The results show that China is not close to catching up to the United States in terms of aggregate capabilities, but also that it does not need to catch up to challenge the United States on its immediate periphery. Furthermore, although China's ability to project power to more distant locations remains limited, its reach is growing, and in the future U.S. military dominance is likely to be challenged at greater distances from China's coast. To maintain robust defense and deterrence capabilities in an era of fiscal constraints, the United States will need to ensure that its own operational concepts, procurement, and diplomacy anticipate future developments in Chinese military capabilities.
Over the next five to 15 years, if US and Chinese forces remain on current trajectories, Asia will witness a progressively receding frontier of US dominance. Chinese forces will become more capable of establishing temporary local air and naval superiority at the outset of a conflict, and this might enable China to “achieve limited objectives without defeating US forces.”
1. Chinese air base attack
Given the importance of airpower in America's recent wars, it is not surprising that China has sought ways of neutralizing U.S. capabilities in this area. Of greatest significance, the PLA has developed ballistic and cruise missiles that threaten forward U.S. air bases. From a handful of conventionally armed ballistic missiles in 1996, China's inventory now numbers roughly 1,400 ballistic missiles and hundreds of cruise missiles. Although most are short-range systems, they include a growing number of intermediate-range ballistic missiles that can reach U.S. bases in Japan. Importantly, accuracy has also improved. Circular error probabilities have decreased from hundreds of meters in the 1990s to as little as five or ten meters today. Weapon ranges have increased from short (less than 1,000 km) to medium (1,000–3,000 km).
RAND models of attacks by these ballistic missiles on Kadena Air Base, the closest U.S. air base to the Taiwan Strait, suggest that even a relatively small number of accurate missiles could shut the base to flight operations for critical days at the outset of hostilities, and focused, committed attacks might close a single base for weeks. U.S. countermeasures—such as improved defenses, hardened shelters for aircraft, faster runway repair methods, or the dispersion of aircraft—can potentially mitigate the threat. But barring a major U.S. defensive technological breakthrough, the growing number and variety of Chinese missiles will almost certainly challenge the U.S. ability to operate from forward bases. As a larger proportion of U.S. aircraft are forced to fly from bases that are either susceptible to attack or farther from the scene of conflict, basing issues will pose greater challenges for U.S. efforts to gain air superiority over the battlefield.
2. U.S. vs. Chinese air superiority
In virtually any East Asian scenario, U.S. Air Force and U.S. Navy aircraft would play a critical role in blunting Chinese attacks. Since 1996, the United States has improved existing aircraft and introduced so-called fifth-generation aircraft, including the F-22 and F-35. China, meanwhile, has replaced many of its obsolete second-generation aircraft, which made up an overwhelming proportion of its force in 1996, with modern fourth-generation designs. These fourth-generation aircraft now constitute roughly half of the PLA Air Force's fighter inventory. The net effect of these changes has been to narrow, but not close, the qualitative gap between the U.S. and Chinese air forces.
To evaluate the impact of this change on the two scenarios considered, we employed tactical and operational air combat models, using the appropriate basing, flight distances, and force structure data. The models evaluate the number of fighter aircraft that the United States would need to maintain in the Western Pacific to defeat a Chinese air campaign. The results suggest that U.S. requirements have increased by several hundred percent since 1996. In the 2017 Taiwan case, U.S. commanders would probably be unable to find the basing required for U.S. forces to prevail in a seven-day campaign. They could relax their time requirement and prevail in a more extended campaign, but this would entail leaving ground and naval forces vulnerable to Chinese air operations for a correspondingly longer period. The Spratly Islands scenario would be easier, requiring roughly half the forces of the Taiwan scenario.
5. Chinese anti-surface warfare
The PLA has placed as much emphasis on putting U.S. aircraft carrier strike groups (CSGs) at risk as it has into efforts to neutralize U.S. ground-based airpower. China has developed a credible and increasingly robust over-the-horizon (OTH) intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capability. It launched its first operational military imaging satellites in 2000 and deployed its first OTH skywave radar system in 2007. The skywave system can detect targets and provide a general, though not precise, location out to 2,000 km beyond China's coastline. The development of China's space and electronics sectors has enabled it to increase the pace of satellite launches and deploy a wider range of sophisticated ISR satellites.
China's development of anti-ship ballistic missiles—the first of their kind anywhere in the world—presents a new threat dimension for U.S. naval commanders. That said, the kill chain for these missiles will pose great difficulties for the PLA, and the United States will make every effort to develop countermeasures. Anti-ship ballistic missiles therefore may not pose the kind of one-shot, one-kill threat sometimes supposed in the popular media. At the same time, however, the ongoing modernization of Chinese air and, especially, submarine capabilities represents a more certain and challenging threat to CSGs. Between 1996 and 2015, the number of modern diesel submarines in China's inventory rose from two to 41, and all but four of theses boats are armed with cruise missiles (as well as torpedoes). RAND modeling suggests that the effectiveness of the Chinese submarine fleet (as measured by the number of attack opportunities it might achieve against carriers) rose by roughly an order of magnitude between 1996 and 2010, and that it will continue to improve its relative capabilities through 2017. Chinese submarines would present a credible threat to U.S. surface ships in a conflict over Taiwan or the South China Sea.
* U.S. military leaders should ensure that U.S. planning for Pacific military operations is as dynamic as possible. The U.S. military should adopt operational concepts and strategies that capitalize on potential advantages and utilize the geographic size and depth of the theater, as well as areas of particular U.S. military strength.
* Specifically, the U.S. military should consider employing an active denial strategy that would improve the resiliency of the force and diminish its vulnerability to preemptive attack. Forces would be more dispersed at the outset of conflict, with many deployed at greater distances from China, but with the ability to move forward as Chinese missile inventories are exhausted or reduced through attrition.
* Military procurement priorities should be adjusted, emphasizing base redundancy and survivability; standoff systems optimized for high-intensity conflict; stealthy, survivable fighters and bombers; submarine and anti-submarine warfare; and robust space and counterspace capabilities. To save money, U.S. decisionmakers should consider more rapid cuts to legacy fighter forces and a decreased emphasis on large aircraft carriers.
* Political and military leaders should intensify diplomatic efforts in the Pacific and Southeast Asia with the goal of expanding potential U.S. access in wartime. This will provide greater strategic depth and more options for U.S. forces.
Western governments and commentators should make it clear to China that aggression would carry immense risks and that China should be cautious not to exaggerate its ability to prevail in armed conflict. They should also engage China on issues of strategic stability and escalation.