China’s strategic investments threaten to outpace the Pentagon’s ability to expand munitions stocks, integrate emerging technologies and weapon systems, and maintain the ability to fight at long distances from America’s shores.
Repeated wargaming of Taiwan conflict scenarios in the 2027 time frame demonstrates that even if the United States acts promptly and decisively once the conflict begins, American military forces would often be stretched too thin to support Taiwan quickly enough to prevent a fait accompli.
The good news is that such an outcome is not inevitable if Washington takes several steps this year. These include:
- Enhancing the United States’ ability to strike attacking Chinese forces.
- Strengthening Taiwan’s ability to defend itself.
- Bolstering the survivability of forward-positioned U.S. forces.
- Improving the ability of the United States and its partners — principally Taiwan, Japan and Australia — to fight together.
- Building more cyber-resilient U.S. infrastructure to support military mobility and economic continuity.
Admittedly, deterring and defeating aggression from the People’s Republic of China is easier said than done. That is because Beijing is undertaking the most ambitious and extensive military modernization effort in the history of the PRC, focusing its efforts on defeating the U.S. military and taking Taiwan.
Opposing such aggression would also be difficult because the United States is trying to deter conflict in areas within 100 miles of Chinese ports and airfields, but 8,000 miles from the U.S. West Coast. To make matters worse, in several likely scenarios in the Taiwan Strait, Beijing would likely enjoy “first mover” advantage — potentially concealing preparations for an actual attack behind the guise of yet another military exercise and deciding when and where to strike the first blow.
So what can be done?
Wargaming and operational exercises show that long-range strike weapons are America’s most reliable tool to both win a conflict with China and reduce U.S. casualties. Because of the cost of long-range strike systems, the U.S. military will require a large and mixed inventory of expensive, high-lethality weapons and less expensive swarming munitions.
The U.S. military should develop the capability to launch these munitions from as many platforms as possible to create difficult dilemmas for the People’s Liberation Army. That includes leveraging one of the U.S. military’s greatest remaining asymmetric advantages: the continuing stealthiness of U.S. attack submarines.
Relatedly, to support effective bomber actions in the Western Pacific, the United States will also need to leverage advanced fighter aircraft and newly delivered air-battle management assets, eventually including the E-7 Wedgetail aircraft, to regain control over Taiwan’s airspace and offset China’s geographic proximity to the battlefield.
In addition to bolstering American offensive capabilities, the United States simultaneously needs to help Taiwan reach an appropriate level of defensive self-sufficiency to survive the adversary’s initial onslaught before U.S. and allied forces can arrive in numbers. While Congress authorized up to $2 billion per year in assistance to Taiwan in the FY23 National Defense Authorization Act, the funding still needs to be appropriated.
Other necessary supporting efforts for Taiwan include prioritizing and expediting the delivery of foreign military sales by cutting red tape and bolstering industrial capacity; pre-positioning key munitions in Taiwan that U.S. or Taiwan forces can use in a crisis; and strengthening Taiwan’s cyber capacity to withstand Beijing’s cyberattacks.
To ensure U.S. forces can fight within the second island chain, Washington has to mitigate forward basing vulnerabilities, particularly vulnerabilities related to missile defense. (The first island chain runs parallel to the mainland of the Asian continent, starting in the Kuril Islands, through the Japanese Archipelago; includes Taiwan and the northwestern portion of the Philippines; and finishes in Borneo. The second island chain runs parallel to the first farther out to sea and includes Japan’s Bonin Islands and Volcano Islands; the Mariana Islands, including Guam; the Western Caroline Islands; and extends to Western New Guinea.)
Key among these efforts is the need to develop U.S. hypersonic defensive countermeasures, which currently lag Beijing’s offensive technology development. It will significantly undermine deterrence if China has an offensive hypersonic capability before the United States is able to defend against such a threat.
Indeed, we should expect that China will attack U.S. air bases with swarm assaults consisting of a broad range of missiles and drones. To facilitate their survival and combat effectiveness, U.S. air assets will need to be able to disperse and operate in a nimble and unpredictable manner to alternate locations. That’s the big idea behind the Air Force’s Agile Combat Employment concept, which deserves congressional support and oversight.
While the United States should do everything it can to ready its own forces, it should also leverage the most valuable advantage it holds over the Chinese Communist Party — allies. Wargames often assess the value of operational force integration with partners, such as Japan, Australia or Taiwan, and the results are consistently clear: When U.S. and partner forces are more coordinated and integrated, they are more likely to win and more likely to win with fewer casualties.
The United States can support this objective by conducting increased training and exercises with Taiwan, and it can improve its operational partnership with Taiwan, Japan and Australia by rapidly establishing a dedicated joint force headquarters in the Indo-Pacific theater to integrate mission command and control with partners.
Lastly, to support the military’s mobility and resiliency, we must better protect the cyber, information and critical infrastructure systems that support the projection and sustainment of forces from the United States. That will require increased efforts to improve the security of American ports, airports, power-generation facilities and rail systems.
There is a clear and affordable path to deterring aggression in the Pacific — or at least preventing American military defeat. But action needs to be taken by Congress in this year’s NDAA and defense appropriations legislation to match China’s rapid military investment and development.
If Congress makes targeted investments to meet the five key objectives laid out above, America’s ability to project power, impose costs and deter aggression can be retained using only a small portion of the defense budget.
Retired U.S. Navy Rear Adm. Mark Montgomery is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank. He previously served as policy director of the Senate Armed Services Committee under Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and as director of operations (J3) at U. S. Pacific Command. Bradley Bowman is senior director of the Center on Military and Political Power at FDD. He previously served as a national security adviser to members of the Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees, and was an officer in the U.S. Army.