The Second Battle of Midway: What the US needs to do to win in a showdown with China
- A conflict with China in the western Pacific will likely mean the US has to deploy weapons and forces over great range, which would make such a fight infeasible right now.
- But new investments, operational concepts, and an expanded geographic framing could change that, writes David Zikusoka, Next Generation National Security fellow at the Center for a New American Security.
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The year is 2025 and a Chinese amphibious action group has set out for Taiwan.
The United States will intervene to stop this effort, but there isn't a US ship within 4,000 miles of Taiwan and air bases across the region were vacated soon after the crisis began. US forces are going to do something unprecedented: Fight this war from 4,000 miles away.
Today, it takes a bomber about seven hours to fly 4,000 miles and a guided-missile destroyer about a week to do the same. Engaging in conflict at such distances is not normal and, today, not feasible.
But, as is often noted when this warfighting scenario comes up, the United States will struggle to operate through Chinese ballistic missile raids. The present cost equation - which tallies Chinese ballistic missiles against US missile-defense interceptors, bases, and capital ships - is not in our favor.
But new investments, operational concepts, and an expanded geographic framing could flip this equation to our advantage. What would this 2025 scenario look like under such circumstances?
- A "megaconstellation" of hundreds of American intelligence satellites could keep persistent, unblinking watch over the Chinese fleet, gathering imagery, intercepting communications, geolocating radar emitters, and facilitating US connectivity throughout the theater. Whereas a typical US intelligence satellite has been the size of a school bus, each of these satellites is the size of a backpack. They're distributed by the hundreds, hiding in plain sight in a nearly identical-looking megaconstellation owned by a private internet service provider.
- B-52 arsenal planes are joined by C-17 and C-130 cargo aircraft on "conventional deterrence patrols." Since the beginning of the crisis, at least a few have been airborne at any given moment, signaling Washington's readiness to respond. They have been flying from bases as far away as Hawaii and the US West Coast, waiting to dispense weapons from bomb bays and cargo holds. Rather than rely on their own sensors or fire control systems, these aircraft are tasked by offboard sources like the megaconsetllation.
- Any military ship with enough deck space for shipping containers will be pressed into service. Littoral Combat Ships, merchant marine cargo vessels, and the occasional barge have all become strike platforms. These ships are inspired by the cancelled "arsenal ship" program of the 1990. Like the arsenal planes, they need not be swift or sophisticated but merely capable of receiving targeting information.
- Hypersonic weapons tackle the distance problem. Launched from containers and dropped from aircraft, these missiles are boosted to over Mach 20. At these velocities, a trip from Honolulu to the Strait takes about 18 minutes. As the munitions reach the terminal phase of their flight, the megaconstellation of satellites directly guides them into the Chinese fleet.
How does this approach advantage the United States?
First, it takes targets off the table for China's ballistic missiles.
China can strike ports, bases, and ships in the region, but because the Joint Force's strike magazine has been dispersed, these assets no longer as important to the US intervention. In turn, the United States saves money on costly, unreliable missile defenses that might have been used to protect such facilities.
Second, it reduces the space the US Joint Force has to search for targets relevant to the intervention. The defeat of mobile missiles is best conducted to the "left of launch," when weapons are still sitting cold in their launchers. Under such an approach, a Joint Force originally concerned with stopping an invasion fleet would have to consume operational capacity and risk human lives to conduct "deep strikes" into mainland China.
Under the proposed approach, the Joint Force, now too far away to be threatened by mobile missiles, could instead focus on the Taiwan Strait. The strait covers 21,000 square miles whereas the Eastern Theater Command of mainland China (the closest to Taiwan), is over 10 times in size at 244,000 square miles.
Third, it gives China perilous busy work outside its near-abroad.
The US sensors, shooters, and munitions are widely distributed; Chinese forces would have to search a massive battlespace far beyond the strait to protect its fleet. The megaconstellation is too numerous to destroy or jam effectively. The shooters are flying and sailing out near Hawaii. The hypersonic munitions fly too low for ballistic missile defenses and too fast for traditional surface-to-air missiles.
China has yet to demonstrate a credible expeditionary combat capability. For example, it possesses 23 inflight refueling tankers versus about 450 in the US Air Force alone. China also lacks territory and basing access in the Pacific, so it cannot "island-hop" to the fight as the United States did during World War II.
This is how a deterrent value begins to emerge. China can choose to develop these competencies but they come at great cost. The US on the other hand, has had over a century to learn how to fight away games. Indeed, firing from 4,000 miles from the Taiwan Strait puts US forces right around Midway Atoll, the site of one of their greatest victories away from home.
If the United States were to pursue this warfighting approach, long-cherished systems and operational concepts supported by the Pentagon, politicians, and defense contractors alike will have to be upended.
The Pentagon will need to partner with Silicon Valley to leverage small satellite and mesh-networking technology. Airmen and Sailors will have to be trained to take on new missions and operational planners will need to expand the geographic bounds of the fight. The industrial base and academy will need to make serious investments in rocketry, materials science, and plasma-penetrating radio waveforms for hypersonic munitions. These investments and doctrinal shifts will not be easy to secure, but they are worth the risk.
China has spent a couple of decades building a trap for the Joint Force. The United States should respond in kind by drawing China's forces into a complex fight along multiple axes, thousands of miles from home. The defense establishment needs to start thinking about how it would fight a Second Battle of Midway to ensure it never has to fight at all.
David Zikusoka is the 2019 Next Generation National Security Fellow at the Center for a New American Security.
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