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(Washington, D.C) When it comes to the seriousness or potential urgency of any kind of Russian or Chinese threat, issues which unquestionably “rule the day” when it comes to current thinking and discussion, much of the emphasis is on deterrence, and rightly so.
How can forces and capability be massed, deployed or demonstrated to ensure that either Russia or China simply won’t want to consider the consequence of U.S. response to any kind of first strike.
However, what about what happens if there actually is a war? Who wins? Could a Chinese invasion of Taiwan be stopped? A Russian capture of the Balkans? While likely to happen largely behind closed doors, for obvious security reasons, it is a pretty safe bet that these scenarios are being wargamed and analyzed in great detail.
An interesting essay from the American Enterprise Institute entertains the question, suggesting that any kind of major engagement would not end quickly, given the perils and risks associated with a potential loss.
A Long Campaign
“The outcome of a great-power war may be determined by what happens after the first campaign — who can ramp up production of missiles and other munitions, who can quickly replace lost ships and aircraft, who has the stronger, more adaptive industrial base and can better withstand the economic damage a conflict will inflict,” AEI Scholar Hal Brands writes.
Brand’s essay, which envisions a potential first Chinese strike on Taiwan or Russian invasion of the Baltics, argues that a war resulting from these moves would potentially drag on for years, in part because the Russian or Chinese governments might believe they simply would not survive politically if they were to lose.
“Russian strongman Vladimir Putin or Chinese leader Xi Jinping would surely fear that admitting defeat at the hands of the U.S. would leave their country geopolitically crippled. They would worry that starting, and then losing, a major war would imperil their political survival. In political science terms, they might “gamble for resurrection” rather than meekly concede,” Brand writes.
How might a war become a protracted, multi-year conflict? For instance, should a Chinese attempt to overrun Taiwan be thwarted in the short term, China would be likely to continue to fight.
“China might mount second and third efforts to break Taiwan’s defenses, or try to strangle it economically. Russia could test NATO’s defenses in the Black Sea or on some other front. Either country could employ cyberattacks, long-range conventional strikes, or other capabilities to target the U.S. homeland and put pressure on its alliances,” Brand writes.
It certainly seems realistic that neither party would want to give up quickly, however there may be a multitude of ways in which one great power could prevail quickly as well.
Perhaps the premise or assumption that any war is certain to become protracted might also be informed by the pace at which air supremacy might be decided or the effectiveness with which air defenses were destroyed or amphibious assaults were stopped by submarines, air power and long range ground fire.
Faced with a short term loss, it seems equally realistic that a Russia or China might, for instance, draw rapid conclusions about their prospects for an eventual victory and choose to avoid the risk -- following an initial defeat.
Perhaps currently unanswerable questions might quickly be resolved should, for instance, China attempt an amphibious assault upon Taiwan. Success or failure might hang to a large extent upon who establishes air superiority, something which could easily be decided quickly.
An amphibious attack would have little to no chance of success without air superiority or at least a serious ability to rival and minimize air resistance. Otherwise, large numbers of U.S. 5th-Gen fighters, should they get there in time, might simply decimate an attacking surface force from the air.
Arriving on time is something quite likely given the number of forward stationed aircraft and the precision and range of surveillance technology which would see an amphibious approach long before it was able to approach shore.
Should an F-35, for example, prove itself far more capable than a Chinese J-20 or J-31 when it comes to air combat, China might have a massively diminished opportunity to fight for air superiority. The result would likely depend upon the results to questions which are now unknown, even surrounded by an element of mystery.
The victor in any kind of 5th-generation air confrontation, it would seem, might be determined by simple questions such as ..which aircraft has longer-range and more precise targeting sensors? Who can see who first? Which force is better meshed or networked with information regarding a sensor-to-shooter cycle.
Should an F-35’s long-range sensors, coupled with its computer enabled Mission Data Files able to instantly identify or confirm threats at long ranges, be able to “see” a group of Chinese aircraft before they are themselves seen .. they might prevail quickly, especially if instantly networked to other attack assets or armed with long-range precision-guided air-to-air weapons which now exist.
This scenario has actually already happened in an Air Force wargame, wherein an F-35 was able to see and destroy a large group of enemy fighters while remaining undetectable itself. A single aircraft was able to destroy multiple enemy fighters.
Information dominance, therefore, could quickly determine a victor in any fight taking place in today’s technological environment, particularly when it comes to air supremacy. Perhaps this is why the sensor to shooter loop, enabled by AI, threat identification and fast computer processing is most likely to decide who sees who .. and who kills who… first.
Once information dominance were established, particularly in the air, it seems it might be nearly impossible to overcome. Should an attacking force simply not have an ability to find or target its enemy fast enough, it would seem to have little chance. So what is the actual state of technology when it comes to Chinese targeting, AI-enabled threat identification or long-range air strike ability? Therein lies your answer. Once force is likely to be technologically superior when it comes to finding and attacking the other, creating a deficit which might simply be too great to overcome. Should China fail to establish any kind of sufficient air support, why would the country keep fighting?
Conversely, should a Chinese 5th-Generation fighter be equipped with sensors and long range weapons somehow superior to U.S. 5th Gen, air support for an amphibious attack might be established. That is something which could prove nearly impossible to defend, as ground-fired anti-ship and anti-aircraft weapons could quickly be destroyed from the air, and a defending Taiwanese land force might be tasked with the seemingly insurmountable task of repelling a massive Chinese amphibious assault landing upon its shore.
There are other factors which could also determine a rapid victory.
Hypersonic Missiles & Air Support
For example, should China have operational, long-range, precision-guided hypersonic missiles …. In a war in which the U.S. did not have either equal ability to fire them or at least be able to defend against them .. dominance could for instance be achieved quickly. The pace of attack might simply be too fast.
Shore defenses could be overwhelmed without substantial defenses against missile attacks approaching at 5 times the speed of sound. However, going back to air support, an attacking force armed with hypersonics would still need information dominance in the air, meaning they could need hypersonic weapons able to target and destroy U.S. 5th Generation aircraft, and in order to do that, they would need information dominance at range.
The weapons and sensor ranges, coupled with high-speed information processing and target, data networking, would likely enable uncontested 5th-Gen aircraft to simply obliterate a Chinese surface Naval force.
For example, the F-35 will soon be armed with a Stormbreaker air-dropped weapon able to track moving targets from distances up to 40 nautical miles in all weather conditions, the Air Force is making rapid progress with collaborative in-flight bomb-to-bomb-to aircraft autonomous targeting adjustment, and F-22 AIM-120D and AIM-9X upgrades have engineered the weapons with new anti-jam technologies, targeting precision and range.
Essentially, something which cannot be seen or targeted simply cannot be attacked, and space based sensors might be unable to track a 5th-Generation aircraft or even networking tracking details to some kind of air or ground shooter. Without air support or an ability to defend against U.S. air attacks, a massive amphibious attack would have little prospect of success. Ship mounted anti-aircraft guns won’t stop an F-22, simply put.
A similar parallel could be made when it comes to the undersea domain.
Should a Virginia-class submarine’s Large Aperture Bow sonar array, or new generations of Unmanned Underwater Vehicles help establish information dominance beneath the ocean, an advancing amphibious force might have trouble surviving any kind of surface approach as they would face a massive torpedo attack from undersea, likely coming from depths less detectable from ship-towed sonar or coming from armed unmanned undersea vehicles able to closely approach with little risk.
Virginia-class submarines are increasingly being engineered for reconnaissance as much as attack, given that they are now equipped with newer kinds of quieting technology and undersea sensors. However, should U.S. undersea dominance remain contested, attacking surface ships might succeed against any kind of surface Navy resistance, but that still would not remove the need for air superiority.
Given the reliance upon information, range, targeting and precision, information superiority could easily be achieved quickly, making it nonsensical for the inferior force to keep fighting.
So while there is always a chance that something could become protracted, it seems equally if not more likely that a massive engagement or great power could end quickly. That would certainly be the U.S. hope, however there are many as of yet completely unanswered question, and U.S. air superiority is far from a certainty given the pace of Chinese technological advances.
The range and precision of Chinese 5th-Gen jet weapons and sensors may simply not be known. A key question to get an answer to, it would seem.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Master's Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.