A war with China in 2025 would be bloody and unwinnable

A top defense strategy think tank recently released a report hat looks at the implications of a possible war between the U.S. and China. The news is almost universally bad, but the assessment of a full-scale war between the U.S. and China in 2025 paints a dire picture of the aftermath of a conflict between the world’s two biggest superpowers.

While a war today would be costly for the U.S., China’s increasing anti-access, area denial arsenal as well as its growing carrier capability and aircraft strength could make it impossible for the U.S. to establish military dominance and achieve a decisive victory in 2025, the report by the RAND Corporation says.

“Premeditated war between the United States and China is very unlikely, but the danger that a mishandled crisis could trigger hostilities cannot be ignored,” RAND says. “Technological advances in the ability to target opposing forces are creating conditions of conventional counterforce, whereby each side has the means to strike and degrade the other’s forces and, therefore, an incentive to do so promptly, if not first.”

Instead, the two sides would fight until its home populations got fed up and demanded an end to hostilities, something that may not happen until the body counts get too high to stomach.

Soldiers of the Chinese People's Liberation Army 1st Amphibious Mechanized Infantry Division prepare to provide Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen with a demonstration of their capablities during a visit to the unit in China on July 12, 2011. Mullen is on a three-day trip to the country meeting with counterparts and Chinese leaders. (DoD photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Chad J. McNeeley/Released)

Soldiers of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army 1st Amphibious Mechanized Infantry Division prepare to provide Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen with a demonstration of their capabilities during a visit to the unit in China on July 12, 2011. (Photo: US Navy Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Chad J. McNeeley)

RAND declined to state a number of expected casualties in any potential war, but it estimated the loss of multiple carriers and other capital platforms for each side. Nimitz-class carriers carry approximately 6,000 sailors and Marines on a cruise. The loss of a single ship would represent a greater loss of life and combat power than all losses in the Iraq War.

The study predicts a stunning display of technological might on both sides, which isn’t surprising considering what each country has in the field and in the works. The paper doesn’t name specific weapon systems, but it predicts that fifth-generation fighters will be able to shoot down fourth-generation fighters with near impunity.

The U.S. recently fielded its second fifth-generation fighter, the F-35 Lightning II. America’s other advanced fighter, the F-22 Raptor, has been in service since 2005. China is developing four fifth-generation fighters — the J-20; the J-32; the J-23; and the J-25.

The J-20 and J-32 will likely be in the field in 2025 and would potentially rival America’s fighters.

By 2025, China could have two more aircraft carriers for a total of three. It currently owns one functional carrier purchased from Russia and is manufacturing a second.

1200px-PCU)_Gerald_R._Ford_moves_to_pier_3._(10968493954)

The Navy’s Pre-Commissioning Unit Gerald R. Ford is moved from one shipyard to another in 2013. When launched, the Ford-class carriers will be the largest aircraft carriers in history. (Photo: U.S. Navy Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Aidan P. Campbell)

Despite America’s greater numbers of both fifth-generation fighters and total aircraft carriers, China’s growing missile arsenal would force America to act cautiously or risk unsustainable losses, RAND argues.

Outside of the conventional war, cyber attacks, anti-satellite warfare, and trade disruptions would hurt both countries.

Both belligerents have anti-satellite weapons that are nearly invulnerable to attack, meaning that both countries will be able to destroy a substantial portion of each other’s satellites. The destruction of the American satellite constellation would be especially problematic for the rest of the world since nearly all GPS units connect to American satellites.

Cyber attacks would cripple vulnerable grids on both sides of the Pacific, likely including many of the computer servers that maintain public utilities and crucial services like hospitals.

Shenyang_J-31_(F60)_at_the_2014_Zhuhai_Air_Show

Photo: Airliners.net CC BY-SA 4.0

Trade disruptions would damage both countries, but China would be affected to a much greater extent, RAND says.

A lot of American commerce passes through the Pacific, but China does a whopping 95 percent of its trade there and is more reliant on trade than the U.S. For China, any large Pacific conflict would be very expensive at home.

While it’s very unlikely that China could win a war with the U.S., RAND says the fighting would be so bloody and costly for both sides that even average Americans would suffer greatly. Service members and their families would have it the worst.

“By 2025, U.S. losses could range from significant to heavy; Chinese losses, while still very heavy, could be somewhat less than in 2015, owing to increased degradation of U.S. strike capabilities,” RAND says. “China’s [anti-access weapons] will make it increasingly difficult for the U.S. to gain military-operational dominance and victory, even in a long war.”

There are two pieces of good news. First, leaders on both sides are hesitant to go to war. Even better, RAND’s assessment says that neither country is likely to risk nuclear retaliation by firing first, so the war would likely remain a conventional affair.

The bad news is that increasing tension could trigger an accidental war despite political leaders best intentions. RAND recommends that leaders set clear limits on military actions in the Pacific and establish open lines of dialogue.

China, U.S. Navy operations during RIMPAC 2016

The Chinese Navy frigate Hengshui fires its main gun at a towed target during Rim of the Pacific 2016. (Photo: Chinese Navy Senior Capt. Liu Wenping)

The American and Chinese military do participate in some exercises together. The Chinese hospital ship Peace Ark and the Chinese frigate Hengshui took part in the Rim of the Pacific exercise, but continued Chinese espionage against America and reported cyber attacks prevent a happy relationship.

Hopefully the U.S. and China can come to friendly terms because a war tomorrow would be catastrophic and a war in 10 years could be crippling for everyone involved.

The full report from RAND is available as a PDF for free here. It can also be purchased as a paperback. A Q & A with the lead study author is available here.

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