Senior U.S. political and military leaders are nearly unanimous in expecting that the People’s Republic of China—or, more accurately, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)—will set both the timing and the tempo for the onset of the United States/CCP conflict. It seems probable the CCP agrees. Far more significant is that the belligerents’ criteria for war termination are starkly at odds.
Having savaged U.S. forces and successfully created a lodgment on Taiwan in the opening weeks of the War of 2026 scenario that appeared in the December 2023 Proceedings, the CCP would enjoy significant advantages in force size, munitions, and proximity to Taiwan. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) would employ an umbrella of air defenses operating from land, at sea, and in the air that likely would make deep-penetrating strikes against PLA positions on Taiwan, much less mainland China, prohibitively costly in aircraft, weapons, and aircrew.1 The CCP stands at the edge of achieving its objective. The United States could lose quickly and badly were it to directly mirror the CCP’s war objective with its own.
Three tenets should shape U.S. strategic and operational-level U.S. planners in developing and carrying out strikes against the PLA. First, refuse to mirror CCP objectives and their valuations of U.S. platforms in determining PLA targets. Second, reject the CCP’s most likely concept for war termination (a negotiated settlement once sufficient forces are ashore) and construction of theater geometry. Third, establish clear expectations for strike execution, both within the force and with U.S. policy-makers and the public.
The Paradoxical Advantages of a Long War
A swift PLA attempt to seize Taiwan should not be met with a hurried U.S. attempt to hold Taiwan. The United States should not attempt to solve the problem of stopping a PLA invasion directly; it should drop that idea. A rapid westward push in search of a decisive battle was the wrong approach in 1941 and will remain the wrong approach in 2026. Despite what will likely be significant pressure to do just that, strike planners should resist, recognizing that the PLA will enjoy overwhelming advantages in sheer numbers and force-generation capability the closer that battle takes place to the Chinese mainland.
Regardless of any sensor or weapon upgrades, a U.S. guided-missile destroyer will run out of missiles well before it runs out of targets. U.S. aircraft carriers will fare little better, operating in the heart of the DF-21D threat, a lethal antiship ballistic missile that is already almost antiquated in comparison to more recent PLA Rocket Force acquisitions.2 U.S. fast-attack submarines will become more vulnerable the closer they operate to Taiwan, particularly if tasked to launch strikes against shore-based targets.3 It must not be acceptable for the United States to launch strikes against PLA forces on Taiwan if doing so results in the rapid loss of these striking platforms. Having fallen behind the PLA in hypersonic weapon development, possessing limited long-range antiship missiles, and owning a Tomahawk inventory that has shrunk dramatically in recent years, the United States will have to make hard decisions about which targets merit the expenditure of that inventory in the early stages of the conflict.4 Planners who assess specific U.S. platforms or facilities as high value should not make the mistake of assuming a reciprocal valuation for the PLA’s equivalent forces. Aircraft carriers are the U.S. Navy’s capital ships, but the PLA’s carriers have less sortie-generation capability and less centrality to PLA naval doctrine, especially in this conflict. Their destruction will have less effect on the PLA’s ability to fight than the U.S. Navy’s loss of a carrier.5
Sustainment ships, in short supply and critical to U.S. forces, are likewise high-value targets for the PLA because they are critical to sustaining U.S. combat operations. But they are few in number. Their reduction—much less destruction—will cripple the U.S. war effort. Equivalent allied emphasis on PLA Navy (PLAN) sustainment will not have the same effect. The PLAN will operate sufficiently close to its own shores to avoid dependence on at-sea replenishment.
Analysts suggest that the United States’ rapid military victory over Iraq in both Gulf Wars and the swift march to Baghdad in 2003 animated the PLA’s rapid modernization.6 The CCP may believe there will be no better way to announce its displacement of the United States as regional hegemon than mirroring the operational pace of those U.S. accomplishments while also demonstrating how effectively the PLA can defeat a likely Taiwanese insurgency. Both arguments are valid, but they miss a more significant reason for a push for rapid victory: A long war ultimately favors the United States.
China is extremely dependent on imported fuel and food and likely will face rising instability the longer access to those imports is denied. The slowed growth experienced in the early 2020s resulting in part from COVID-19 significantly disrupted China’s economy and broader society, but it will pale in comparison to a conflict that will reduce global trade through the South China Sea to a trickle.7 Eager to minimize the economic disruption of the war, CCP leaders will likely pursue a negotiated peace as soon as they believe they have a secure hold on Taiwan. The United States should strike to maximize such disruptions—and do so worldwide, in the process refusing the CCP’s vision for rapid war termination—and instead prolong the war, regardless of whether the PLA controls Taiwan.
Cut the Roads—Globally
While the United States faces significant disadvantages in available forces in the vicinity of Taiwan, it possesses significant strike advantages in a worldwide conflict. PLA forces in Taiwan will need to be struck, but only opportunistically and at limited risk to low-density U.S. forces. U.S. planners will need to prioritize the use of unmanned aircraft, unmanned vessels, and Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile–equipped long-range bombers to target maritime forces during the PLA’s post-assault “recovery” phase. Targets within Taiwan the CCP and PLA consider high value—bridges, ports, and fueling facilities—will need to be struck. In any case, the devastation of Taiwan’s infrastructure is a foregone conclusion. It is better that it occurs on terms favorable to Taiwanese resistance. U.S. planners must recognize that restoration of Taiwanese self-determination is a far more achievable strategic objective than its preservation.
Taiwan’s infrastructure, however, is of secondary importance to the CCP’s extranational infrastructure, which should be dismantled systematically. The CCP’s network of port facilities around the world will need to be destroyed, seized, or rendered inaccessible through political pressure or sabotage. U.S. forces surging to the western Pacific can use these reduction operations to blood themselves at relatively low cost and refine their tactics, techniques, and procedures en route. International rail infrastructure servicing China (the source of one-third of its total imports) should be handled similarly, wherever the United States can exert sufficient political influence to deny the system’s use or bear the political cost of striking or sabotaging it.8 These actions will degrade the PLA’s sustainment capacity and introduce additional challenges to the CCP’s control of China’s population, the CCP’s most significant existential threat.9 Memories of Mao’s famines still endure in China’s cultural memory, after all.10
Further, while it is likely the PLA will limit to the maximum extent possible its out-of-area deployments before initiating this conflict, complete curtailment is unrealistic. Destruction of these PLAN forces has limited military-strategic utility, but it will contribute significantly to the information war, which will likely be nearly as important as the kinetic fight. Whenever possible, presumptive U.S. allies (Japan, Australia, and NATO and perhaps current partners such as Singapore) should take the tactical lead on third-party strikes or interdiction efforts, refining allied command-and-control measures outside the South China Sea and cementing these operations as coalition efforts. Allied partners hesitant to act kinetically at this stage should be pushed to conduct lawfare and cyber operations that may prove more palatable and equally disruptive.
Allied political leaders will not be the only parties with reservations. U.S. political leaders will have justifiable concerns related to horizontal escalation. But these will be invalidated after the PLA strikes U.S. forces in Japan. A willingness to expand the conflict geographically will be essential to signaling U.S. resolve to CCP leaders. This message at the margins of the war will be required to offset a necessarily slower pace of operations in the western Pacific.
Survive by Killing, but Survive
The preponderance of U.S. forces already in the western Pacific should prioritize force preservation over engagement opportunities and generally engage PLA forces only when necessary to preserve sea lines of communication (SLOCs) into Japan, Australia, and Guam. All three locations will serve as intermediate staging bases and launching points for follow-on operations. Do not confuse this for a recommendation for the maritime equivalent of static defense; episodic strikes against PLA assets should still be conducted. However, the three questions that Admiral Chester Nimitz maintained over his desk must still inform a decision to strike or avoid engaging:
• Is the proposed operation likely to succeed?
• What might be the consequences of failure?
• Is it in the realm of practicability of materials and supplies?
Our commanders should add a fourth: What will be the cost to available forces? The U.S. industrial base does not have the same capacity to replace combat losses it had during World War II and must deal with a staggering complexity of modern weapons, platforms, and systems.11 The P-51 Mustang went from design solicitation to prototype in a bit more than 100 days.12 It takes more than 41,000 person-hours to build a single F-35A, the variant with the lowest labor-hour requirement.13 The U.S. industrial base must surge in response to this conflict, but it will never match the capacity of its World War II forebears. More than a handful of costly tactical victories early in this conflict will result in overall defeat.
Prioritizing defensive operations and conducting only limited strikes create their own challenges; U.S. forces have cultivated an innate bias for action.14 The pressure from political leaders to “do something” will increase dramatically as the PLA makes progress in seizing Taiwan. Allied strikes and actions outside the western Pacific will relieve that pressure to a degree, but not entirely. This will remain the best choice for the United States following two decades at war in Afghanistan and Iraq while the PLA was growing and modernizing.
The CCP focused PLA modernization efforts specifically for this conflict. It likely expects the United States to respond in force and at speed.15 A symmetric response against a force with significant numerical and intangible advantages (the value of the object is far greater to the CCP than the United States) might still result in a U.S. victory, but at tremendous cost. In 2022, the Center for Strategic and International Studies conducted a wargame that resulted in a U.S. victory at the cost of 3,200 U.S. personnel killed in three weeks of fighting, the complete loss of two aircraft carriers and some 10 to 20 surface combatants, and the destruction of hundreds of aircraft.16 The long-term effects on world stability following a victory at this cost are unknowable but likely grim.
U.S. actions to control the timing and tempo of this conflict must extend to efforts at home. It will not be sufficient to mobilize the reserves; retired personnel and those in the Individual Ready Reserve must be recalled to active duty. These men and women will provide the manpower pool needed to replace combat losses, expand U.S. training and production capacity, and fill staff assignments. Their activation, particularly if done in concert with broad conscription and industrial mobilization, will also send a significant message to the CCP and the world: The United States is preparing for a long and bloody conflict.
Fog, Friction, and Blood
Regardless of the U.S. approach to strike warfare, this war will generate high casualties among the combatants and civilians on land and at sea. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin’s recent directive to reduce civilian casualties during military operations may not be feasible. U.S. forces will lack both the time and persistent surveillance required for target-area sanitization.17 While U.S. strike planners should carefully develop targets, weapon-to-target pairing and available weapon inventories will ultimately be more significant considerations. The PLA’s attack on U.S. C5ISR capabilities must force a shift in U.S. expectations of precision. The CCP’s creation of the People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia and a broader general trend toward the militarization of commercial technologies will further degrade target discrimination capabilities. Allied commanders will be forced to decide if a merchant is simply transiting, acting as a PLA sensor, or serving as a long-range missile platform.18 And they will be forced to do so with finite time and information.
Accordingly, U.S. strike planners and commanders at all levels must prepare themselves for a harsh reality: Their plans and decisions will result in civilian deaths. These deaths must be understood as an unavoidable outcome and should not result in hesitation or decision paralysis. Fratricide, particularly between naval forces and those operating across domains (surface vs. air, surface vs. subsurface) should be expected and handled similarly, just as it was during World War II.19 The United States will not be able to afford the loss of time or decisive and competent crews and commanders because of unfortunate, but possibly unavoidable, events. They will be needed when the United States transitions to a more consistently offensive mindset in the western Pacific.
Ultimately, U.S. and allied forces must close in force with the PLA; strategically, protracting the conflict will weaken the CCP and PLA, but it will not be sufficient for operational success. The offensive shift must occur on U.S. terms and timing—and U.S. leaders should be cautioned against being baited into precipitous action by PLA deception efforts. While fighting at the margins and in defense of critical SLOCs, the United States and its allies must build and field vast numbers of long-range antiship missiles and area-denial weapons—and prioritize quantity over precision. They will need to pursue mass quantities of strike-capable unmanned vehicles in all domains, with redundant and non-space-based command-and-control networks. And they will execute persistent cyberattacks to disrupt China’s industrial base while the United States energizes its own. Again, the United States must look beyond Taiwan in determining its theory of victory.
The United States and its allies are likely to suffer greater total combat losses and endure more significant economic disruption by protracting the war. Both are legitimate concerns, but they are short-term ones. A quick but costly victory that substantially weakens the United States, even at greater cost to the PLA and CCP, will be insufficient and would likely result in long-term global instability. A decisive victory that results from a protracted war strategy is more likely to leave the United States with a residual force larger and more capable than the one it fielded at war’s onset. The question of how the United States would prevail against the PLA in a war over Taiwan receives greater attention each year. The United States is now fully within the “Davidson Window” and must provide an answer that can afford more than a Pyrrhic victory.
1. Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China (Washington, DC: Department of Defense, 2022).
2. “DF-21 (CSS-5),” missilethreat.csis.org/missile/df-21/, 28 March 2022.
3. Bryan Clark, “The US Submarine Force Should Be Silent No More,” Defense News, 23 August 2023.
4. Ryan Beene, “The US Is Behind China on Hypersonic Weapons and Billions Are at Stake,” Bloomberg, 29 December 2021; and David B. Larter, “The US Military Has Put Scores More Ship-Killer Missiles under Contract as Pacific Tensions Continue,” Defense News, 11 March 2021.
5. “Analysis: China’s New Carriers Don’t Yet Compare to U.S. Ships Based in San Diego,” Reuters, 6 May 2023.
6. CDR Mike Dahm, USN (Ret.), “China’s Desert Storm Education,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 147, no. 3 (March 2021).
7. Ellen Zhang and Ryan Woo, “Chinese Economy’s Export Pillar Shows Cracks from Global Slowdown,” Reuters, 15 September 2022.
8. Evelyn Cheng, “These Maps Show How Far China’s Freight Railways Are Stretching across Asia,” CNBC.com, 9 May 2023.
9. C. K. Tan, “China Spending Puts Domestic Security Ahead of Defense,” Nikkei Asia, 14 March 2018.
10. Vaclav Smil, “China’s Great Famine: 40 Years Later,” The BMJ 319, no. 1619 (18 December 1999).
11. Jon Harper, “Vital Signs 2020: Industrial Base Could Struggle to Surge Production in Wartime,” National Defense, 24 January 2020; and LT Keegan Hoey, USN, “Repair Time Is the Critical Variable,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 148, no. 12 (December 2022).
12. “The North American P-51 Mustang: A ‘Little Friend’ with a Big Impact,” National WWII Museum, 24 May 2020.
13. Tyler Rogoway, “It Takes 41,500 Hours Of Labor To Build A Single F-35A According To New Report,” The War Zone, 6 June 2018.
14. Marine Corps Doctrine Publication 7: Learning (Washington, DC: Headquarters U.S. Marine Corps, 2020).
15. “CRS In Focus: Report to Congress on The People’s Liberation Army,” Congressional Research Service, 22 December 2022.
16. Mark F. Cancian, Matthew Cancian, and Eric Heginbotham, The First Battle of the Next War: Wargaming a Chinese Invasion of Taiwan (Washington, DC: Center for Strategic and International Studies, January 2023).
17. Eric Schmitt, Charlie Savage, and Azmat Khan, “Austin Orders Overhaul to Better Protect Civilians During U.S. Combat Operations,” The New York Times, 25 August 2022.
18. Raul (Pete) Pedrozo, “China’s Container Missile Deployments Could Violate the Law of Naval Warfare,” International Law Studies 97, no. 1 (2021).
19. Lars R. H. Orloff, Thesis: Analysis of Fratricide in United States Naval Surface and Submarine Forces in the Second World War (Monterey, CA: Naval Postgraduate School, September 1999).