but so far have been limited by a lack of consistent power. When coupled with self-contained, transportable microreactors developed specifically for remote locations, these high-energy systems are viable and independent of national electrical grids.14 According to a Congressional Research Service report on directed-energy weapons, “lasers of 1 MW could potentially neutralize ballistic missiles and hypersonic weapons.”15
The increasing speeds of ballistic and cruise missiles make them more vulnerable to “barrage” weapons such as artillery and drones. Traditional artillery, when combined with local sensor and computer calculations to determine the exact intercept point with maximum explosive output from detonation, could create a lethal shrapnel field that would attrite still more missiles.
Barrage balloons were effective in Britain’s air defense through two world wars, and the notion of a similar “net” of defensive measures remains viable. Drone swarms could be employed with the same mission—to nick an outer casing or control surface of ballistic missiles or to release foreign objects to be ingested into turbines for air-breathing systems. Such swarms could act interdependently—much like a sweep of swallows—in the path of an incoming missile. Alternatively, if covertly deployed near the launch site, such swarms could damage missile surfaces during their boost phase or aircraft engines on the tarmac.
Using drones in such a manner would look more like how they have been used in recent conflicts in Nagorno-Karabakh and eastern Ukraine, where an estimated 10,000 drones are being lost per month.16 U.S. Army special forces have already used drones in a counter-China exercise, and a conventional Army battalion is experimenting with their use.17 Meanwhile, Estonia may be the first NATO country to create an Army unit dedicated to the employment of loitering drone munitions. Large quantities of drones could be produced under the Department of Defense’s (DoD’s) Replicator initiative and given a variety of missions.18
Extending the defensive envelope outward, DoD could play off the success of the “FrankenSAM” project to create air-defense weapons from various component pieces.19 For example, SM-2 missile bodies could be combined with another nation’s seekers. Such arrangements would allow for global production capacity in what Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment Dr. William LaPlante has called “production diplomacy.”20 Similarly, the United States and Israel have codeveloped a family of systems (Iron Dome, David’s Sling, and Arrow-2 and -3) that could be deployed rapidly.21 Bringing such systems to the fight and demonstrating their success could bring back into the fold allies and partners who might be hedging. This would in fact be an imperative for an extended conflict with China because the U.S. industrial base alone is unlikely to be able to keep up with expected expenditures.
With U.S. and South Korean forces on the peninsula already at high alert, Indo-Pacom will have to find a way to sustain those forces and deter North Korea from moving against the South while China opposes force flows into the region. For China’s part, a large influx of refugees from North Korea would be disruptive, so stasis on the peninsula is desirable from Beijing’s vantage point as well.
The Korean Peninsula has also provided a glimpse into China’s desire to protect its nuclear infrastructure. While the Chinese have tolerated South Korea–based PAC-3 systems, the THAAD radar and interceptors were purposely deployed in the southern part of South Korea to allay fears of the TPY-2 radar looking too far into China.22 Since no nuclear treaty has been negotiated with China, much ambiguity remains regarding if and when Beijing might use nuclear weapons in conflict.23 The first indication of a threshold shift could be a tactical nuclear weapon used against ships at sea, meant to demonstrate resolve while limiting long-term casualties. Therefore, the movement of exoatmospheric missile systems such as THAAD and ships armed with SM-3s would have to be balanced against China’s perception of these weapons as a threat to its nuclear strike capability.
The War of 2026 China-Taiwan scenario offers a window into warfighting domains at a micro level. The conflicts in Nagorno-Karabakh, Ukraine, and Israel make it apparent that industrial capacity is still required for sustained conflict and demonstrate what warfare might look like in the future. Defensive missiles by themselves will not be enough to secure U.S. defensive bastions, protect allies, and project air-denial windows over Taiwan. Increasing weapons production abroad could help in the near term, but, in the long term, newer thinking coupled with technologies—not all of them exquisite—must be introduced to counter China’s massive warfighting capacity.
1. Harriett Marsden, “Why Is the U.S. Arming Taiwan,” The Week UK, 8 November 2023.
2. U.S. Department of State, Congressional Budget Justification: Department of State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs: Fiscal Year 2024, www.usaid.gov/sites/default/files/2023-03/FY%202024%20CBJ%20FINAL_3.9.23_0.pdf.
3. A 506 available cell count assumes a force of one cruiser (122) and four destroyers (96 each) survived.
4. The expended missile count assumes each ship uses a shoot-look-shoot/shoot firing doctrine against 12 cruise missile and ballistic attacks on each ship, totaling 36 missiles per ship. With an estimated loadout of 40 SM-2s, 10 SM-3s, 25 TLAMs, 11 ASROCs, and 10 Evolved Sea Sparrow Missiles, longer-range defensive missiles are nearly expended on the destroyers. As a reference, the USS Mason (DDG-87) fired three missiles (two SM-2s and an ESSM) against a Houthi-fired 1990s-vintage C-802 cruise missile; travel times assume a cruising speed of 16 knots.
5. Air Force Research Laboratory, “Rapid Dragon Delivers Palletized Cruise Missile from Cargo Aircraft,” afresearchlab.com/technology/rapid-dragon.
6. Department of the Navy, Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Navy (Budget), “Highlights of the Department of the Navy FY24 Budget,” www.secnav.navy.mil/fmc/fmb/Documents/24pres/Budget_Highlights_Book.pdf, 2–9.
7. Missile Defense Project, “Standard Missile-3 (SM-3),” Missile Threat, Center for Strategic and International Studies, 14 June 2016, last modified 9 March 2023, missilethreat.csis.org/defsys/sm-3/.
8. Assistant Secretary of the Army (Financial Management and Comptroller), “FY2024 President’s Budget Highlights,” March 2023, 31.
9. U.S. Space Command Press Release 2023-05-01, “USSPACECOM Assumes Missile Defense Mission,” 30 May 2023.
10. Department of Defense Inspector General, Evaluation of the Integrated Tactical Warning/Attack Assessment Ground-Based Radars, DODIG-2016-133, 8 September 2016.
11. Andrew Tilghman, Guam: Defense Infrastructure and Readiness, Congressional Research Service Report R47643, 3 August 2023.
12. If it is assumed 3,000 SM-2 and SM-6 missiles are in inventory, a worst-case firing doctrine of four missiles at each incoming threat allows for 750 engagements.
13. U.S. Government Accountability Office, Directed Energy Weapons, GAO-23-105868, April 2023.
14. U.S. Office of Nuclear Energy, “What Is a Nuclear Microreactor?” 26 February 2021, www.energy.gov/ne/articles/what-nuclear-microreactor.
15. U.S. Government Accountability Office, Directed Energy Weapons.
16. Erin Snodgrass, “Russia and Ukraine Are Filling the Sky with Drones,” Business Insider, 30 August 2023.
17. Sam Skove, “With Lessons from Ukraine, U.S. Special Forces Reinvents Itself for a Fight with China,” Defense One, 1 May 2023.
18. Kathleen Hicks, “Unpacking the Replicator Initiative,” speech at defense news conference, 6 September 2023.
19. Lolita C. Baldor, “Pentagon’s ‘FrankenSAM’ Program Cobbles Together Air Defense Weapons for Ukraine,” AP News, 12 October 2023.
20. William LaPlante, “Transcript of CSIS Security Dialogue—Strengthening the U.S. Industrial Base,” 26 September 2023.
21. Missile Defense Project, “Arrow 3 (Israel),” Missile Threat, Center for Strategic and International Studies, 11 August 2016, last modified 16 July 2021, missilethreat.csis.org/defsys/arrow-3/.
22. Christian Alwardt, “U.S. Missile Defense Efforts and Chinese Reservations in East Asia,” Asian Affairs 51, no. 3 (2020), 605–20.
23. Jayanath Sankaran, “Missile Defenses and Strategic Stability in Asia: Evidence from Simulations,” Journal of East Asian Studies 20, no. 3 (May 2020): 1–24.