Retired Flag Officers: Pentagon Report Shows U.S. Would Lose War with China

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Several retired former Army, Navy and Air Force flag officers say the Pentagon’s 2020 analytical report on China’s military buildup raises the possibility that the United States would lose a war with the Asian giant. China’s naval, land, air, and space capabilities could equal and then surpass ours within a decade, the report said. Consequently, America’s military dominance is in jeopardy. 

Several wargame exercises in recent years also have shown this is a distinct possibility.

The Clinton administration’s 1996 decision to send two carrier battlegroups through the Taiwan Strait marked the high-water mark for U.S. power vis-à-vis China. Clinton wanted to keep the People’s Republic of China from getting any ideas about seizing Taiwan during a Chinese military exercise. It also humiliated the Chinese leadership into planning to match American military capabilities because they viewed it as a slight to their honor as defined by their culture.   

China had zero aircraft carriers in 1996. Today, it has two and is building a third. Its fleet of approximately 350 ships, including 130 major warships, is the largest in the world. Just last month, the Chinese military chased the U.S.S. Mustin from an area of the South China Sea where China has questionable sovereignty.  

Imagine that happening not during our new Cold War with China, but during a hot war scenario. A series of wargames has shown that the U.S. would lose a war with China – on the seas, in the skies, and in space. Our ships, planes, and missile defenses are simply inadequate.  

“Today we live in a deteriorating security environment. The global operating system that kept the United States and its allies secure and prosperous in the wake of the world wars is gradually unraveling,” former Joint Chiefs of Staff Vice Chairman Adm. James Winnefeld wrote in the July issue of “Proceedings” magazine, published by the U.S. Naval Institute. “Meanwhile, over­attention to the distractions of extremism and self-alienated nations has masked persistent decay in the U.S. military’s capability and capacity relative to ambitious major competitors.” 

China looks 20-30 years out to build its military, with the goal of eventual dominance; American military leaders struggle to see beyond the next budget fight. Ground-based midcourse defense (GMD) missile systems are the minimum to keep the homeland safe, yet Congress cares more about parochial bean-counting than preventing the next American military disaster. Meanwhile, China has quietly modernized its capabilities and eroded the American technical and military edge.  

The great Chinese philosopher Sun-Tzu wrote in the 5th century B.C. that “Tactics without strategy is the sound before defeat.” The Chinese are showing us the truth of this; The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) aims to have a fully modern force by 2035, not just coastal ambitions. Its strategies aim to secure “air, maritime, and information superiority,” according to the Pentagon report. 

The U.S. is doing the opposite. A lack of leadership exists at the Pentagon and in Congress that could put the U.S. in a position to all but just watch and send condolences should China seize Taiwan, just like President Obama did after Vladimir Putin seized Crimea in 2014. And even worse outcomes may await us without the proper bare-bones missile defense system.  

When budget precedes strategy and not the other way around, disaster is the only possible outcome. Members of Congress faulted inadequate funding and poor training for the collisions of the U.S.S. John S. McCain and U.S.S. Fitzgerald with other vessels in 2017. A total of 17 American sailors died in the incidents. And that’s not to mention the disastrous loss of the U.S.S. Bonhomme Richard to fire this summer, which remains under investigation. 

The retired generals and admirals I spoke with are right. Congress and many in the Pentagon are sleepwalking into the next war because they are prepared to fight the last war. They don’t understand that China’s edge on ships and long-term goals, its growing cybersecurity sophistication, and our unwillingness to invest in more GMD leaves us vulnerable. We should master all three; at the very least, however, we should test and continually upgrade GMD to protect against China’s other advantages. 

From waters to space and in between, America’s hemming and hawing sends China the message that America is a declining power and a paper tiger that it can do as it pleases with. That must change.

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